Is Your District Future Ready?
- By Jeff Mao
In November of 2014, President Obama challenged district superintendents to sign the Future Ready Pledge. By signing it, they committed to working with teachers, families and community members to transition their districts to "personalized, digital learning."
Since then, over 2,000 superintendents representing roughly three out of 10 students in America have signed. A coalition led by the Alliance for Excellent Education, the U.S. Department of Education and the LEAD Commission held 13 Future Ready regional summits across the nation to provide support for those districts and build a network of leaders.
This led to the release of the newest National Education Technology Plan: Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education.The NETP outlines a path for all those involved in American education to "ensure equity of access to transformational learning experiences enabled by technology."
Both the Future Ready Schools summits and the NETP offer rich guidance for districts actualizing or revisioning technology integration plans. The summits and the NETP also encourage school leaders to think deeply about the meaning of equity, the importance of agency in learning and their own leadership structures.
The NETP no longer presents technology as simply a tool to enhance learning. Instead, it positions it as an equity solution. More importantly, digital equity isn't defined as every student having access to technology but rather technology providing a multitude of means to both represent and express information.
We know not all students benefit in the same way from any single representation of information. Students can also benefit when they're empowered to express what they've learned in a medium that leverages their strengths. Rather than using a single representation style, learners can express themselves through a multitude of creative tools.
The NETP clearly takes a stand on bring your own device (BYOD) when that is the primary strategy for creating equity of access. It points out three important considerations:
- Economic disparity: The plan warns schools that BYOD technology "is distributed disproportionately to students whose families can afford the devices" and that it "can widen the very gaps that technology is capable of closing."
- Instructional burden: Challenges related to ease of use and compatibility may push "teachers to activities of the lowest common denominator that work on older and less robust devices at the expense of a more effective learning experience."
- Privacy and security: Are appropriate safeguards in place to protect personal data, and will the devices have the necessary security for use on valid digital assessments?
The NETP also recognizes that high-quality educational opportunity relies on high-quality digital learning materials. One suggestion is for schools to take a look at openly licensed educational resources, also known as open educational resources (OER).
Agency in Learning
Woven throughout the NETP is the notion of agency that "enables people to play a part in their self-development, adaptation, and self-renewal with changing times … [L]earners should have the opportunity to make meaningful choices about their learning, and they need practice at doing so effectively."
Giving learners (including teachers) more opportunities to demonstrate agency in learning also means providing them with the tools and support to do so safely and effectively. The NETP anticipates this by pointing out, "We need to guide the development of competencies to use technology in ways that are meaningful, productive, respectful, and safe," and it recommends that schools aid learners in the development of digital citizenship. The NETP offers a range of valuable recommendations for digital citizenship resources, including Common Sense Education's excellent Digital Citizenship Curriculum.
The NETP also highlights "the importance of preparing teachers to teach effectively with technology and to select engaging and relevant digital learning content." Teachers must also have opportunities to make choices and must be supported in making those choices.
The inclusion of leadership is something new when comparing this latest version of the NETP to its predecessor. The entire third section, "Creating a Culture and Conditions for Innovation and Change," focuses on the many underlying structures necessary to support effective uses of technology in schools, including infrastructure, personalized professional learning, implementation, and budgeting. All these and more are the outcomes of solid collaborative leadership that will lead to long-term sustainability.
The NETP challenges school leaders to consider how we acquire and use our resources. Partnerships with local businesses, organizations, or local and county governments can lead to sharing costly infrastructure or expertise, as can leveraging the expertise of staff in different ways. For example, as the plan points out, "[S]ome [schools] are expanding the role of librarians to become evaluators and curators of learning technology resources."
Lessons Learned: Future Ready Schools Summits
Leadership was the cornerstone of the Future Ready Schools summits held last year. From the more than 450 district leadership teams who participated, we learned that your school's culture is the result of your school's leadership. And without a positive, supportive culture, change and progress can be hard to find.
Teachers are often challenged to try new things and change how they teach, and yet the culture around them disincentivizes and even discourages risk-taking and innovation. That does not support change and growth. Leadership must give permission to fail. It may sound counterintuitive, but without this permission, the chance of failure and its aftermath overshadow the potential for success. Future Ready leadership creates a culture of change and improvement.
With a tight or diminishing budget, a Future Ready School leader doesn't ask, "What should we cut first?" but instead "Where can we find the resources we need?" There are certainly many uncontrollable factors that contribute to culture, but at least you can control your leadership strategy. And never forget the adage, "Culture eats strategy for lunch."
A Future Ready School implements good bureaucracy, which has processes, checks and balances, and procedures that don't unnecessarily impede outcomes. Also, the accountability it provides is both universally understood and produces data used for improvement.
An examination of your procedures and processes can streamline a teacher's work and may reveal unintended perceptions of trust and professionalism among staff. If teachers are asked their opinions on school procedures and processes, are they open and honest when responding? If not, that speaks volumes.
As you examine your bureaucracy, ask yourself, "Is this process Future Ready?" You can answer yes if you believe the process won't require substantive alteration to be useful as new technologies and trends enter the work space. Time is a commodity for any organization, and losing it to unnecessary processes can be detrimental to your core mission. By establishing a Future Ready process, you not only help establish a culture that can change with the times, but you save yourself time later since you won't have to rewrite the policy.
Leadership and how it manifests in your district and school policies are only the tip of the iceberg. What can you do to initiate these changes? First, read the National Education Technology Plan. Then, explore the Future Ready Schools website for resources from the Future Ready Coalition, including the new 5 Step Planning Process and the Hub, a place to find resources to support your school's growth and progress. Encourage your superintendent to sign the Future Ready School Pledge and attend one of these summits with a team. Five additional Future Ready Schools summits were recently announced:
- Austin, TX: July 18–19, 2016
- Seattle, WA: TBD
- Orlando, FL: June 2–3, 2016
- Madison, WI: June 14–15, 2016
- Boston, MA: November 14–15, 2016
Go to Future Ready Schools
for more details.