Profs: Schools need to understand potential of 'digital rich teaching'

On Board Online • June 12, 2017

By Eric D. Randall

First of a two-part series

Buying students devices that connect to the internet was made easier by the Smart Schools Bond Act. But figuring out how to use such devices most effectively in the classroom is a challenge now facing every school district with a 1:1 computing program.

Schools are entering a new world of teaching and learning in which the strength of a school's Wi-Fi signal becomes as important as having heat, light and plumbing, according to professors at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester.

The idea is that buying devices is not enough; teaching has to transform and evolve to take full advantage of what's possible with the new technology.

The Warner School has invented a term for this new vanguard in education: "digitally rich teaching."

"As a school of education, we want to be where people want to go to learn to use these technologies," said Raffaella Borasi, dean of education. "We need to ask people to teach in a different way than they were taught. You need to give people an image of what's possible with the device."

With internet-connected devices in the hands of every student, teachers have new ways to inspire "deep learning," according to Borasi. While definitions of that term vary, what Borasi hopes to see in more classrooms is a personalized form of education in which instruction is paced to the needs, learning style, and specific interests of individual students, with ample opportunities for creative expression, independent research and feedback from both peers and the instructor.

At the same time, teachers and administrators will have better, homegrown ways to assess student mastery of standards and other educational objectives.

Schools will need to abandon or reduce some traditional methods of teaching (e.g., printed worksheets) and adapt other teaching methods to a new digital environment, according to Dave Miller, an assistant professor at the Warner School who teaches classes on “Digitally-Rich Teaching and Learning in K-12 Schools.”

Among the key decisions in "digital conversion": choosing an umbrella software platform that will enable teachers and students to do work online, 24/7. Called a learning management system (LMS), it might be described as a daily collaboration tool for teachers, students and others.

An LMS provides an online space that students can use to submit work, access educational apps, monitor their own progress and interact with classmates or the teacher, among myriad other functions. Administrators and parents can use it to monitor progress. Popular ones include Blackboard, Canvas, Google Classroom, Moodle and Schoology.

Borasi said she is particularly intrigued by ways that digitally rich teaching may be able to enhance social equity in schools. "We have groups of students that are underperforming, and we have to do something to level the playing field," she said. It can be harder to be invisible with digitally rich teaching, she said, because peer interaction and teacher feedback are routine, and students seem engaged in new ways when you put a device in their hands.

While students do seem to love to use devices, that is not the point of digital conversion, said Miller. Rather, he said, 1:1 computing environments (in which every student has an internet-ready device) give teachers a large new set of ways to get students engaged with material.

Students aren't passive learners in digitally rich classrooms, he added. When students can use the internet to do research and have multiple ways of presenting information, including making videos or creating a game, educators must transition from being providers of information to facilitators of learning.

Whether a 1:1 device is involved or not, "good teaching is good teaching," Miller added.

The university has been working with a consortium of two dozen school districts to help them navigate through all the changes and decisions associated with digital conversion. The university's main partner has been the East Irondequoit school district, whose achievements in digital conversion have earned it a site visit by the National School Boards Association's Technology Leadership Network, coming up in November.


Look for the second part of this series, on East Irondequoit's digital conversion, in the July 3 issue of On Board.

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