The Components of a Digital Age Learning Ecosystem

An ecosystem is a system formed by the interaction of a community of living organisms with each other and their environment. (Dictionary.com, 2014)

When I visit a digital age classroom where students are actively using technology tools for inquiry and creating new products to show their learning, I see a similarity to an ecosystem. The students and teacher interact within the classroom environment in an organic way to construct learning experiences. What are the components of this digital age learning ecosystem? What facilitates a sustainable learning environment that endures over time and through adversity? After reading my suggested attributes of a digital age learning ecosystem, post a reply with your own suggestions that I may have overlooked and should consider for future reflection.


A Sense of Community
Teachers intentionally nurture a community in the digital age learning ecosystem. They know the interests, strengths, and challenges of their students, and they are eager to learn alongside them. Rather than viewing themselves as content experts with the primary purpose of directing instruction, teachers in the digital age learning ecosystem relish the roles of learner and explorer. Digital citizenship is ingrained throughout the practices of the classroom. Because students have typically developed their own norms and practices for how they should co-exist with technology, teachers in the digital age learning ecosystem must encourage appropriate netiquette and the responsible use of technology tools and resources.

Essential Questions
Teachers should design lessons or units of study within the digital age learning ecosystem by posing essential, open-ended questions. This strategy provokes deeper thinking and encourages students to develop additional questions for future exploration and possible solution. As teachers frame learning experiences around questions, they promote a stimulating culture of inquiry and innovation.

Captivating Digital Content
Students need access to rich multimedia content, including primary resources and documents in a digital age learning ecosystem. Teachers can model strategies for conducting smart searches for the just right information needed to answer the essential questions of the lesson. That information can be further reviewed for accuracy, authenticity, and relevancy in order to develop the students’ skills with digital literacy. By utilizing a learning object repository, teachers and students can access resources as well as upload and share the content they create within their learning activities.

Assessment for Learning
Teaching rote information to prepare for standardized assessments has dominated classroom practice for the last several years, resulting in teacher-directed learning and high-stakes assignments, grading, and reporting. Conversely, the teacher in the digital age learning ecosystem employs assessment for learning. This practice utilizes more risk-free formative assessments where the teacher continually checks for student understanding so that students are able to freely share their developing ideas and skills. Teachers also use multiple forms of assessment  in the process of learning so that students have more ways to experience success. These forms may include participation in discussion, student-produced content, and multimedia presentations.

Multiple Technology Tools
Whether students use their own technology tools that they bring to school in their pockets and backpacks or utilize school-provided technology resources, these devices develop new purposes within the digital age learning ecosystem. They are the means for building connections among teachers, students, and content. Different resources are also useful for different tasks. So, there may be a situation when a smartphone or a tablet is the appropriate tool for taking a photo, responding to a question, or accessing content, but other situations may require the use of a laptop or desktop computer, broadcast equipment, interactive whiteboard, or 3D printer. Learning when and how to use the right tool for a job are essential functions within the digital age learning ecosystem.

Designs for Differentiation and Accessibility
Because each student is unique, teachers in the digital age learning ecosystem realize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to learning. Students have different strengths and challenges, so their learning experiences should be tailored for those personal differences. Personalizing learning should include support for English language learners and students with academic and physical needs as well as remediation and enrichment opportunities for all students, as needed. Thoughtfully designed accessibility features within the classroom engage all of the learners by reducing factors that may limit success and impede equitable participation.

Supportive Classroom Environment
The classroom environment of the digital age learning ecosystem includes both the physical and online areas that are used and curated by the teacher and students. There are a variety of learning spaces and tools available as needed for the students to use for different learning activities, including nooks for individual innovation and quiet reflection in addition to zones for collaborative work and discussion. The learning environment is vibrant, and furniture and equipment are mobile so that they can be easily rearranged to adjust for multiple learning situations and functions.

Engaging Instructional Strategies
Teachers plan instructional strategies that engage students within the digital age learning ecosystem. With a focus on the skills of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking, the processes involved in learning, rather than just the products, gain new importance. Not only does this focus ensure that students have multiple ways to show evidence of success in the classroom, it also helps them develop the skills necessary for success in their future careers. Digital age teachers consider how they implement these strategies throughout each day and realize that they can facilitate student learning without everyone doing the same thing, at the same time, and in the same way.

Summary
Although I described each of the above components of the digital age learning ecosystem separately, they are all integrated parts. With continued support, this learning environment begins to take on a life of its own as the teacher and students feel a sense of ownership and pride over its sustainable success.

