I love sharing stories of educators who are clearly “getting it right” with regard to innovations in teaching and learning – specifically, the increasingly important role mobile technology is playing in the enhancement of student learning outcomes.

In February, I posted an article in conjunction with national Digital Learning Day, Making School a Digital Dream. We explored Lake Tahoe Unified School District’s (LTUSD) approach to bridging the digital divide by providing every student from third to twelfth grade a netbook computer enabled with mobile broadband connectivity. By using technology to re-energize both teachers’ and students’ approach to learning, and by providing students with the Internet access many did not previously have at home, LTUSD was able to dramatically improve adequate yearly progress (AYP) scores by nearly 6.8% among non-native English language learners at the high school level – and by nearly 2.3% district-wide!

Every student can learn

Recently, we learned of another forward-thinking district that is looking to technology to help level the playing field for all students, expanding upon their core belief that “every student can learn.” This fall, Fresno’s Central USD equipped every teacher, instructional coach, and school site administrator with a tablet computer, embedded with mobile broadband capability. The district will begin training these leaders to develop relevant, innovative, and technology-centric curriculum in preparation for a Fall 2014 district-wide initiative that will place tablets in the hands of all students – nearly 15,000 of them!

When asked why equal access through technology is so important to his district, Superintendent Mike Berg indicated that while each student has an innate ability to learn, many arrive at school bearing a significant experiential disadvantage compared to their peers. The district has found that students from differing backgrounds – as a result of socioeconomics, culture, or parental experiences – often do not share the same initial context for a particular classroom lesson. This is due to differing individual opportunities to travel, explore… and experience.

Closing the experiential gap

We now know that a student’s uptake of information can be delayed or impeded by their respective lack of opportunity. Superintendent Berg notes, “We have coined a phrase, the ‘experiential gap’ to identify the source issue. We believe that if we can close the experiential gap through technology, every student can learn and can come to school more prepared — [gaining] exposure to a broader array of experiences through technological access. It is the closing of the experiential gap that will facilitate the most rapid closure of the achievement gap, and will enable students to reach their highest potential.”

Read more of Superintendent Mike Berg’s thoughts on the benefits of mobile learning technology:

 

AT&T:  You’ve talked about the difference between closing the achievement gap and closing the experiential gap.  Can you elaborate on why this distinction is important?  How will the introduction of mobile technology in the district affect change in both of these areas?

Mike:   The achievement gap assumes we can close the outcome gap by raising all students to the same level. We know that to be illogical based on students’ biological differences and learning abilities. We know that every student can learn, but also know that they learn in very different ways, at different paces, and end up in different places. Our mission is to be sure we facilitate the maximum gain per student per year, regardless of where they start or finish. We call this ‘meeting a student where they are’.

Closing the experiential gap means, through technology, a student who has no context for tide-pools, as an example, can be taken [to the ocean] to understand what they are, where they are, and what role they play in an ecosystem – before approaching a lesson in class. Students who have been fortunate enough to travel to the ocean prior to such a lesson would otherwise have an advantage, if not for the technological exposure and experience less fortunate students can now get.

AT&T:  You’ve expressed a goal for Central USD to create a “textbook-less” learning environment within the next two years.  What benefits to the student learning experience does digital content bring?

Mike:   Digital content, in the form of interactive/adaptive software, brings learning to life. Students, and teachers for that matter, quickly grow tired of antiquated information in a two-dimensional format. Research shows that learning occurs when the learner is engaged in the activity of learning, not just talked-to or given information. To abandon traditional textbooks is a goal that will encourage publishers to bring the same lessons and knowledge to the classroom, but to do it in a digital format that interacts with the learner, much like the word processing software of today automatically detects errors in a document and makes suggestions that the user can consider and incorporate as a learning moment.

AT&T:  Is dynamic and interactive digital learning content readily available today, or has the district looked to nontraditional sources to build a digital curriculum? 

Mike:   Some truly interactive/adaptive content is available, but it is very limited. Many sources have taken their content and digitized it, but it is for all intents and purposes, still static information on a screen. Central is partnering with three different sources to develop true interactive/adaptive digital lessons, based on the California Common Core State Standards. This enables us to get content that is current, relevant to our learning outcomes, and that can vertically articulate for the varying levels of students in every grade. Vertical articulation is another critical factor that traditional textbooks can’t address.

AT&T:  Have faculty in the district been reluctant to adopt a new way of teaching, where technology plays a much more prominent role? What is your plan for helping teachers make the leap to this new model of teaching and learning?

Mike:   We suspected that teachers and administrators might be apprehensive about the transition to technology, as compared to our students. We designed and implemented a professional development series that each teacher attends over the course of a year. Every teacher will have a tablet device, and will receive training for a full year before students get their devices in August of 2014. It is critically important that teachers are comfortable with the operating system (Android), the learning management system, and the interactive/adaptive software before they encounter students with some of the same issues.

AT&T:  To what extent have your teachers embraced or been encouraged to explore publicly available online resources and integrate them into their individual lesson planning?

Mike:   We purposefully identified the challenges our students face as a result of the inadequacies of textbooks, and due to the experiential gap. Teachers and administrators embraced the need to do something differently. We then offered teachers from every grade level and content area in the district to join our Educational Services leadership team to begin the process of developing solutions through digital content. The notion has been so well embraced that others want to join in anticipation of what we are creating. This energy has led to a great deal of enthusiasm in anticipation of the full-scale rollout.

AT&T:  Have you had to create any new staff positions as a function of this initiative, or how will previously existing instructional technology and curriculum design roles change?

Mike:   We created one new position, Director of Instructional Technology, to be responsible for research, system oversight, and to facilitate activities between various district staff with responsibility for component parts of the initiative. Otherwise, the four Assistant Superintendents (Ed Services, Professional Development, Human Resources, and Business Services) are taking the lead for their respective divisions.

AT&T:  What does the introduction of mobile technology and access mean to the families of your students, and to the broader community supporting Central?  Do you plan to measure this impact in any way?

Mike:   We know that nearly 40% of our families have no Internet connectivity due to socioeconomics, lack of infrastructure from signal providers, or lack of knowledge about what they are missing. Central USD is proud to have an opportunity to enrich the lives of our community, and reduce any disadvantage our less fortunate learners might have – by ensuring every student and their parent(s) have access to learning, data, attendance information, and communication with the district.

Our simple [impact] measure is knowing that once fully implemented, all homes, verses 60% of our families, will have Internet access. Once implemented, the learning outcomes benefit will be measured through our technology based assessments, district wide.

AT&T:  Are there plans to leverage this technology initiative to enhance parent/district interaction and engagement?  Are you evaluating tools which will help parents and teachers be more collaborative toward a child’s learning?

Mike:   Our learning management system will be the tool through which we leverage the technology well beyond our learning goals. It will be an omnipresent source for two-way communication between parents, teachers, administration and district staff. It will provide immediate access to grades, attendance, standardized testing data, and resources to keep emergency files updated. It can also serve as our emergency notification system once fully operational.

 

Clearly, Central USD is a district which believes that a 1:1 mobile learning program is about more than providing equal access to a device and to the Internet – it’s also about removing experiential barriers, giving every student the opportunity to explore, and encouraging them to dream far beyond what may have previously been possible.

From my perspective, that’s an outcome which is truly greater than the sum of its parts!