Lessons from Digital Learning Day

February 24, 2014
By Educator Innovator

By Kathleen Costanza

Digital Learning Day (DLD), held on February 5, immersed kids from coast to coast in activities like tinkering with robotics, penning blog posts, and painting digital canvases. The next DLD isn’t until next year, but thanks to social media it’s easy to look back at all the amazing ways kids engaged with digital learning at this year’s event. (#DLDay even trended on Twitter!)

As educators know, integrating meaningful digital learning into the classroom is a 365-day effort. For many schools, incorporating technology is a journey that’s been years in the making—and there are still plenty of uncharted changes to come. Adapting to these changes takes time, leadership, and above all, resources.

For that reason, the third annual DLD aimed to be much more than one tech-filled school day. Spearheaded by The Alliance for Excellent Education, the event provided teachers with resources like lesson plans and toolkits. It also brought influential education leaders together at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., for an all-day event that drew widespread attention to the resounding message that equipping kids with 21st century skills should be a national priority.

Featured on one of the panels were two digital learning innovators from Talladega County Schools in Alabama. Six years ago, the district transitioned to a project-based learning curriculum and over time added a 1:1 device program. In 2008, the high school graduation rate at Winterboro High School was 63 percent. By 2012, it had risen to 88 percent. Although there are many other factors that could have improved that graduation rate, the engagement that technology can foster—if done well—likely had an impact.

“The power of technology in a rural system is tremendous, as it is anywhere across the nation,” said Suzanne Lacey, superintendent of Talladega County Schools. “It’s really given our students a vision for their future. They’re able to connect to the world now, whereas before they were in the confines of their own community.”

Lacey also credited the E-Rate program for helping connect the district to high speed internet. The federal program, signed into law in 1996, helps fund internet access in schools and libraries. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced on DLD that the FCC will double its spending to $2 billion to connect schools and libraries to broadband over the next two years. The boost will come from collected funds that haven’t been spent yet, as well as savings from streamlined efficiency and management overhauls.

“What do we make of this 18th birthday of the E-Rate program? It is an interesting benchmark,” Wheeler said. “At age 18 many students move to the next level of education. So it should be with E-Rate. It is time for E-Rate to graduate and move to the next phase of learning.”

It’s clear some major modernization of the program is long overdue. As Wheeler pointed out, a 2013 national school speed test found 72 percent of schools—and nearly 40 million students—didn’t have access to the broadband speeds they needed. Plus, only about half the funding of the E-Rate program currently goes to broadband—other funding still goes to providing slower connections, even dial-up.

Wheeler described visiting a group of middle schoolers who told him that if they all pressed “enter” on their keyboards at the same time their network would freeze. He also told the story of a class in California that had to take a bus to a different school just to take the online core curriculum test.

But other than providing basic access, how does fast internet really change how learning happens?

DLD panelist Aaryn Schmuhl, assistant superintendent for learning and leadership at Henry County Schools near Atlanta, explained that, for one thing, the web has altered the traditional role of teachers. “Teachers used to be the place where kids went to get information. Now, teachers are the place where kids go to learn how to use information,” Schmuhl said.

However, for that shift to truly happen, kids need to be able to search through the universe of information at their fingertips at the speeds they need. Technology can’t reach its full potential to enhance learning unless public policy keeps up with the need for equal access to broadband and devices. DLD put that priority in the spotlight.

Stretching dollars was a common theme throughout the day. Like the FCC, the Department of Education also got on board to help schools support digital learning. The department released a letter that outlines and clarifies different ways schools can use federal funds to support digital learning. For example, a school might use Title I funds to purchase devices and digital learning resources, while Title II funds could be used to help teachers improve their teaching through effective blended learning practices.

As much as DLD was a celebration of the power of the web, it was also a call to action. Educators can’t expect kids to be prepared for a world that’s changed faster in the last 10 years than in the previous 100 without turning a few things upside down. Equipping 21st century learners with modern skills not only requires new tools, but also rethinking the very way kids learn and connect with the world around them.

Maryland Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery summed it up well during the panel discussion. “If students are going to be college and career ready, we can no longer have them in little narrow places learning discrete facts,” she said. “They have to inform their learning through their analytical skills so that learning then follows them where they go.”

Photo/ Brad Flickinger