“ecosystem.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 06 Jul. 2014. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ecosystem>.

 

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Embracing the BYOT Mindset

How it begins…

BYOT_MindsetWhen students first bring in their own technology devices for a BYOT initiative, the energy in the classroom crackles with their excitement. They are eager to share how they use those tools for connecting to others, consuming content, and playing games. Teachers usually prepare an introductory activity designed to help their students explore how to learn with BYOT. There are many discussions about apps, websites, networks, and hardware. However, there is a potential for magic to happen through consistent use, high expectations, and sheer determination. The devices blend into the normal part of the process of learning, and the technology becomes invisible. The teachers who are able to conduct that magic trick possess a common understanding – BYOT is a mindset, and here’s the secret; it isn’t about technology after all.

What it is…

The BYOT Mindset is a deeply ingrained (in your bones, even) conviction that students can and should own the learning (or at least share it with their teachers). Just as they own their technology devices, most students also possess an understanding of software, processes, and media that have to be acknowledged as possibilities for deeper learning. The BYOT mindset is more than the understanding of a technology device (most students don’t automatically know how to learn with their technology); rather, the BYOT mindset also takes into consideration that the students have particular knowledge of applications that may be beneficial for their learning.

How you embrace it…

As teachers, we often think that our job is to direct the learning in the classroom. We concoct the perfect recipe of lecture, project, practice, and assessment to lead to student mastery of a concept. However, what would happen if we challenged the students with a relevant question and have them research information and propose solutions to real world problems? Ideally, this situation would lead to greater student engagement and relevancy. The students can utilize their own technology tools in this pursuit of learning, as needed. Teachers can embrace the BYOT mindset by trusting that their students will be connected to their learning as they are challenged to discover for themselves new solutions to authentic problems.

By exhibiting the following five behaviors, teachers can venture along the path to embracing the BYOT mindset.

  1. Share control of the learning
  2. Ask more questions, than give answers.
  3. Realize that BYOT is about understanding as well as devices
  4. Provide access to rich content and resources
  5. Trust your students as members of a learning community

 

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Digital Age Leadership for BYOT

A Note from Tim: Forsyth County Schools in Georgia is in its sixth year of implementing Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT).  Debbie Smith is the principal of Coal Mountain Elementary School, which was featured in NBC News for its use of BYOT.  In this post, Debbie shares her ideas about how she coaches her teachers to embrace digital age learning with BYOT.

Guest Post by Debbie Smith @Napier000
Principal – Coal Mountain Elementary School

From my view point, there is a larger issue than a teacher’s willingness to become digitally competent. Because we greatly value using devices to engage students in their learning and to bring the world into our classrooms, our teachers know that becoming digitally proficient is an expectation.  We provide ongoing professional learning to train teachers in the uses of technology in the classroom and provide mentor teachers if needed.  The truth is that the students are the BEST teachers….and that is a paradigm shift that some teachers find hard to achieve.

Debbie_Smith1Because we have been using digital devices in our classrooms for two years, with great success, all of our teachers are aware that this is the future of education.  There is no doubt that student engagement is much greater when technology is used as part of classroom instruction.  However, unless the design of instruction is of high quality, the use of digital devices is simply not effective.

With all that said, here is the issue of leadership as I see it:

From the district level leadership: 

Has capacity been built and has infrastructure been put in place to utilize technological devices at the classroom level in a consistent, safe, and useful manner?  Has support been provided in the form of technical personnel – Instructional Technology Specialists, as well as high quality professional learning for the BYOT/BYOD to be implemented with success at the school level?

From the building level leadership:

Does the school culture provide a “risk free” environment for teachers to try new things?  Are there ample opportunities for professional learning to support teachers as they work to increase their digital expertise?  Are the teachers provided the latest research supporting the use of digital devices in the classroom…do they understand the urgency?  Has the building level leadership built trusting relationships with teachers, parents, and community members, and communicated the positive impact and aspects of digital classrooms?  Is there a commitment to educating students about digital footprints and correct/acceptable use of devices in the classroom?  Is the building level leadership committed to “staying the course” through, what at times can be, the troubled waters of change?

From the teacher leader perspective:

math_groupsAm I committed to what is best for my students?  With the knowledge that using digital devices is hugely successful in engaging students in their learning, what am I doing as an educational professional and leader to hone my technological skills?  Am I committed to continued learning and growth as an educational professional…with technology, as well as the design of quality instruction that calls for students to think deeply and “show what they know”?

