Mar 12 2015

Researchers Hunt for ‘Secret Sauce’ of Digital Learning Success

A new report studies what worked and didn't for five districts' digital learning strategies.

What makes some digital learning initiatives successful and others not?

That’s the focus of a 2014 study released Wednesday by the America’s Promise Alliance’s Center for Promise. The study is titled "Wired to Learn: K-12 Students in the Digital Classroom," and it examines how five school districts implemented digital learning strategies to help students succeed in the classroom and how those initiatives performed.

Schools have seen mixed results from digital strategies, which could be a result of their varying implementation plans, according to the report.

“Scholars have noted that benefits tend to be more substantial when blended learning (versus a purely online experience) is used and when the time devoted to instruction with technology supplements, and not replaces, the time spent without it,” the report states.

Jonathan Zaff, executive director for the Center for Promise, said in a Wednesday news conference on the report that education was on the precipice of a digital revolution. But Zaff and researcher Michelle Sedaca agreed that further studies will be needed to isolate what works and what doesn't work when it comes to education technology integration.

"We need a deeper understanding about what the secret sauce is," Zaff said. "What are the key ingredients that need to be added to optimize the education process?"

Providing broadband coverage and financing sustainable digital initiatives also remain challenges, particularly for rural districts, according to Sedaca.

Many school systems rely on short-term solutions, such as bond financing and foundation investments, to cover the costs of new digital initiatives. Federal financial programs such as E-Rate, which helps schools and libraries cover the costs of telecommunications services, can provide some assistance, but districts often must find solutions to cover the remaining costs.

Though a recipe for success in digital classrooms evades researchers, the report concludes with five key takeaways, highlighting important lessons for technology integration in schools:

1. Plan and expand. Adequate bandwidth and wireless connectivity is essential for powering digital learning. Profiled districts systematically built their infrastructure and networks — in most cases, several years prior to implementation — in order to ensure ample support for 1:1 and/or BYOD/T computing initiatives. Districts also regularly assess their infrastructure needs as technology evolves and greater high-speed and wireless access may become necessary.

2. Provide training in technology and pedagogical techniques. Spotlighted districts emphasized the importance of ongoing professional development opportunities to equip educators to employ a dramatically different instructional approach, as well as to learn practical strategies for integrating technology into the curriculum. Many of the districts deliver professional learning in both face-to-face and online formats to tailor training according to teachers’ needs.

3. Restructure roles — and rooms. Digital learning transforms the traditional learning environment by altering both pedagogy and the physical layout of classrooms. Featured districts shifted traditional teacher and student roles to personalize learning according to individual needs and interests. Some districts have also changed the classroom settings — through removing desks for flexible learning spaces and painting walls in vibrant colors — to foster a more dynamic learning and teaching environment.

4. Venture beyond the classroom. Districts can develop creative strategies by visiting other innovative learning settings across the country, such as in schools, universities, and libraries. Profiled districts illustrate examples of embracing new ideas through experiencing other learning environments. These visits can also lead to building strategic relationships with local businesses, universities, foundations, and other organizations that can bring different points of view and types of expertise, which can stimulate creative thinking and secure fiscal support.

5. Use data systematically. A commitment to data is important for personalizing learning and improving instruction, as well as for assessing the effectiveness of digital learning initiatives. While the five district initiatives are relatively young, each consistently draws on data to guide learning and instruction and to track student outcomes.

The five school districts included in the study are Elizabeth Forward School District in Pennsylvania, Lewisville Independent School District in Texas, Mobile County Public School System in Alabama, San Jose Unified School District in California and West Allis-West Milwaukee School District in Wisconsin. These districts were chosen for their diverse geography, size, ethnic composition and socioeconomic factors, Sedaca said.

The full 60-page report can be downloaded at America’s Promise Alliance's website.


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