Bridging the School-Community Divide in Digital Learning

Michael Robbins at SXSWedu

ED’s Michael Robbins led a session on digital learning and collective impact in education at this year’s SXSWedu in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy of Instagram user chbrenchley.

I recently had the opportunity to speak at SXSWedu – a national education convening leading up to the South by Southwest festivals and conferences in Austin, TX. What began three years ago as a handful of education-focused sessions at SXSW Interactive has grown into an inspiring and informative gathering of over 4,000 participants from across the world.

Jeff Edmondson, the managing director of Strive, and I led a session on digital learning and collective impact in education – how technology can improve how schools, families, and communities collaborate to advance student engagement and learning. The power of technology to transform education was a major theme at SXSWedu, but the discussions in Austin underscored my concerns about how K-12 digital learning transitions are evolving.

Many conversations were intensely focused on technology to support school-based initiatives, but missing attention on how digital learning should connect students to their passions, peers, communities, and careers. We will miss essential opportunities to transform schools if transitions primarily create digital versions of traditional analog education processes – trading textbooks for tablets and paper files for databases.

At the other end of the spectrum were SXSWedu sessions on learning outside of schools, many of which approached schools as hurdles to be overcome instead of partners in learning. Frustrated by the slow pace of change, efforts like the maker movement and open badges have chosen to move ahead outside  K-12 institutions and bureaucracies. Despite significant advancements, most of these are on the sidelines of school district digital learning transitions, more likely to be the subject of TED talks than digital curricula or school turnaround plans.

Students and families are mostly left to themselves to connect the dots between school-based and non-school learning. The students most disadvantaged by these silos are ones already facing the greatest challenges inside and outside the classroom, and they could benefit the most from the digital learning that transcends the school-community divide. Partnerships between schools, families, and community-based organizations are an important way to bridge this divide, and ensure the success and sustainability of digital learning transitions.

I’ll be facilitating conversations to delve deeper into these issues as part of a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) that begins April 8 – advancing the Department’s efforts through Epic-ed to support digital learning transitions. Please join us for the MOOC to share your ideas on partnerships among schools, districts, teachers, community organizations, education technology companies, families, and others to ensure the digital learning revolution propels engagement and achievement for all students.

Michael Robbins is senior advisor for nonprofit partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education

Every Day Should Be Digital Learning Day

Digital learning

Today is Digital Learning Day! As teachers across the country welcome powerful learning technologies into the classroom, students are engaging and benefitting from enhanced opportunities to achieve.

Access to technology has become as important to learning as access to a library, yet teachers remain the critical link between students and the content. As new, more mobile technologies have entered the classroom, often in the backpacks of students, teachers become orchestrators of projects and seek the best emerging digital environments for improving motivation, relevance and depth of learning.

Teachers are setting expectations for multiple revision cycles of student productions, made possible with professional tools for writing, composing music, creating video documentaries, and design. They are learning along with their students and modeling good questioning and Internet research strategies, assigning more complex and challenging projects and facilitating communication and collaboration even across borders.

Age used to be considered a barrier to technology use in the classroom, and we would call teachers “digital immigrants” and young students “digital natives.” But teachers have evolved especially as technology has become increasingly easy to use and available. Like most educated adults, teachers use technology for personal activities – reading, writing, shopping, communicating with family and friends, seeking health advice and more – and they are also using technology for professional growth. In addition to finding resources on myriad education related topics, they are joining communities of practice to learn with peers and publish and share their ideas and expertise.

Teachers unions and professional associations are supporting the inclusion of digital learning. The American Federation of Teachers launched Share My Lesson, “a place where educators can come together to create and share their very best teaching resources.” The National Science Teachers Association maintains one of the most robust online communities supporting thousands of science teachers nationwide.

Last August, we launched Connected Educator Month. Over 150 organizations participated, offering close to 100,000 hours of online professional learning, with offerings such as book groups, challenges and contests, discussions, webinars, as well as interactions focused on everything from how to manage the first six weeks of school to how to create your personal learning network. The archives of the sessions are all online. The most common sentiment we heard was that “every month should be connected educator month”. Yes, and every day should be Digital Learning Day!

The education profession is as complex and challenging as it is rewarding. There is plenty to learn but luckily, the opportunity to learn has never been greater. And today – Digital Learning Day – we celebrate and thank all those educators who are leading the way.

