Q: Who should be involved in schools’ purchasing decisions?
A: You should certainly include a broad stakeholder group. That should include the people who are directly and indirectly impacted by it. One of the things we see more and more districts doing is talking to students and actually putting devices into their hands and saying, “let’s try this” or “let’s try this curriculum or content package” and actually having students weigh in with their opinions. Part of one Pennsylvania school district superintendent’s entry plan includes the question, “How do we use technology to enhance that instruction?” One of the big components of his entry plan is talking to students and asking how they react to technology, and this is important, because I think sometimes we make a lot of assumptions.
One of the things that also can be a disconnect is classroom observation. A principal might walk in and see a much different environment in a technology enhanced classroom. Students might be actively engaged and having a lot of dialogue with whatever they’re working on. So making sure that we know what to look for as you’re making this transition so we’re all sort of marching to the same beat if you will.
I would say the one other piece we focus on a lot at Discovery Education is thinking about how we connect these leaders across the county. We have an event coming up on Thursday (editor’s note: This interview took place on January 27, 2016) called Powerful Practices in Pennsylvania with 150 folks from Pennsylvania and Maryland and New Jersey that are coming together to tackle some of the big issues around education and instructional practices. I think that’s really important because a lot of people are doing this work across the country. I’d encourage school administrators to not just limit themselves to talking to their own educational community stakeholders. Talk to other leaders across the country who really love to have these conversations and can share with you some of the great things they have accomplished and some of the challenges that they’ve faced and how they have reacted to them. I think that’s important as well.
Q: How can school districts prepare to implement technology into their classrooms?
A: Of the two big components when we look at when we think about technology enhanced classrooms, the first is professional development. We spend a lot of our time and effort at discovery education thinking about professional development strategy, we tend to think of in 3-5 year increments. A few years back we worked in a school district in NC on a digital leader course which was a 3 year plan to build teacher capacity around using digital content in their classrooms. We identified 4 lead teachers within every building in the district, we provided them with intense professional development,and they in turn opened up classrooms for learning labs where other teachers could do walk-throughs and test out new strategies. The powerful part of this effort is not only Discovery Education us demonstrating the effective uses of technology, it’s the district’s own teachers with their own students, their own content, and their own technology actually demonstrating effective use of that within their instructional practice. So articulating that professional development strategy, to us, is really, really critical. It is important to make sure that teachers feel supported as they’re making this transition, and that they have these great tools that they can utilize to enhance instruction.
The second part of that is thinking about your communication strategy. From my perspective, this is something that schools don’t spend enough time on. How are you going to talk about this and articulate this to your stakeholders, to your community, to your parents? I’ll give you a simple example. Let’s say you’re replacing your hardcopy textbook with a digital textbook—what does the communication look like between the school and the parents? When a school says, “Your child isn’t going to be bringing home their biology textbook today, they have access this online service which provides rich content and things that a traditional textbook doesn’t give,” what additional information is available to help parents understand this change? We know from an instructional standpoint that this transition is great, but without the full background, parents still may get nervous about that. The importance of communicating that to parents is really critical.
Q: How can schools ensure they get the most out of their edtech purchases?
A: It goes back to asking those important questions. You have to clearly articulate your educational goals and objectives. If you don’t do that you don’t know what you’re measuring against. You have to have a measurement tool, you have to have a way to evaluate the success and to me, that’s the big part of making sure schools get an ROI on their purchase, if you will, because that’s the benchmark. How are we performing against our educational goals/objectives and are we seeing a return on the changes we’ve made?
The next step here is to think about what we do with these evaluations and act upon them. When I worked in public education, we created a strategic plans for each initiative. Strategic plans were never meant to be created one day then approved and shelved the next. The idea of the plan is to continue to evaluate progress against that plan and adjust when needed. I think that’s a big part of the effort to make a digital transition. You’re going to make adjustments, but you have to know what it is you’re trying to adjust by measuring your progress.