If the answer to any one of these questions is  “no”, then perhaps it is time to reflect on the reasons I am still in the profession and research other career choices.

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Sustainable Practices for Digital Age Learning

sustainability

Sustainability is defined as the “capacity to endure” (“Sustainability,” 2013).  Most people agree that the natural environment has to be sustained so that we can long-lasting and renewable benefits from its resources.  Similarly, we must develop sustainable practices that continue to support digital age learning within the learning environments of today’s schools.  When the initial enthusiasm for shiny new technology devices begins to pale, what will help to keep the spark alive?

Digital Age Learning describes the shift from traditional teacher-directed instruction to student-centered learning with the use of technology tools.  Those resources may be provided by the school or through a Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) initiative.  I have observed the transformation of many typical classrooms in my district through the implementation of BYOT supplemented by the school’s technology devices and infrastructure.   However, that transformation has to be sustained so that teachers and students don’t revert into the old habits of standardized, rote instruction – mainly characterized by the activities of lecturing, memorizing, and recalling information.

Based on my collaboration with teachers and students throughout my district, here are some practices for sustaining digital age learning.

Build the Learning Community

sustain_community

I’ve written before about the importance of developing learning communities in schools and classrooms, and one hallmark of an effective community is trust. When students and teachers are working with technology devices and applications, there is always the possibility that someone could make a mistake or a poor choice.  Yet, I’ve seen classrooms with clear, consistent expectations and an atmosphere of safety and respect that rarely experience issues related to the inappropriate use of technology.  When teachers expect the responsible use of technology, they convey that they believe in each student’s ability to accomplish great things.

Utilize Student Expertise

Because students are accustomed to using their own technology tools for consuming content and communicating with their friends, they have already learned how to troubleshoot many technology issues.  Of course, not every student has the same level of interest, ability, or expertise with technology, but they can learn to rely on each other for support.  The teacher can also begin to depend on the students for technology assistance. This strategy builds empowers students to discover new skills for life-long learning.

Focus on Digital Age Skills

Teachers often become frustrated when they focus their instruction on a particular application or device. In fact, as we implemented BYOT, we quickly realized that we needed to talk more about digital age skills (communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking), rather than on technology.  As teachers begin to incorporate those skills into their content standards, technology becomes purposeful, meaningful, and relevant.

Encourage the Regular Use of Technology

sustain_collaboration

Having special technology times or days means that technology use occurs outside of the norms of learning.  However, when it becomes a normal part of teaching and learning, teachers and students are able to discover new uses for the available technology tools.  Then technology serves a legitimate function in the process of learning, and its use becomes an enjoyable, necessary process, rather than a big production or event.

Provide Continuous Professional Learning

Teachers and students need time to “play” with the technology tools, but the real paradigm shift for many teachers is learning how to share control and direction of the learning with the students. It is also helpful if teachers can see digital age learning in action by observing each other trying new strategies, using technology, and facilitating learning experiences for students. This support should be on-going and include opportunities for feedback and reflection.

In addition to the above strategies, the buy in and support of the parents and other stakeholders also ensure the sustainability of digital age learning.  Technology hardware, applications, and processes will continue to change over time, whether students are using school-owned or student-owned devices, but the supportive practices that truly leverage change are everlasting.

Resource

Sustainability. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved November 26, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainability

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Georgia Educational Technology Conference 2013

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 12.42.05 PMIt is homecoming week for instructional technology in Georgia; otherwise, this event is known as the Georgia Educational Technology Conference – GaETC 2013.  This is the time when educators from around Georgia and beyond come together to explore innovative new ways to utilize technology to create exciting learning opportunities.  I will be collaborating with colleagues and friends in instructional technology and extending my personal learning network (PLN), and I will be co-presenting two workshops and one additional session throughout the week.

I am including all of the links and information for my sessions in this post.  Select a title of a presentation for an outline and additional resources.  For all of my presentations at GaETC 2013 (@GaETCconf), I encourage everyone to backchannel ideas, questions, and comments to the hashtag #gaetc13 in Twitter.  I hope to add you to my PLN by the end of the conference!

