Sep 06 2022
Digital Workspace

4 Best Practices for Improving Digital Learning Instruction in Your School Community

District leaders can follow these examples set by the Mississippi Department of Education through its Mississippi Connects program.

Imagine this scenario: An office at the state or district level distributes a lengthy instructional guide to school-level educators and leaders. The resource is chock-full of sound, research-backed advice for effective teaching and learning with digital devices.

The only problem? The resource goes unread by practitioners, who have a million things to do and not nearly enough time to do them. This is a familiar scenario that plagues many educators and administrators. School and district leaders need a way to ensure that instructional practices make their way from a playbook to the classroom and beyond.

The Mississippi Connects program from the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) provides and supports statewide one-to-one device use. The program offers lessons and best practices for how educational leaders can help guide teachers and staff in using digital learning instruction. Here are four of those best practices:

1. Adapt Existing Resources for Your Own Context

To improve digital learning instruction, K–12 leaders can adapt proven approaches for their own districts based on relevant research and their schools’ specific needs.

Click the banner to discover CDW's resources for digital transformation in your K–12 district.

For example, the Mississippi Connects Digital Learning Instructional Guide offers lessons for educational leaders hoping to strike a middle ground between developing new resources from scratch and using existing resources that don’t fit their context.

The digital instructional guide draws on existing resources and the latest research to suggest best practices tailored to the particular use cases of districts throughout the state, as well as the state educational agency’s own standards, content and priorities. Each section of the guide includes links to MDE standards and tools and additional educator-facing resources from nonprofit groups and academic institutions.

The guide’s development was funded by the Mississippi Alliance of Nonprofits and Philanthropy, with support from CDW•G and Intel. MDE digital learning specialists throughout the state drove the process, ensuring it was relevant for local teachers and staff who would be implementing the practice guide. The external support at the state level freed district and school leaders from having to devote time and effort to developing their own digital learning resources from scratch.

School, district and state leaders can follow that lead: Instead of reinventing the wheel, they can adapt proven approaches for local contexts, even if they’re not developing a resource as comprehensive as the Mississippi Connects Digital Learning Instructional Guide.

2. Invest in PD and Coaching Aligned with District Priorities

From the outset, MDE leaders recognized that professional development was essential to the success of Mississippi Connects. PD was included in the initial cost model for the program that was presented to legislators and adopted into law, but the form of that support evolved over time.

Initially, the project plan called for friEdTechnology, the PD provider chosen by the MDE, to offer webinars and other resources about best practices for digital instruction in general. Shortly after it began offering the virtual workshops, courses, webinars and summits, friEdTechnology’s staff realized there was a missing step.

Amy Mayer, the company’s CEO, recalls, “We found that we needed to connect directly with districts in Mississippi, form relationships and provide opportunities for them to share what exactly they needed.”

In short, there was no one-size-fits-all solution to PD.

Elizabeth King, friEdTechnology’s senior director of project management for Mississippi, spoke with leaders from nearly half of the state’s 148 districts, enabling the vendor to identify resources that responded directly to challenges that each district leader cited.

RELATED: Use these professional development tips to improve teacher retention in K–12 schools.

A similar logic was at play in the development of Mississippi Connects’ coaching program, an effort to provide one-on-one support to teachers and administrators on using educational technology and strengthening digital learning practices. This program offers a range of coaching supports, including classroom observations, customized professional learning community facilitation and district-specific digital learning action planning.

Not all schools, districts or state educational agencies will have the resources to provide intensive PD or coaching. Yet all school communities can draw on a central lesson of Mississippi Connects’ approach: the importance of making PD and coaching responsive to the specific digital learning needs and priorities of practitioners.

3. Commit to Goals, but Respond to Changing Stakeholder Needs

Like so much in K–12 education, programs to support digital teaching and learning practices can’t remain static. Needs, circumstances and available resources change, and it’s important for programs to reflect those shifts.

The Mississippi Connects program offers insight into how educational leaders can manage such changes. While PD and other supports were built in to the program from the beginning, the initial focus was on device procurement, distribution and connectivity. Over time, Mississippi Connects evolved as new circumstances and resources emerged.

The release of the Digital Learning Instructional Guide changed how we coach administrators and teachers.”

Melissa Banks Director of Digital Learning, Mississippi Department of Education

“The release of the Digital Learning Instructional Guide changed how we coach administrators and teachers,” says Melissa Banks, director of digital learning at MDE. “Coaching was always envisioned as a part of the initiative, but now we can do so much more.”

Banks explains that instructional coaching practices are now targeted to the elements in the guide. She adds that administrators in the program now develop district-specific action plans around the concepts and practices in the instructional guide. Additionally, the tenets of the digital learning guide are being used to evaluate the effectiveness of coaching services.

The Mississippi Connects program continues seeking ways to deepen the impact of the instructional guide. For example, in a new partnership, professors at Mississippi Valley State University’s Department of Education will have training in the instructional guide, ensuring that new teachers from that institution come into the classroom with an understanding of digital learning practice in the context of Mississippi’s schools.

READ THE INTERVIEW: This computer science teacher blends coding with culture for K–12 students.

4. Adapt to Students' Circumstances to Maintain Equity in K–12

Even as digital teaching and learning programs shift, a commitment to serving all learners must remain constant. From the beginning, equity has been a cornerstone of the Mississippi Connects program. Districts without significant resources were able to purchase and maintain devices, and access supporting programs, thanks to the MDE’s support for the Mississippi Connects program via emergency COVID-19 relief funding allocated by the state.

The Digital Learning Instructional Guide also recognizes the tenets of accessibility, diversity and equity. It offers best practices for how educators can select and use digital tools and resources in ways that promote success and belonging among students who have different experiences and racial and ethnic backgrounds. This includes a commitment to understanding the context of students’ lives and the digital opportunities available to them outside of the classroom, both of which are necessary to provide a quality and equitable education to all students.

The guide states the importance of educators adapting to students’ circumstances rather than eliminating programming or services in the name of equity. One research-backed example involves selecting ed tech tools that are compatible with slower bandwidth. Educators should also use digital tools that allow students to adjust the way they receive information. Additionally, an educator might consider assigning screen-free activities for homework when students lack broadband access rather than eliminating homework altogether.

KEEP READING: These essential networking devices boost equity, school capacity and speed.

Funding typically isn’t available for most districts to expand broadband access or to invest in large-scale purchases of computing devices, but reconsidering homework formats before assigning work requires no funding. Educators and administrators looking to build a sound digital learning instructional practice can draw on the Mississippi Connects model and adopt such practices in their own districts.

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