Six Strategic Steps to Digital Learning Success

Technology Tips

Six Strategic Steps to Digital Learning Success

from Digital Learning Annual Conference

By John Watson     Feb 11, 2019

Six Strategic Steps to Digital Learning Success

Shiny new technologies can capture well-meaning educators like insects in amber, but the evidence is clear that digital learning can improve student opportunities and outcomes. The key is building the basic foundation of understanding and planning.

Below I outline six strategic steps that will point school leaders as well as classroom teachers toward digital learning success:

1. Determine your education goals

Alice in Wonderland said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Similarly, schools that aren’t clear about what they are trying to accomplish are more easily distracted by technologies that may not deliver on their promise and are not aligned with school and district goals.

Many academic goals can be supported by online, blended, and digital learning, including:

  • Improving math or reading proficiency
  • Increasing graduation rates
  • Enhancing student communication and collaboration
  • Increasing equity, including closing achievement gaps
  • Widening access to a range of opportunities for all students, especially in small schools and rural regions
  • Providing opportunities for students with health issues
  • Increasing college and career readiness by teaching technology skills
  • Breaking down barriers of time and space to extend learning to new places and modalities, including incorporating college courses, internships, and other activities

This is not a complete list. Keep in mind that when you’re developing an inventory of goals to be addressed via digital learning, less is more. A long list will lead to lack of focus as well as mission creep. A shorter one will allow all stakeholders to concentrate on achieving success.

Student Jemar Lee explains why blended learning was ideal for him. Source: Foundation for Blended and Online Learning.

2. Consider that digital learning encompasses a wide range of tools and strategies

The adage, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” captures our tendency to rely on the tools that we know best. But the tool we know best may not be ideal for meeting the goals at hand.

Digital learning comes in many forms, and all should be considered as tools and strategies for meeting educational goals. At a basic level, these options include:

  • Online tools and resources in physical classrooms
  • Hybrid and blended programs that combine online and onsite learning
  • Fully online schools

Each of these major categories has many varieties that may be appropriate for meeting different student needs.

Defining dimensions of digital learning. Source: Evergreen Education. Full size image here.

3. Lead with teachers—not technology

We have been studying K-12 online and blended learning for 20 years. In that time, we have not found a single successful, scalable digital program that doesn’t rely on teachers to facilitate successful student outcomes.

The student-teacher relationship is at the heart of education. That statement may seem obvious to many, yet the practice of planning for technology in classrooms with little or no teacher involvement remains all too common.

Teachers should be involved in every phase, from planning through implementation and assessment. They should be invited to envision how their roles might evolve, and how they might engage in professional learning opportunities with district leaders and with each other.

Want to learn more and continue the conversation? Join us at the inaugural Digital Learning Annual Conference (DLAC), April 1-3, in Austin, TX!

4. Engage with stakeholders

Teachers aren’t the only ones who will experience the changes that come with digital learning. Students, parents, and community leaders will as well. Although a popular saying proposes that it’s better to seek forgiveness than ask for permission, in education often the opposite holds true. Stakeholders are more likely to be supportive of digital learning programs if they feel they have had a say in the planning and development of those programs. If you don’t believe that, consider the outcomes in schools that shift to digital without enough stakeholder engagement.

5. Monitor progress

Educator Heather Heibsch launched a highly successful hybrid public school and now is the executive director of a non-profit organization that is improving education in rural regions worldwide. She likes to say that teachers and schools should assess student progress consistently, so that they are “taking a temperature instead of doing an academic autopsy.”

Although she applies this saying to teachers understanding their students’ academic progress, the same applies to school leaders understanding their digital program’s development, by measuring progress against goals.

Because goals vary, measures will vary as well. Schools may find they need to focus on student growth, and implement an assessment like NWEA MAP. They may decide to bring students who have dropped out back into the system to graduate, in which case the five- or six-year graduation rates are more important than four-year rates. Schools wanting to increase student collaboration or technology skills may need to create new measures, which might include student and parent surveys, focus groups, or other non-traditional methods.

6. Be patient

At this point you may be thinking “Wow this sounds hard. I just want some Chromebooks!”

But the fact is, while thoughtful planning and stakeholder engagement takes more time up front, they pay off many times over in success. That’s not to say everything will go quickly and smoothly. In fact, you should expect some bumps.

Perhaps most importantly, be patient and create appropriate expectations among stakeholders. Success will be measured in years, not weeks or months. You will have course corrections and you’ll want to have created the buy-in to allow for some changes along the way. You’ll also be better off if your implementation is planned to grow over several years, with expectations of success starting to appear in year two or three and growing from there.

Finally, remember that you’re not alone. You’ll be on a journey with thousands of school leaders and teachers. Find the ones who came before you, and the ones that are along the same point in their journey. You’ll find the camaraderie shared among those who are taking on great challenges towards improving student opportunities and outcomes.

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