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At The Hechinger Report, we’re trying to learn—and share—as much as possible about the ways digital learning is changing American schools. We’ve recently conducted Q&As with former Governor of West Virgina Bob Wise and video game writer and designer-turned-college-professor Lee Sheldon. This week we spoke to Lisa Gillis, president of Integrated Educational Strategies, a nonprofit that helps schools and districts develop digital solutions to improving student learning. Gillis—who is at the forefront of blended learning, which combines face-to-face instruction with online learning tools—spoke with us about how digital platforms are being put in place around the country.
For the states that are ahead of the game, how are they doing? Is there concrete implementation happening? If so, what does that look like?
I don’t think any of the states are there yet. I think this is just a discussion that’s been brought to the forefront in the last 24 months. States are beginning to look at their legislative cycles and the policies and all of the environment of education within that state. It’s somewhat of a slow-moving process. But it is being driven by the students themselves, by the parents, and people within the education fabric that really want to see this change made. A group called Project Tomorrow gave a 2011 congressional briefing on a recent report. It talks about how we’re seeing an increase in support for online textbooks and digital integration within the classroom, and says that nearly 30 percent of high-school students have experienced some type of online learning. That’s huge! We’re seeing a rapid change that’s being driven by all segments. And frankly, a lot of times it’s the adults who are trying to figure out how to adapt to this change. We know that the kids are ‘digital natives.’ We know that this is their native language. And if you think about it … what we’re doing now in our current system is requiring those kids to leave their native language at the door and come into the classroom and learn in a way that is very different from how they’ve been raised.
This begs the question of the digital divide. How can a movement like this reach the portion of the population who can’t afford to have a computer or digital device at home, or who attend schools that aren’t equipped with the proper technology?
That was one of the things that we studied in the Digital Learning Council. That goes back to that point of access. That is one of the ways that schools can actually provide this kind of infrastructure. I was working recently with a school in Detroit and a lot of the kids didn’t have computers at home but the school was able to provide them and the kids could learn within the site-based environment itself. There are lots of community services like public libraries that provide these kinds of services for kids. And that’s the whole point—it has to be fair, and it has to be equal access for all. So how do we provide that is the question. There’s a lot of School Improvement Grants and others that have technological inspirations and they’re [handing out] iPads or other technical devices that kids can check out and take home at night. Of course, there are a lot of protocol issues tied to that and folks are working through those as we go down this path. But it’s a great way of bringing kids into the digital age.
Why is it so important to include a digital platform in education?
It’s important because we need to prepare our kids for the twenty-first century global marketplace. It’s no longer that you’re going to graduate from high school and work at the local hardware store. The walls have been broken down and kids have to understand now how their colleagues in China and India act and behave and learn on the Internet. So those kids who do not graduate, who do not have the ability to learn, research and communicate within the digital-learning atmosphere, they’re going to be at a disadvantage when they enter the workplace. And it doesn’t matter what job you do. Across our whole society, digital tools are integrated—except for in the classroom. We have to bridge this disconnect between what kids are experiencing on a day-by-day basis outside of the classroom with the learning that’s going on inside the classroom.
You brought up that it’s often the adults who need to catch up. Could you talk about that from the teacher preparation side? What needs to happen to prepare teachers who can better work with digital natives?
Interesting point. That’s exactly what my nonprofit, Integrated Educational Strategies, does. We have a whole blended redesign process. It’s a blueprint that we use with schools. So schools say, ‘We want to do blended learning. How do we do it?’ and our team are one of the most experienced blended learning education teams in the United States. There has to be a strategic plan that gets put in place and part of that is, ‘Who are the students you want to reach? What are their needs? What are the needs of the teacher? What desire does the teacher have to do this? And what kind of support can we give that teacher so they really can re-architect their classroom to allow for personalized instruction that would lead to individualized learning?’ And that is the power of the Internet.
… If we say, ‘Let me help you with a learning management system that will give you a daily read out of how all your 30 kids did.’ You’ll see that Nick tried to take that assessment four times and the highest he got was a 60 percent. And then you can click on something else and see the exact questions that you missed … The amount of insight that we can gather by using these digital tools is incredible. And we can really help the teacher: a) make her job easier; b) give her more information, more data on how to inform her instruction; and c) we can easily identify kids who are falling behind immediately so that literally no child is left behind.
Are there any concrete, convincing examples of digital initiatives improving education anywhere in the country?
There are a couple. First, we’re not talking about the tool itself—we’ve had computers in the classroom for 20 or 25 years—we’re talking about how we’re going to use the tool to increase learning. … One example: the U.S. Department of Education did a meta-analysis and when we talk about blended instruction, they have reported that in their study, the students who participated in blended learning actually outperformed either their peers who were in full-time online or full-time face to face [classes]. So that’s a big one. Another report is “The Rise of the K-12 Blended Learning” by the Innosight Institute. They identified six models of blended learning and then highlighted 30 sites. Our site is in it for a project we did in northern California.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.