Future of Learning

Preparing for the future: Summits to help schools make smart technology choices

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As more schools move to incorporate technology into classrooms, local leaders often face tough questions about how to make it effective.

Over the next six months, national experts will hop-scotch to a dozen cities to collaborate with school leaders in workshops on those questions. If all goes as planned, the superintendents who attend will walk away with solid technology plans that fit their communities’ needs.

“What we are trying to do is help those districts who are really on the leading edge,” said Richard Culatta, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.

Photo by Jennifer Dev

These workshops are the next step in a national effort to encourage more schools to infuse technology into the classroom. This initiative, Future Ready Schools, is organized through a partnership between the U.S. Department of Education and the Alliance for Excellent Education, Washington, D.C., policy and advocacy organization.

The conversations are expected to tackle issues such as teacher training, student data privacy, instruction and budgets. The organizers say they want to encourage school leaders to focus on creating educational goals. Schools need to make clear plans for how technology will improve outcomes for students, officials said.

“We have put up a big stop sign,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former governor of West Virginia. “Plan before you purchase. Don’t purchase and plan.”

Related: A quest for a different learning model: Playing games in school

The consequences of a failed technology plan are illustrated in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s promise to give every student an iPad; the $1.3 billion effort is widely viewed as a case study in what not to do, and it led to the resignation of the district’s superintendent. School officials there are still debating what to do next. In a report released publicly last week, the U.S. Department of Education cited lack of planning and poor communication among the reasons why the high-profile effort flopped.

“If you do stuff wrong, it can be a huge distraction from learning,” said Culatta, who added that he believes the success stories outnumber the failures.

So far, about 1,600 school leaders have signed a Future Ready pledge to signal they are committed to the goals of this program. The regional summits are open to local leaders who have signed the pledge and agree to some homework in advance. The must complete an assessment at www.futurereadyschools.org, designed as a pre-workshop planning tool that will help school leaders think about what they want to accomplish in the classroom.

“This is not about how many computers they have or the broadband speed,” Wise said. “It’s more about the culture of the district.”

Related: After 20 years, a teacher reinvents her classroom using technology

Bart Rocco, the superintendent of the Elizabeth Forward School District near Pittsburgh, Pa., is one of the local leaders helping plan a regional summit. His district was recognized for its innovative use of technology by Digital Promise, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that spotlights schools with promising ideas for using technology to improve learning. The district has worked with Carnegie Mellon University to craft lessons that use games in the classroom, for example. Students flourish when given the chance to learn in ways that make use of technology, he said.

“That’s the way they roll. That’s the world they are in,” Rocco said. “We need to make sure schools are preparing them. And we need to make sure our teachers are prepared for it.”

Participants in these summits will not sit through presentations. They will work together on their plans. The national experts are available to answer questions. These events are being planned with the help of more than 30 private organizations and dozens of local school officials.

“We really tried hard to build a coalition who have really proven themselves in the field over time,” Culatta said.

The cities in which summit meetings will be held, in chronological order starting Feb. 11, 2015, are Raleigh, N.C., Vancouver, Wash., Baltimore, Atlanta, Phoenix, Providence. R.I., St. Louis, Mo., San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Dallas.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about digital learning.

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