How a Milwaukee School Remodeled Student Learning

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Last week, communities and schools across the country were gearing up for Digital Learning Day. This wave of enthusiasm for digital learning is hardly new, or limited to one day out of the year. For some teachers, digital learning is helping them tackle some of the biggest problems they face in the classroom—and the ones students will face once they leave it.

By the end of this decade, the majority of jobs will require at least some postsecondary education, but 1 in 5 young people today aren’t even making it through high school, much less going on to get an advanced degree. For those who do enroll in a four-year college, 40 percent of them won’t ever graduate. Numbers are even worse for two-year colleges: about 70 percent of people enrolled in two-year programs aren’t getting their degrees.

You can find these numbers in a report released this week by America’s Promise Alliance and its research arm, the Center for Promise, called Wired to Learn: K-12 Students in the Digital Classroom. Supported by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s (NCTA) Cable Impacts Foundation, Wired to Learn takes a look at how five different school districts, from California to Pennsylvania, are using digital learning in their classrooms.

Wired to Learn: Key Takeaways

Overall, researchers learned five key lessons about how to successfully implement digital learning in the classroom:

  1. Plan and invest in bandwidth and wireless capacity.
  2. Provide ongoing professional development for educators.
  3. Develop creative strategies by connecting with stakeholders outside of the district.
  4. Restructure the traditional learning environment, including teacher and student roles and the physical layout.
  5. Use data systematically to improve learning and instruction.

In Wisconsin, an elementary school in West Allis-West Milwaukee has replaced rigid rows of desks lined up in front of a blackboard with beanbags, sofas, and space on the carpet where kids can do work on their iPads instead. But they didn’t just restructure where students learn; they rewired how they learn.

Milwaukee Rewires a Classroom, Sees Student Growth

Last Wednesday, we spoke with the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District’s Walker Elementary School via Google Hangout. The elementary school’s principal and two of its teachers talked about how much digital learning has increased student academic growth and engagement, while four students showed us their favorite iPad apps, including DreamBox and Notability.

For West Allis-West, digital learning has had more than a few positive outcomes. Instead of lecturing, teachers now serve as facilitators. Students are more engaged, and they’re taking ownership of their learning and at their own level, which has also made integrating special needs kids into the classroom more successful.

Today, it’s no longer a question of whether the digital revolution will spread to schools. It’s already happening. And for districts like West Allis-West Milwaukee, it’s not even a question of whether or not digital learning is boosting student success. They’ve proven that—when it’s done right—digital learning can be an amazing tool for student growth, and it can help prepare them for both college and career.

The real question we need to be thinking about in 2015 is not if we should or will implement digital learning, but how to do it in a way that elevates equity instead of contributing to the opportunity gap. Digital learning has tons of potential, but it’s still far too inaccessible.

Digital Learning Only Works if It Works for Everyone

Funding for digital learning is an ongoing challenge for many schools. We hope that, as initiatives mature and more schools see positive outcomes produced by technology, districts will start to factor it into their core operational budgets.

But even if schools can afford the technology, not all parents have a grasp on it. If kids are mostly doing homework on their iPads through an app, then we need to improve digital literacy for parents and equip them with the necessary skills to support their children’s learning at home.

At a time when approximately one-fifth of students who begin ninth grade don’t graduate high school on time, if ever, digital learning is an encouraging strategy for engaging young people. When it comes to increasing student engagement and making sure that students are college and career ready, digital learning is certainly something to get excited about. But this approach will work only if we make sure that everyone has the opportunity to plug in.

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