Presentation Links

Workshop: Transforming Learning with BYOT

Tuesday, November 5, 2013, 1:00PM-4:00PM – Room: Board Room 3

Session: Moving from Acceptable Use to Responsible Use Guidelines

Wednesday, November 6, 2013, 1:30PM-2:30PM – Room: Salon A Marriott

Workshop: Building Digital Age Skills with Minecraft

Thursday, November 7, 2013, 9:00AM-12:00PM – Room: Board Room 3

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Opening the Floodgates? Making the Move from Acceptable Use to Responsible Use

(Cross-posted at Bold Visions and BYOT Network and cowritten by Jill Hobson, Director of Instructional Technology and Dr. Tim Clark, Coordinator of Instructional Technology – Forsyth County Schools)

Photo Credit: OpeningTheFloodGates-ByCads-RetrievedFromSXC.hu

Photo Credit: OpeningTheFloodGates-ByCads-RetrievedFromSXC.hu

We’ve written previously on our decision to implement a Responsible Use Procedure rather than an Acceptable Use Procedure. And while we’ve shared some of the philosophical reasons why we believe in the idea of a Responsible Use Procedure, we’ve not spent much time on strategies to make that move successfully.

Grappling with and being ready to break from a long list of things that users shouldn’t do and moving to a shorter (and more memorable) list of responsibilities is both a philosophical and operational shift that takes consensus building. And it might seem like this would be opening the floodgates of disciplinary issues without the necessary “rules” to shore up necessary response. We have found that through consistent communication and ongoing training those things are not happening.

These strategies have been essential to our successful transition.

Engaging the Stakeholders

Is everyone swimming in the same direction? Are you involving members of your Safety, Academics, Student Support, Special Education, Educational Leadership and Technology Services departments? Did you consider all levels of school leaders? Don’t forget to include Media Specialists. By being inclusive and transparent throughout the process, stronger support can be garnered.

Educating Everyone

Don’t drown as people start considering their worst fears. Take a look at the research, blogs and tweets about responsible use. SEDTA’s Broadband Imperative is a helpful white paper as is Grunwald and Associate’s Living and Learning with Mobile Devices. Look at other school systems’ policies on responsible use. A few that were particularly useful in our process were Katy ISD, TX, Canyon School District and Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Separate Regional Division. Check out this post from Katrina Schwartz on MindShift: Teach Kids to Be Their Own Internet Filters. NPR’s All Tech Considered blogged about this issue in “For The Tablet Generation, A Lesson In Digital Citizenship” as well.

Focus on Digital Age Skills

The vision for instructional technology within our district is embedded within the FCS Learner Profile. This profile describes the attributes of students attending and graduating from a Forsyth County school, and digital age skills are reflected within those hallmarks.  When highlighting how the responsible use of technology is an essential digital age skill rippling through each student’s path to success, it is possible to achieve a growing groundswell of support and buy-in throughout the district.

Review Data

What are the statistics on current issues with “appropriate use” in your district or school? What percentage of students is being reported for inappropriate use? Is there a surge of issues or is it a small minority of students (maybe 5 percent or so) and the imagined problems are bigger than the reality. Maybe the “rules” are being written for the 5% of students who may make poor choices rather than the 95% who will usually make appropriate decisions.

Incremental Changes

Are there ways to ease up on filtering (for example, unblocking YouTube for teachers and then later for students) to test the waters? What about allowing students to use devices before and after class as a first step (like in the lunchroom or between classes)?

Technology Rules Shouldn’t Be Separate

In Forsyth we were able to take some of the most important ideas from our Acceptable Use Procedure and have them flow into the Code of Conduct. For instance, we had an AUP rule about not vandalizing computer equipment. So we incorporated that statement into the existing statement about not vandalizing school property. Since we already had a statement in Code of Conduct, we didn’t feel that we should have a separate and different rule for technology.

Provide Learning Resources – For Staff and Students

By providing videos and other resources to educate staff as well as students on the new procedures, we were able to ensure a consistent message throughout our schools.  Whether you develop your own materials or rely on those from places like Common Sense Media, consistency of message is essential.

When we started on our implementation of BYOT about six years ago, we would never have been able to predict that our community would embrace changes to our Appropriate Use Procedure as they have. We’ve gradually seen the rise in the tide of support as we have all been able to understand how much our students need us to model being a responsible digital citizen and learner.

