We interview Barbara Treacy, Director, EdTech Leaders Online about the future of digital learning and the progress of innovation in American public education.

We are a fan of the NYC iZone.  How should we encourage more innovation?
In working in states and districts across the country, I am encouraged by the desire, dedication, and abilities of teachers and leaders to innovate; but I agree that many districts are still not maximizing the potential of digital learning.  I find that once educators begin to experience the potential of online learning or the ability to personalize learning using technology, they want to learn more and do more to meet the needs of their students.  For a true evolution, we need a more systemic approach, including a shift in policies to accommodate technology, buy-in from district and school leaders to encourage and support the use of technology, and the tools, resources and connectivity needed to implement digital learning effectively.

We also need to realize that teaching online, in a blended environment, or with technology requires effective professional development for teachers and leaders.  A two-hour workshop or training on how to use a tool is not sufficient to support the transformational changes in pedagogy, in the role of the teacher, in the structure of schooling, in assessment, and more, that digital learning affords. Teachers and leaders need on-going, job-embedded opportunities that provide support and enable collaboration. These kinds of opportunities can be delivered creatively and effectively with digital learning and online communities, which can not only connect teachers locally but can also scale across a state and/or nationally.

Other critical ingredients include a willingness to take risks and an approach that enables educators to learn collaboratively from our mistakes and our successes.

News Corp purchased Wireless Generation last month. What will they need to do to promote achievement and equity?

Companies like News Corp. have helped to create the technologies that have transformed nearly every aspect of day-to-day life and almost every industry. In the education realm, Wireless Generation has been a leader in developing innovative technology tools and systems that can transform student assessment and enable customized curriculum to meet individual student learning needs.   The potential of digital learning is becoming more and more apparent – to engage students, to personalize learning, and to ensure students achieve, though education in general continues to lag behind in the use of technology compared to other industries.   Companies like eBay, Amazon, or Google use data to develop personalized recommendations or to predict what a customer may want to search for based upon previous preferences, interests, or geographic location.  Education can similarly mine data to personalize learning for students with immediate feedback on achievement and understanding

We are seeing a shift in education from traditional publishers and providers, and the influx of companies like News Corp and Wireless Generation could certainly accelerate the needed transformation in schools.  It will critically important that these companies use research and input from educators and students to inform their products, to ensure that they meet student learning goals and support learning for all students.  It is also important that professional development for educators be understood as central to successful implementation of these products.

Barbara Treacy, Director, EdTech Leaders Online

What makes a good ed tech leader, and how can we make more teachers and school leaders experts in this field?

This is a great question, and it gets to the heart of the work we’ve been doing at EDC in online professional development. We’ve been training educators to be online learning leaders by preparing them to facilitate online courses for other educators or for students, and to create online content that can be used with colleagues or students. Training occurs in online learning communities, requiring educators to learn in a digital environment and to apply the 21st century and higher-order thinking skills they want their students to use. This experience is often transformational; educators often report that the preparation and modeling to engage in inquiry-based, reflective discussions that are so important in online learning, did not occur in their pre-service coursework. This training frequently impacts all aspects of their practice, including their traditional classroom teaching.  We see good edtech leaders created at the grass roots on a regular basis, when they are empowered to develop new online teaching skills, to use digital tools, to create online content, and/or to experience learning in a dynamic online environment with new instructional models.

Do you agree that we need more teachers who are conversant in digital learning and who have the permission to pursue those strategies with more flexible policies governing their work?

I often find that the discussions pitting digital learning strategies against traditional strategies lack a true understanding of the role of online and blended learning and technology in education.  In almost every case, technology has the potential to enhance student learning by addressing more learning styles or modalities; to allow teachers to personalize learning for more students due to digital content and readily available data; and to increase access to courses, content, or experts beyond the traditional classroom.  Effective teachers will continue to be at the core of digital learning strategies, though their roles are changing.  Teachers may work more in teams, teach and provide individualized feedback online, or facilitate learning.  Increasing the understanding of how technology can accelerate change for students, and sharing effective models of how and when it does, may begin to break down the walls that make the argument an “either or” discussion and move the discussion into one of how we take advantage of all of the various strategies, digital or traditional, that make a difference for students. As funding models move towards more competency based learning, the “either or” logjam will decrease, and the focus will be on student success rather than structures that apply to an outdated model of schooling.

Governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise launched the Digital Learning Now! initiative last week. They put together ten guidelines for forming better policy that facilitates digital learning. What do you expect more states to do in the way of fostering better access to digital learning?

While many states and districts have been working to implement online and blended learning and utilize technology for teaching and learning, we are just beginning to see the potential of how digital learning can transform our education system. The Digital Learning Now efforts highlight the importance of state policies to encourage and allow more students to take advantage of online and blended learning courses and technology integrated into the classroom. Because many state level policies were developed before the influx of technology into our lives, they frequently hinder the ability of states and districts to pursue digital learning. For example, teacher certification laws often limit the ability of a teacher certified in one state to teach a student in another.  Seat time, or Carnegie unit, requirements may force students to be in an actual building for a set amount of time rather than allowing for online or competency-based learning options.  The 10 Digital Learning Now elements push states and districts to consider how they can maximize technology to increase student opportunities and learning. It will be particularly important to continue the dialog around ways to advance student learning through effective professional development that takes advantage of digital tools and content. The Digital Learning Now Report also includes an excellent list of suggestions to help states move forward with digital learning, such as organizing a state level Digital Learning Summit with a broad range of stakeholders where all these discussions can take place.

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