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Former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise co-chairs the Digital Learning Council with Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida. This council aims to promote the adoption of high-quality digital content and instruction throughout the nation’s public schools. Wise is also president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, an organization devoted to high-school reform, and chair of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. He spoke with The Hechinger Report recently about technology’s role in the future of teaching and learning.
What is “digital learning”?
Digital learning is a way to significantly increase the learning experience between students and teachers, using the effective application of digital technology. Digital technology takes many forms. It can involve online video, software, e-mail, virtual classrooms…
Simply having technology in a classroom does not guarantee that you’re going to be effective. Putting smart boards in every classroom and not utilizing them to their maximum or simply giving every child a laptop—yeah, you’re using technology. But it’s not necessarily effective. To me, digital learning is about the use of technology, but the key is making sure it’s an effective application of technology.
Is this about replacing teachers with cheaper software and computers?
It’s absolutely not. Anyone who says laptops are causing layoffs is just dead wrong. State budgets are what they are. If you didn’t have one computer, unfortunately, there would be teachers laid off.
What technology is about is enabling teachers to be what the military calls “force multipliers,” to become even more effective. In the world of blended learning, where you’re using technology in a traditional school setting, technology can free up teachers to give more personalized instruction: responding to the learning needs of every student instead of delivering a lecture where it’s one-size-fits-all.
The irony is, if technology proves to be cost-effective, it will result in saving teaching jobs instead of getting rid of them. I’ve gone through painful consolidations in West Virginia, a rural state. I know from personal experience if students have access to quality digital learning, there’s a much better chance that a rural school stays open. They’ll be able to offer the same high-quality courses like Mandarin Chinese or advanced physics that students everywhere else in the country get.
Unfortunately teachers are getting laid off because of reasons that have nothing to do with technology. The question is whether we’re going to give teachers the tools—through technology—to make them more effective.
How can school systems get this right and use technology properly in the classroom?
The wrong way is simply to say, “Technology—okay, looks like we’re going to buy a laptop for everybody.”
Every student needs an Internet access device. And what you need with that Internet access device is a complete strategy about how you’re going to use it effectively. The key for every school—for every school district, for every state—is to have a strategy. In that strategy, you set your goals: What is it that you need to address? How do you intend to improve student outcomes? What are the particular challenges that technology can address? And you develop or get the technology that meets those needs.
Policymakers, to my mind, need to adopt the 10 elements behind a high-quality digital learning system. Technology is like water: You can’t hold it back. What you want to do is provide the flexibility to go where it needs to get and to be most effective in its application.
Finally, technology advances at an exponential pace. You don’t try to apply the same procedures that you use to purchase textbooks to technology. You develop procurement procedures and review procedures that reflect technology itself—as opposed to trying to strap technology onto a 100-year-old system.
If all works out well, how do you see the future of the digital classroom five or so years from now? Can you paint us a picture?
What I see is a student showing up at what on the outside is a traditional school building. But inside, it’s a totally different learning experience.
The student may start first period in a traditional class where the teacher is delivering a lecture and the student interacts with the teacher. Maybe there’s no digital content, a straight-forward lecture.
Second class: The student goes down the hall to a cubicle to take a virtual course because it’s not offered in the school. Perhaps Mandarin Chinese or an AP course or a remedial course that the student needs. There is a teacher that the student can call on if necessary, but the student essentially takes that course online, responds online and takes the assessments online.
Third period: The student goes back to a blended classroom, where the content is actually coming to him or her online. They may be digitally hearing from a member of Congress in a civics class. Or there may be a presentation and an interaction with a professor in San Francisco. The teacher in the classroom is available to both answer questions and to direct students where to go for certain information. Finally, and most importantly, the teacher is there to help each student’s individual needs instead of the teacher having to prepare and deliver each lecture herself or himself.
At the end of the day, the bell rings. Some may go to a Boys and Girls club, a museum, a church or home. But they’re constantly engaged—because digital learning is something that takes place any time. They’re probably interacting by email with classroom teachers or online teachers until eight or nine at night. Digital learning is a 24/7 experience.