Resources:

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One School’s Journey along a BYOT Tour

welcome_byottourOn Friday, October 4, 2013, Forsyth County Schools welcomed approximately 130 educators to tour its Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) initiative at three of its schools, Chattahoochee Elementary School, Little Mill Middle School, and Forsyth Central High School. The district has had numerous tours over the last few years. Not only do these tours highlight the implementation of BYOT, but they also provide an impetus for professional learning within the district to help us continue growing and refining our teaching practices with instructional technology. Although the district has been encouraging students to bring their own technology tools to school to improve learning opportunities, each school is at a different point in this transformational process. This post details the journey of Chattahoochee Elementary School as it prepared for its first BYOT Tour.

BYOT actually began a few years ago at Chattahoochee Elementary School, and the school’s Instructional Technology Specialist (ITS), Missy Payne, had me visit some classrooms in grades 3-5 to discuss the responsible use of BYOT and some ways that students could learn with their devices. The teachers of those classes wanted to begin utilizing BYOT. I also met with the school leaders at that time to discuss the vision for BYOT at the school.

BYOTTeacher

The use of BYOT was voluntary, however, and although some of the teachers and students began using BYOT in the classroom, the practice did not spread throughout the rest of the school.

Then last year, a new principal, Barbara Vella, was selected to lead the school. She was enthusiastic about the possibilities for instructional technology, including BYOT, for engaging student learning through higher-level thinking and project-based learning. She encouraged both the ITS and media specialist (Michelle Smith) to attend districtwide training in teaching and learning with BYOT. She also requested that her school participate in a BYOT Tour when every teacher’s class would be visited so that others could observe BYOT in action.

We first conducted a walkthrough of Chattahoochee Elementary School to ascertain the levels of technology use within the school. This was an attempt to establish some baseline data that would clarify where to invest time and resources to assist the teachers and students more effectively. In this walkthrough, very few technology resources were in use. In fact, the majority of the classrooms were using whole group, teacher-directed instruction, and many of the instructional activities were being conducted solely to improve performance on high stakes testing – lecture, worksheets, and recipe-like standardized projects. There was very little focus on developing digital age skills, the 4 Cs – Creativity, Communication, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking, even without the use of technology tools. It was apparent that this is where the teachers and students needed additional support.

StudentOwnedLearningIn preparation for the BYOT Tour, instructional support came in various forms. First, we organized a panel presentation of teachers from a neighboring elementary school (Chestatee Elementary School) that had previously hosted a BYOT Tour. At a faculty meeting, those teachers shared personal stories about how they were originally hesitant about implementing BYOT and welcoming so many people into their classrooms but then how rewarding the whole process was to student learning. We shared the data from the preliminary walkthrough and had a conversation about the vision for student learning with BYOT. As a group, the teachers decided to work toward developing strategies for incorporating those skills into their classrooms. They began planning for additional small group instruction to utilize their school-owned technology resources more collaboratively. In addition, they brainstormed new ways for students to be creative through project-based learning organized around higher-level questions and inquiry to stimulate critical thinking. These types of learning activities ultimately necessitated the use of BYOT.

Missy and Michelle assisted the teachers in their school as they planned for student learning with the 4 Cs. They recommended apps and projects that would help the teachers incorporate the content they were teaching with digital age skills, and they modeled that instruction for the teachers within classrooms so that the teachers had additional support with the technology when necessary. They continued to plan additional walkthroughs and invited the ITS and MS of other schools to visit their classrooms and nurtured the teachers with specific feedback to help them with their instruction. It was sometimes difficult for teachers to receive that feedback, at first, but Missy, Michelle, and the school leaders worked with each teacher individually and offered constructive support to help them develop into a professional learning community.

MediaCenter

The teachers also began to participate in walkthroughs within the school to see BYOT being implemented by their colleagues.

The school community also worked on transforming the physical space of the building. They cleaned out and updated the collection of books and resources within the media center and selected some new furniture for the space to better facilitate the 4 Cs. They also rearranged the furniture in the classrooms to create learning environments that supported group and individual learning activities. Finally, they painted the building and incorporated murals and splashy new colors to show a new vibrancy and enthusiasm for learning.

Tshirt_4CsThe planned BYOT Tour was a success, the visitors raved about the students and their use of both school-owned and student-owned technology resources. Even if the students did not own all of the devices, it was evident that they owned the learning. Principal Vella had even ordered shirts for the staff with the motto “Cs the Moment” and the 4 Cs listed on the back. The BYOT Tour is just the beginning of the school’s journey on the path to transforming into a digital age student-centered learning environment. However, with the commitment of the dedicated teachers at Chattahoochee Elementary School and support of their school leaders, they will most assuredly accomplish that goal.

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