Build Your House on a Strong Foundation: Setting up the Digital Classroom

I have spent much of my time in the last few years working with districts (and even states and countries) on scaling 1:1 initiatives, transforming culture, and personalizing learning. One of the things that I have consistently noticed is that district leaders have a difficult time finding the right balance between allowing principals and teachers the freedom and autonomy to innovate, while requiring standardization on certain frameworks that are necessary to power up their success.

One place where a standardized framework can be very helpful is in the digital learning environment. Think about the way a typical classroom is structured. When you walk into a school most of the classrooms look alike. They have similar furniture, they have a board you can right on, there is a place to store materials, etc. When a new teacher is hired we don’t point them to a pile of bricks and 2 x 4s and ask them to build their own classroom.

Imagine the time it would take for a teacher to actually build their own classroom. The same is true with the digital classroom. Throughout my entire career when I ask teachers their greatest need they invariably answer “TIME.” With all of the things we are requiring teachers to do today, do we really want them to spend vast amounts of time trying to figure out how to create a digital classroom on their own? With a staff of 40 teachers, do we need them to recreate the wheel 40 times, as they figure out the best way to digitally organize content, store resources, collaborate with students, and share with colleagues, parents and their students?

There are other consequences when we ask teachers to create their own digital classroom. Some teachers are not comfortable with technology and have been successful without it. These teachers usually struggle to see the benefit of making the digital shift, and are very reluctant to spend the time and effort it will take to create their own digital learning environment.

The early adopters, on the other hand, probably started creating their digital learning environment before devices even landed in their classroom. They rely on their network and Internet investigations to choose tools that other teachers have endorsed, and provide a solution to the classroom organization issue they are trying to address. These teachers gravitate toward free, or freemium products such as Google Apps for Education, Edmodo, or Schoology. The result is that within one school building teachers are often using half a dozen different products or more for their digital classroom. Students, then, have several logins they need to memorize (and very often forget!), and several platforms they need to learn to navigate. They are not able to take advantage of the efficiency gained by having everything in one place. From single sign, to access to content, assignments and grades, not having a standardized platform costs student and teacher time, and can result in organizational, and productivity issues.

All teachers can benefit from standardizing the digital learning environment in a few other important ways. By using the same platform across a district, teachers can easily collaborate with their colleagues on grade level or content area units of instruction. The digital learning objects one teacher using in a lesson (articles, videos, websites, apps, etc.) can easily be reviewed and built into lesson plans by any other teacher in the district. Using the same platform also allows for common data collection and analytics that teachers can use to assess what is working and what is not as they collaborate.

I have only outlined a few of the main benefits of standardizing the digital learning environment, but hopefully you are beginning to see the value. If you are ready to take the next step, here are some steps that may help you through the process.

  1. Find out what digital solutions teachers are currently using to organize and deliver digital content, for student communication and collaboration, and to share what is happening in their classroom with parents. Ask them what they like about these solutions, and what other functionality they would like to have.
  2. Generate a comprehensive list of functionality the platform needs to have, and make sure everyone has a voice in the conversation.
  3. Investigate products that have the functionality you desire, narrow your list to the best few, and have the companies provide demonstrations. Invite representatives from all of your user groups (administrators, teachers, students and parents) to take part in the demos. Also talk with other districts that are using the products you are thinking about, and ask them what they like and don’t like about it.
  4. Come to a consensus with the representative group on a final product recommendation.
  5. Publicly announce the recommendation and include the implementation timeline, the expectations for the various user groups, and the support everyone will receive as you implement.

Whether you decide together on a full feature LMS like Canvas for your digital learning environment, or you use free resources such as Google Classroom or Edmodo, it is essential that everyone uses the solution if you are to reap the benefits. I often use jazz as an example to help districts understand the importance of standardizing these digital learning environment frameworks. People who are not musicians often think that jazz musicians are free to play whatever they want when they improvise.  A jazz musician probably could play anything they wanted if they were practicing by themselves in their basement. To play jazz in an ensemble, however, there are very specific harmonic and rhythmic frameworks within which the band and soloists work. Without everyone using these frameworks it would be impossible to make beautiful music together.

The platform for the digital classroom is only one aspect of the standardized frameworks that can be valuable in the digital learning environment. In my next blog I will discuss the value of an instructional framework.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute

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