Monthly Archives: April 2015

Build Your House on a Strong Foundation: Setting up the Digital Classroom

I have spent much of my time in the last few years working with districts (and even states and countries) on scaling 1:1 initiatives, transforming culture, and personalizing learning. One of the things that I have consistently noticed is that district leaders have a difficult time finding the right balance between allowing principals and teachers the freedom and autonomy to innovate, while requiring standardization on certain frameworks that are necessary to power up their success.

One place where a standardized framework can be very helpful is in the digital learning environment. Think about the way a typical classroom is structured. When you walk into a school most of the classrooms look alike. They have similar furniture, they have a board you can right on, there is a place to store materials, etc. When a new teacher is hired we don’t point them to a pile of bricks and 2 x 4s and ask them to build their own classroom.

Imagine the time it would take for a teacher to actually build their own classroom. The same is true with the digital classroom. Throughout my entire career when I ask teachers their greatest need they invariably answer “TIME.” With all of the things we are requiring teachers to do today, do we really want them to spend vast amounts of time trying to figure out how to create a digital classroom on their own? With a staff of 40 teachers, do we need them to recreate the wheel 40 times, as they figure out the best way to digitally organize content, store resources, collaborate with students, and share with colleagues, parents and their students?

There are other consequences when we ask teachers to create their own digital classroom. Some teachers are not comfortable with technology and have been successful without it. These teachers usually struggle to see the benefit of making the digital shift, and are very reluctant to spend the time and effort it will take to create their own digital learning environment.

The early adopters, on the other hand, probably started creating their digital learning environment before devices even landed in their classroom. They rely on their network and Internet investigations to choose tools that other teachers have endorsed, and provide a solution to the classroom organization issue they are trying to address. These teachers gravitate toward free, or freemium products such as Google Apps for Education, Edmodo, or Schoology. The result is that within one school building teachers are often using half a dozen different products or more for their digital classroom. Students, then, have several logins they need to memorize (and very often forget!), and several platforms they need to learn to navigate. They are not able to take advantage of the efficiency gained by having everything in one place. From single sign, to access to content, assignments and grades, not having a standardized platform costs student and teacher time, and can result in organizational, and productivity issues.

All teachers can benefit from standardizing the digital learning environment in a few other important ways. By using the same platform across a district, teachers can easily collaborate with their colleagues on grade level or content area units of instruction. The digital learning objects one teacher using in a lesson (articles, videos, websites, apps, etc.) can easily be reviewed and built into lesson plans by any other teacher in the district. Using the same platform also allows for common data collection and analytics that teachers can use to assess what is working and what is not as they collaborate.

I have only outlined a few of the main benefits of standardizing the digital learning environment, but hopefully you are beginning to see the value. If you are ready to take the next step, here are some steps that may help you through the process.

  1. Find out what digital solutions teachers are currently using to organize and deliver digital content, for student communication and collaboration, and to share what is happening in their classroom with parents. Ask them what they like about these solutions, and what other functionality they would like to have.
  2. Generate a comprehensive list of functionality the platform needs to have, and make sure everyone has a voice in the conversation.
  3. Investigate products that have the functionality you desire, narrow your list to the best few, and have the companies provide demonstrations. Invite representatives from all of your user groups (administrators, teachers, students and parents) to take part in the demos. Also talk with other districts that are using the products you are thinking about, and ask them what they like and don’t like about it.
  4. Come to a consensus with the representative group on a final product recommendation.
  5. Publicly announce the recommendation and include the implementation timeline, the expectations for the various user groups, and the support everyone will receive as you implement.

Whether you decide together on a full feature LMS like Canvas for your digital learning environment, or you use free resources such as Google Classroom or Edmodo, it is essential that everyone uses the solution if you are to reap the benefits. I often use jazz as an example to help districts understand the importance of standardizing these digital learning environment frameworks. People who are not musicians often think that jazz musicians are free to play whatever they want when they improvise.  A jazz musician probably could play anything they wanted if they were practicing by themselves in their basement. To play jazz in an ensemble, however, there are very specific harmonic and rhythmic frameworks within which the band and soloists work. Without everyone using these frameworks it would be impossible to make beautiful music together.

The platform for the digital classroom is only one aspect of the standardized frameworks that can be valuable in the digital learning environment. In my next blog I will discuss the value of an instructional framework.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

“A Little Bit Better” Isn’t Enough

Doug Reeves, in his book, “Leading Change in Your School: How to Conquer Myths, Build Commitment, and Get Results” (2009), addressed the myth about ‘change leadership’, ‘a little bit better is good enough’. Many education change leaders have encountered the slings, arrows and painful diatribe around even minor shifts in pedagogy, curriculum, resources, etc. Because moving an organization to systemic change is tough stuff, it is natural to believe that incremental change or doing a lot of things a little better hits the target (Peters & Waterman, 1982). Reeves also addressed Margaret Mead’s infamous quote, “Never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

Reeves found that small groups cannot change schools. His 2008-2009 research showed that only deep implementation had positive effect on student achievement. If implementers are only those who ‘buy in’ from the onset, the impact is the same as non-implementation. Reeves’ data tell us that for the change to have its desired impact, all members of the organization, including those who are not accepting of the changes, must implement and do so well. When the implementation takes its course, over time, the results are apparent, the non-believers will witness outcomes, understand and accept the changes. The fact is that behavioral change often precedes changes in belief systems. Reeves says, “….implementation precedes buy-in; it does not follow it.” His case after case review and discussion give evidence.

In our work at One-to-One Institute, we have witnessed the latter time and time again. For starters, in Michigan’s Freedom to Learn Program, the statewide professional development framework created teacher leaders who emerged with knowledge and skill around meaningful integration of personal, portable technologies and curriculum/instruction. They provided PD for the next tier of teacher leaders within regions and then followed the same protocol within districts and schools. Early adopters rapidly emerged – as did the fence sitters and naysayers. Sprinkled throughout were teachers who were just a year or two from retirement. Of that group, those who were fence sitters and naysayers became ultimate cheerleaders for the one-to-one approach. They commented how invigorated they, personally and professionally, had become; and renewed their commitment to remain teaching. A number of them, with whom I’m still in touch, are still working or retired just a year or so ago (Michigan’s program began in 2002 and sunsetted in 2007). We have seen the same across the country.

We have also documented how districts that implemented systemically and deeply, continue a one-to-one program. Where implementation was isolated, lacked foundational support, consistent leadership and professional development, the programs went belly up. There are far more in the latter category.

Nearly 10 years later, there is more research and understanding around successful digital conversion implementations. But we still hear the echo of ‘a little bit or pockets of this change’ are good enough. They aren’t for two important reasons: First, authentic school transformation requires systemic behavior change for all stakeholders; second, and most importantly, desired learner outcomes can be realized when the system moves in the right direction. The latter is our most important mission.