Plugged In

Making learning more interactive and innovative

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For over two decades, I have worked to improve schools and their support systems. At the same time, I have dug into the ways technology facilitates community building. The intersection of those paths defines a cool place to hang out with compelling visionaries and amazing ideas about the ways technology can transform education. However, there has not been much of that coolness in the day-to-day lives of my children and their teachers. Though I am sure that exceptions exist, for the most part, teaching and learning in the Providence Public Schools have been largely separate from interactive technologies.

But this year, finally, I am seeing evidence of a positive collision between technology and education in our schools. Curriculum, assessments and individualized systems of student support that occupy both physical and virtual space are taking root and spreading, driven by the adoption of curricula and classroom content management systems that have significant online components. This has sparked conversations within school communities and among district staff about the urgent need at nearly all schools to update technology infrastructure, access and training for students and educators.

There’s statewide momentum, too; the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) is pushing ahead with substantial educational technology initiatives that have
the potential to create conditions for teaching and learning that are more equitable, meaningful and effective as a result of smart technology integration. In February, RIDE hosted the “Innovation Powered by Technology” conference, which convened local and national experts and innovators to help our state’s educators move forward with technology integration. The conference brought resources to RIDE’s $470,000 Model School Grant that will fund the design or redesign of a school that will use technology to transform teaching and learning. It’s great to see RIDE thinking so boldly and setting a context for innovation statewide.

So perhaps we really are having a moment here, one of those moments that have the promise to change everything. However, several factors could imperil universal access to the benefits of technologically mediated teaching and learning, and reduce the impact of interactive technology in education.

One of the central practices that allows teachers and students to harness the power of technology in education is called “blended learning,” which the Innosight Institute defines as “any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.” One result of blended learning is a “flipped classroom,” in which students access content online via lectures or other means outside class and can then use class time to sustain more meaningful, interactive exchanges and explorations with their teachers and each other.

One key to making blended learning and flipped classrooms happen, of course, is online access. Such access is limited in many schools, in many homes, and within many communities both by availability of high quality computers and by inadequate internet access. Blended learning is a powerful idea that cannot work if young people can’t access online content. And it cannot work if they don’t have the resources not only to access that online content but also to control it in meaningful ways. This means that students need to have systems that allow them to log onto personalized environments, save work and interact with teachers and other students.

The equity implications are sobering; it’s clear that in communities in which young people have consistent, personalizable access to computers and sophisticated infrastructures, they will accrue benefits unavailable to students who lack such access. Obviously, this would happen along economic lines unless we aggressively intervene and find ways, both in-school and out, to provide adequate resources to all children. Working at the community level, we can go far to assure that resources are in place for one-to-one computing at school, and computer labs are systematically integrated with curriculum that’s easily accessible in our neighborhoods. Providence is proud of its creativity and innovative spirit, and I suggest that we bring that spirit to bear to think together about how to provide our young people with the resources they need to learn in more exciting, engaging and effective ways, which also prepare them for the technology-infused world that they will enter into as adults.

Overly prescriptive curriculum and pedagogy pose another threat to the potential of interactive technology to transform education. Learners, in order to be true learners, need to be active co-constructors of knowledge. In order to learn to use our minds well, we all need to be able to explore, investigate, inquire, argue and engage. In order to realize not only the best aspects of technology but also the power of human connection in education, we need policies and practices that support and defend authentic relationships between students and teachers.

It is truly possible that we will look back and identify this time as a moment when technology and education united to create powerful new ways for teachers and students to share and synthesize information with each other. Let’s not miss this opportunity.

Jill Davidson can be reached at whathappenedatschool@gmail.com or her blog, providenceschools.blogspot.com.