Digital Learning the new classroom


You Got it Right, Secretary Duncan

Jonathan Zaff Executive Director

How Technology Can Help Make the Promise of America Real for Every Child

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan makes poignant the potential of digital learning.
In “What Can Technology Do for Tomorrow’s Children,” Duncan writes: “Innovation in education isn’t about the latest gadget or app, or about how adept a student is at using a smartphone to consume the latest Internet meme. It’s about how technological tools can empower students to become who they want to be, and who we need them to be — the kind of children and young people who ask, ‘What can I improve? How can I help? What can I build?’ ”
At America’s Promise Alliance, we have the same belief about what we want for all young people in America: the opportunity to learn, grow and give back to society. Digital learning technologies – if implemented well and equitably – can help make it happen for tens of millions of kids.
With support from the Cable Impacts Foundation, we recently took a close look at the state of the digital learning field and at schools and districts making great gains through technology. In our report, Wired to Learn: K-12 Students in the Digital Classroom, we published critical best practices, ones that I think would make the Secretary nod in agreement.
Here’s a quick summary of our recommendations for educators interested in making the best use of technology to help students learn.

  1. Plan and invest in bandwidth and wireless connectivity to power educational technology. For years, the rallying cry was that more schools needed to be connected to the Internet. With the bandwidth needed to implement educational technologies, we now are rallying for broadband connection in every school. A digital divide only exacerbates income divides.
  2. Provide ongoing professional development opportunities so educators can effectively integrate digital learning and employ new instructional approaches. Technology platforms are tools, not the answers. Teachers need to be trained on how to integrate these tools into their current teaching strategies and, possibly more importantly, how these tools can bring about a revolution in how to teach. This leads to…
  3. Restructure the traditional classroom. In schools in the West-Allis West Milwaukee School District, students are rarely sitting at desks, with eyes straight ahead, looking at a teacher didactically lecturing them. Instead, students take their laptops and tablets to a quiet corner of a room to focus on an individualized lesson, or to a communal rug where they sit with peers to figure out a problem together.
  4. Venture outside the classroom. Using technology shouldn’t mean holing up and wiring in. Instead, teachers can take their students to libraries, college campuses, and local businesses to gain the expertise across sectors. Imagine partnerships that could involve scientists at MIT, Cal Tech or Carnegie Mellon; or taking a field trip to the offices of a tech start-up in Silicon Valley or the Silicon Alley; or learning how technology is helping to solve problems in the country’s biggest cities and smallest towns.
  5. Use data to improve learning and instruction. Digital learning platforms and technologies can make it possible for educators to create individualized learning plans for each student, making it clear who is learning, who is struggling, and what can make the difference for each learner.

The digital revolution in education is happening. The key is to make sure that the technologies being developed optimize student learning, that teachers are trained on how to use the technologies most effectively, and that all students have equitable access to these technologies. When these three pieces are in place, we can move from talking about digital learning as a revolutionary idea to talking about digital learning as a revolutionary answer.
Jon Zaff is the Executive Director of the Center for Promise.