In a Sunday afternoon panel at the 2014 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Conference, education leaders from Indiana, New Jersey, and North Carolina gathered to discuss how their states are embracing the future of technology in schools.
Moderated by Dr. Kari Stubbs — ISTE board member and vice president of learning and innovation at Brainpop, a provider of online education resources and games — the three leaders, all members of the State Ed Tech Directors Association, talked device deployments, new online exams, digital resources, and more.
Up first was Indiana Department of Education Director of eLearning Candice Dodson. The state, which in 2009 passed legislation allowing the $39 million in earmarked textbook funds to be spent on technology, has a team of five dedicated entirely to eLearning. Dodson said the uptick in movement toward 1:1 device programs was immediate. And the devices selected aren’t uniform across districts, either.
“We’re definitely a local-control state,” Dodson told those in attendance. “So our districts, that is determined by their policies at that level. At the state level, we have guidance around resources that come out. We certainly have a lot of correlation documents, a lot of suggestions and resource guides that deal with some of the content that’s available, but we try to stay away from dictating that.”
Dodson's office facilitated the creation of an eLearning Coach Community, a Google community with 197 coaches in the state who provide professional development resources for school IT professionals statewide. It also offers three levels of competitive grants: Innovation Planning, Digital Learning, and Imagining and Creating. Educators in the state also get a free full subscription to NBC Learn K-12, which operates on Pearson's OLE platform.
"We try to provide those kind of things to help support our teachers," Dodson said, additionally citing the eLearning office's social media presence and the chats it hosts for teachers and administrators.
Last year, a consortium of nine districts using the Imagining and Creating grants — which emphasized digital content, customized learning, and flexible scheduling — created digital lessons and units that were made available through Lightspeed Systems' My Big Campus LMS. The teacher-created content comes packaged in "bundles," over 900 of which are currently offered across content areas. To maintain consistency, the teachers also created checklists and templates, and each district has a person who ensures those lessons meet the criteria outlined in Indiana's standards. Approved lessons are badged by My Big Campus for quality.
The amount of 1:1 deployments in the state has also allowed more flexibility in terms of the school day. "Maybe because you have technology, learning doesn't just happen between 7 and 3 and inside of four walls," Dodson said.
The state's flex plan allowed kids to continue learning at home while teachers went in for professional development — and during the polar vortex that continually slammed a huge chunk of the nation with snow this winter. Dodson said 40 districts took advantage of that model, with those days continuing to count toward the state's 180-school-day requirement, as kids were able to continue their learning through a LMS.
"Our state superintendent felt very strongly about giving our districts some kind of an option that would keep them from going to school until July," said Dodson. "We had a list of criteria that each district had to sign off on, because we didn't want to come down and try to micromanage — certainly in the middle of winter, when we didn't have the capacity to do that — but we also wanted to be sure that students' needs were being met."
While each community had a different way of doing that, whether opening schools for students without Web access or working with local community organizations, and it opened many teachers' eyes to the benefits of learning management systems.
With new standards on the way, the eLearning office also created 52 online communities where teachers can interact with the state's college and career ready standards that are set to replace the Common Core.
On a game-based learning note, Dodson mentioned that some social studies and English classes in the state are using Minecraft, and her office is exploring ways games are being implemented.
"We're not quite as far along as Indiana is on all those resources, but we do have a few things going on," said Laurence Cocco, director of the New Jersey Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology.
Within the educational technology office, Cocco's Division of Innovation is working with other offices in the department to create a "complimentary suite of resources for New Jersey educators."
Within that suite are: InnovateNJ, edConnectNJ, NJ CORE, an update to the state's technology standards aligned to the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, and the New Jersey Digital Learning and Assessment Portal. Oh, and among the proposed updates to the technology standards? The addition of computational thinking, which will include coding and programming, and updated terminology around things like social media. The standards were last updated five years ago.
The InnovateNJ initiative has three components: Community, which provides a place for educators to work together in developing innovative best practices; Clearinghouse, which provides insight into partners, providers, and solutions; and Initiatives, which includes information on programs currently sponsored by New Jersey's education department.
The state's instructional improvement system, edConnectNJ is federally funded by Race to the Top grants and gives districts applications that help meet student achievement and data goals. The resource exchange, NJ CORE, aims to be a one-stop-shop for teachers searching for resources for the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards.
Finally, the New Jersey Learning and Assessment Portal is configured to help the state keep track of readiness for the incoming PARCC exams. "For the first year, the emphasis is on the minimum standards for the test," Cocco said. "But we're about to launch the second phase, where we'll be able to run readiness reports out of the database — not only on the minimum standards, but on the recommended standards."
In the next year, the state will produce digital learning data parameters letting districts see how they compare on digital learning. "Our mantra all along has been, 'Yes, we did join PARCC and we are doing Common Core State Standards, but it's not about assessments. It's about digital learning.' Learning comes before assessments."
Finally, the state contracted with a consulting group and hired a dozen consultants between November 2013 and May 2014 to prepare the state’s schools technologically for PARCC. A Regional Broadband Purchasing Consortium that was also launched is aimed at reducing bandwidth cost up to 85%.
As an aside, Cocco sees games in the classroom as something that's not really being embraced, but he is a guild officer in a group called Gamers Advancing Meaningful Education and studies how games like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars are used in meaningful education, such as the "A Hero's Journey" English/language arts curriculum.
Cocco stated at one point during his presentation that the "entire paradigm of what education is needs to be reexamined.”
“It’s not teaching them content, it’s teaching them how to have a lifelong curiosity”
Up last was the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction's director of digital teaching and learning, Neill Kimrey, whose team of 14 supports the planning, implementation, and evaluation of technology in the state's schools and districts, while also offering professional development and supporting school librarians and media center coordinators. He focused primarily on legislation.
"We happen to have a state legislature that has been very supportive of digital teaching and learning," he said. "For over 15 years, we've had a dedicated fund that goes to all public schools for instructional technology types of things, and that's a very open fund. It can be used for anything but people. You can't pay salaries with those dollars."
This fund's size varies each year, but Kimrey noted that the legislature has kept the funding in the state's budget even in tough economic times. "Right now, it's between usually $10 million to $18 million a year that is then split up by student population in schools and districts."
All public school districts and most charter schools in the state are connected to the North Carolina Research and Education Network, and as a result of its school connectivity fund, they pay nothing for Internet access and are reimbursed the amount the federal e-rate program doesn't pay for their WAN access.
"They can take those funds and really put them toward classroom learning instead of just on infrastructure," he said.
He spoke to the state's Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee, along with Mooresville Graded School District CTO Dr. Scott Smith, in October 2011 about digital textbooks. They told the state they wanted to see more than just flat PDF texts and that rich interactive material was necessary, and a study commission was assembled to make recommendations.
- Ensure all educators are digitally competent
- Fund only digital textbooks and instructional materials by 2017
- Create a definition for high density wireless for North Carolina schools and conduct inventory
- Flexibility with funding to support digital teaching and learning, namely the ability to use lottery proceeds
All but one recommendation was adopted into law:
- The North Carolina State Board will adopt a uniform set of digital competencies by 2017
- The state will fund only digital textbooks and instructional materials by 2017
- Over $11 million biennially will be earmarked from lottery proceeds for professional development and digital content to support digital teaching and learning in the state's public schools. A million of those dollars were also put toward the creation of a digital learning program at North Carolina State University's Institute for Educational Innovation.
“Sometimes you kind of have to dig into the legislature and educate them to make sure that you're able to educate your students," Kimrey said.
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