May 26 2009

Building 21st Century Classrooms — Connecting the Pieces

When President Obama announced targeted funding to bring our nation’s classrooms up to a 21st century standard, many educators around the country applauded his vision. But then asked: “What does a 21st century classroom look like? What technologies need to be incorporated? What actions are needed to guarantee money will be invested properly to obtain valid outcomes?” These questions will be answered in a series of articles addressing: vision-setting, infrastructure, data systems, ed tech services, current methods and practices, and professional development — all key areas to consider when designing 21st century classrooms.

Establishing the Vision

Let’s begin by exploring, “Setting the Vision.” Our 21st century vision grew in a remote location — the Colorado Rockies. Eagle County Schools (ECS) is nestled high in a mountain valley in Colorado ski country. It is located 130 miles west of Denver, surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks that claim two world class ski resorts. It is also home to 17 schools that make up this pristine district, spread over 45 miles of rugged snowy terrain.

Twenty-first century classrooms were first proposed to Eagle County residents almost three years ago. The concept was embraced and a technology bond was passed in 2006. Much like the stimulus funding being currently allocated for schools, the bond provided resources to launch the concept.

The initial vision and goal established that all classrooms and students be impacted by the funds. Numerous planning sessions were held by the tech department to explore how this could be accomplished. Data, network, parent, academic and administrative input was requested. The outcome was to identify and design systems that make up classrooms of the future. When the vision was set, the tech team went into action. ECS classrooms were to have the following technology systems as a basic classroom package. Each system described below will be discussed at length in future articles.

Infrastructure: The Underlying Components

When President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act paving the way for our highway infrastructure, the vision was clear as to its importance. The same can be said for the importance of designing the right electronic infrastructure for 21st century classrooms.

To deliver state-of-the-art instruction and global access to information, ECS upgraded its LAN and WAN capability after an extensive technology audit conducted by an independent third party. This audit ensured personal vesting of long-term employees was considered but not an impediment to sound decisions. The resulting increase in capability gave the district the necessary backbone to increase access to global information sources and move all district phones to Voice over IP. VoIP provides better service at a lower cost all while maximizing the district’s bandwidth investment. The network infrastructure also supports Power over Ethernet, enabling the installation of security cameras without the need for additional electrical work at each camera location.

Building the Data Systems

In real estate we often hear location, location, location as being the most important element when determining the value of property. Many times in education we hear data, data, data as being the most important element to help teachers craft individual learning plans for students — a critical factor for 21st century learning. ECS has a complementary cadre of data, assessment and online reporting mechanisms to deliver just-in-time analytical capabilities. The district also invested time and money in systems that link student performance to teacher evaluations, professional development and student achievement. This linkage is vital to the district’s pay-for-performance salary model, which is another Obama goal.

Educational Technology Services

With a robust infrastructure, the door was opened for ECS to bring in Web 2.0 tools and other exciting learning capabilities. First, the district was able to decommission the old media retrieval systems for the delivery of video and replace them with enhanced video products from Discovery Education. These on-demand videos can be viewed on 42-inch LCD displays that can be found in every classroom. In addition, teachers have access to document cameras for viewing everything from spiders to children’s books in HD on their big screens. Teachers can host their own websites for the first time, enabling them to enhance communications between home and school. Electronic whiteboards, student response systems and more can be found in these 21st century classrooms.

What Teachers Need to Know

Of course you can buy all the technology toys you want, but if you don’t address the methodology and pedagogy behind 21st century learning, they are just toys. ECS is working to enhance teachers’ understanding for the role technology plays in educating our millennial children. The district organized a High School Task Force enabling small groups of teachers to work cross curriculum with the latest research models to incorporate various components of technology available in their classrooms.

Professional Development — The Key to Success

The 21st century classroom needs a professional development (PD) system that consists of several key components. Foremost, time and human resources need to be allocated to make sure teachers get the support they need when they need it. ECS has developed a unique system for PD consisting of “master,” “mentor” and “career” teacher positions.

This program enables teachers to receive the support they need during the teaching day when it counts the most. The PD department has selected a software management tool that enables it to build individual learning plans for each teacher. It tracks all components of PD, while at the same time serves as a central repository for all training in the district including the creation of online PD components.

A well developed vision, consisting of these components, is critical to the success of 21st century learning. Follow this roadmap and your district will successfully integrate technology into their classrooms and maximize the use of any funds that become available. And make sure to look for future in-depth articles focusing on each of the mentioned topics.