EducationWorld is pleased to present this article excerpt by Alexis Carroll Cline, Publications Specialist for the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA). The full article originally appeared in TechEdge, a quarterly magazine published by TCEA. To join or for more information, visit www.tcea.org.
Whether you are conducting differentiated instruction, specialized instruction, or personalized learning, educators today are creating environments where each student can experience learning in the way that best addresses his or her needs, learning style and mastery level. The ubiquity of mobile devices and wealth of online content and resources now available provides the opportunity for individualizing education as never before.
Jay Barrett, of Amarillo ISD in Amarillo, TX, is a pioneer in the move to digital learning environments. He and the other educators I interviewed really have jumped into a whole new world. They are sharing experiences from their journey to transform learning, including their challenges and solutions, in order to help others make the same leap.
As Barrett can attest, the move to digital is much more than the addition of technology. It is about people. It is about changing perspective and developing a new way to reach students more effectively and prepare them for a future we can’t even yet imagine.
What can you do to differentiate instruction for 400 students in rigorous specialty programs when your budget is limited? For Barrett, the answer was simple: go digital. He is the principal of the Amarillo Area Center for Advanced Learning, a specialty high school in Amarillo ISD. Since 1995, the school has been offering career and college readiness programs with a math and science emphasis. Choices include engineering, graphic design, health science, animal science and auto tech.
“When the state said that they wouldn’t be supplying the textbooks anymore, but instead would provide an allotment, we had to seriously look at alternatives to expensive textbooks with content that isn’t necessarily up-to-date,” Barrett explained.
And so the search was on, both for content that would replace printed textbooks and for a device that would suit the needs of some very different learners.
First, the content solution had to be worked out. Barrett’s team selected NetTexts because of its versatility and intuitive design. Rather than textbooks, students would have anytime access to teacher-created content and open educational resources (OER).
Within the program, teachers can search for content, share lessons and resources, and customize course materials. The program is very easy to navigate, and organizing lessons into sections is a simple process.
The option for teachers to upload their own content really streamlines their workflow, saving time with planning and preparation. Just think about all the PowerPoint presentations and supplemental materials that are floating around your classroom being neatly organized and instantly accessible in one central location.
The switch from textbooks to digital content may have been precipitated by budget limitations, but it has changed more than the method of content delivery. Teachers have also shifted their mind-sets about teaching, transforming themselves into curators of information and facilitators of learning.
Students can access course materials through a teacher’s site, or they can search for OER materials themselves. Because NetTexts is a Web-based solution, information can be accessed from multiple devices, and it can be downloaded and saved to a device as well.
Equitable and reliable Internet access was crucial to this adoption. About three-fourths of Amarillo ISD students have Internet access at home, and students can also get a free wireless connection at several places in town, including the school. Barrett upgraded the wireless infrastructure at his high school to accommodate up to 1,200 users at one time, and he now notes that after school hours, students frequently download materials in the school parking lot since that connection is faster than most anywhere else around.
When it came to a device, the iPad ended up being the best fit for this campus. Its functionality and flexibility make it as useful in auto tech as it is in physics. “Some were worried about the iPads getting lost or stolen, but we haven’t had a problem with that. We asked everyone to treat their device like a $400 bill, and they’ve been very responsible about that.”
The iPads make it easy for students to collaborate in groups or work at their own pace. Apple TV in the classrooms is also making it easier for both teachers and students to share their screen with the class.
Differentiating for Faculty
The digital transformation hasn’t just impacted student learning. Recognizing that some educators, especially new teachers, may benefit from the experience of their veteran counterparts, Barrett began using his iPad to capture classroom interactions. These videos are used for coaching faculty through instructional best practices, and Barrett reports that by seeing innovative teaching modeled by a peer and then examining their own teaching frame by frame, teachers are quickly able to pinpoint ways in which they can become more effective.
In the same way that veterans mentor new teachers, it often happens that the new teachers are able to mentor veterans when it comes to navigating new technology. This is not just a campus-wide phenomenon, but a concerted effort on the part of the district to provide the support and training teachers need to be successful with new tools and technologies.
“The support of the district has been phenomenal,” said Barrett, “They have created a Digital Learning Leaders program that teaches designated faculty to most effectively train our classroom teachers. If they have a problem with a specific program or issue, there is someone they can reach out to for guidance through the learning process, and that helps our more hesitant teachers feel more comfortable with trying new approaches.”
When he introduced this plan initially, Barrett joked, “We are going to be digital pioneers; let’s have no 'Donner party' incidents. Just keep moving forward. And the teachers have done beautifully. They have learned as they have gone along.”
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