Read Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton’s “Digital Learning Day: No Better Time to Consider Our R&D Investment in Technology and Education.”

Karen Cator is director of the Office of Educational Technology.

Community Partnerships for the Digital Learning Revolution

I wasn’t surprised to learn that my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama –The Rocket City – has launched one of the largest school district transitions to digital learning in the nation. I recently visited Huntsville to learn from their experience, and my conversations there reinforced for me that community and family partnerships are essential for the success of digital learning. We have unprecedented investment in education technology, but we don’t yet have the corresponding developments in partnerships to help transitions to digital learning succeed.

Boy with tablet deviceCommunity partnerships are key to realizing a digital learning revolution that is more than trading textbooks for tablets. This is an inflection point in education – a critical opportunity to transform how schools, parents, and community-based organizations collaborate to ignite student curiosity and engagement in learning.

Community and family partnerships can also reduce the possibility that digital learning transitions will exacerbate achievement gaps. Students that face the greatest challenges in and outside school need comprehensive supports to evolve so that digital learning doesn’t further disadvantage them.

Our community organizations, including faith-based organizations, have tremendous opportunities to support and shape the digital learning transition through four key areas of collaboration:

    • Expanding access and digital literacy;
    • Bridging between schools, families, and communities;
    • Service and volunteering in education; and
    • Creating new avenues for anytime-anywhere learning.

Expanding access and digital literacy.

Many students don’t have access outside school to computers, broadband connections, and basic technical support. The Obama Administration is working with a public-private partnership called Connect2Compete to expand low-cost internet, computers, and digital literacy instruction to low-income families.  Connect2Compete is building a network of local community partners, and community organizations can go here to learn more and link up with their efforts.

Bridging between schools, families, and communities.

Community and faith organizations can bridge the gap between home and school with their strong connections to families. Internet-based student data and learning management systems can improve collaboration between teachers, families, and community partners. Community-based organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, a Together for Tomorrow challenge winner, are using joint data systems with schools to focus student support services where they have the greatest impact.

A new report from the Department on Expanding Evidence Approaches for Learning in a Digital World, highlights the need for more efforts that connect community partners with school data systems. The report emphasizes that “young people learn and develop in a wide range of settings,” and we need to better use data “to support the full range of student needs and interests—both inside and outside schools and classrooms—to improve learning outcomes.”

Service and volunteering in education.

Digital learning systems are making it possible for partners to assist students using lessons developed by educators that are aligned with the school curriculum. This is expanding the range of volunteers that are confident and effective at assisting students inside and outside the classroom. Service and volunteer partners can also advance student learning through digital tools such as remote connections into classrooms, Open Education Resources, and internet-connected real-world experiences.

Digital partnerships aren’t limited to academic assistance, and can boost other key student outcomes.  iMentor is using digital learning to improve student behavior and increase college access. Their internet-based systems help train and support adult volunteers, who mentor students both virtually and in-person.

Creating new avenues for anytime-anywhere learning

Digital learning partnerships can help community-based organizations transform American education by expanding learning beyond the classroom. “Anytime-anywhere learning” is a key goal in our education technology plan and schools can’t accomplish this goal alone. Schools can partner with community-based initiatives like the HIVE Learning Networks that use new technologies and media to better connect students to their interests, aspirations, communities, and careers.

Community partners are using digital badges to change how and where students earn academic credit. For example, the Providence After School Alliance is developing digital badges as a central component of their credit-bearing afterschool and internship programs.

Getting started with digital learning partnerships.

The Department is participating in Digital Learning Day on February 6. Community organizations can learn more and jumpstart their digital learning partnerships at digitallearningday.org.

There are valuable information resources at our Office of Education Technology web page and Epic-ed, our initiative to support digital learning transitions. If you are already part of a digital learning partnership, share your examples on our Facebook page at facebook.com/edpartners.

The guidebooks on community partnerships and digital learning are yet to be written, so it is vital that community partners, families, schools, and education technology initiatives work together to develop their pathways to digital learning partnerships. Together we can ensure that digital learning boosts engagement and learning for all of our students. Education technology can help us create a community culture of education success, where everyone sees education as his or her responsibility, and there are clear and compelling pathways to assist.

Michael Robbins is senior advisor for nonprofit partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education