Board hears digital learning update

Philip Dunn II, the district’s director of digital learning and technology, gave an update on the program’s progress as year two begins. –Ken Borsuk

Philip Dunn II, the district’s director of digital learning and technology, gave an update on the program’s progress as year two begins. –Ken Borsuk

The new school year has just begun but the Board of Education already has a progress report in on one of its key initiatives, digital learning.

After what has been termed a successful roll out last year of digital devices at Hamilton Avenue and Riverside Schools, phase two is set to begin this year as sixth grade students throughout the district will be given Chromebooks, meaning more than 1,000 digital devices will have been distributed. While no decision has been made yet about what digital devices will be given out for phase three, when it is expanded to all Greenwich Public Schools students, Philip Dunn II, the district’s director of digital learning and technology, said everything remains “on time and on budget.”

In terms of the implementation, Mr. Dunn told the Board of Education at its Aug. 28 meeting that there had been a self-reported 20-30% shift in practice at Hamilton Avenue and Riverside toward teaching through the digital devices. He said the teachers are “the heart of the issue” and the more effective the teachers are the better student learning will be. Nora Ullman, project manager for this initiative, elaborated on this by referring to what is known as the “Roger’s Innovation Adoption Curve,” a theory that states that when a population faces a need to change there will always be “innovators and early adopters” which is right where the district is with these year one numbers.

Ms. Ullman added that the hope is during the second year at these two schools there will be another 20-30% shift in practice and the late majority is addressed in the third year. Ms. Ullman said it would be the district’s job to continue to manage the strategies and that the first year had shown the need for constant and clear communication as well as professional learning since there was so much new technology and apps for people to learn for iPads and Chromebooks. Beyond learning how to use those, the teachers also have to learn about how to most effectively use them in the classroom.

Mr. Dunn said one of the takeaways from year one was that they had to “meet people where they are” noting that before last year many teachers hadn’t even used an iPad before. He pledged that there would continue to be a focus on teacher satisfaction with the implementation through training and support so the technology could be used as a utility in the classroom.

When questioned by board member Peter Bernstein about what would be done to get more teachers involved, Mr. Dunn  said the professional learning model would address “expanding upon the skills of the early adopters” and building a sustainable and affordable model for professional development throughout the district and there would be direct outreach to key teachers in these schools not in the first 20-30%. Mr. Dunn said he and teachers who are early adopters would serve as ambassadors to help others come on board.

The goal ultimately is to train the teachers to make sure student learning develops from digital learning.

“The first goal for the initiative is students become critical thinkers of online content,” Mr. Dunn said. “We want students to process information in a way that is timely and in keeping with the nature of our world. We want students to self-regulate their learning and know what they know and, more importantly, know what they don’t know so they can get help. We want students to receive quality feedback on all their work. Human beings respond well to feedback that is timely, feedback that is frequent and feedback that is of a high quality. We want learning to be personalized for students. We want learning to meet the student where they’re at.”

With that in mind, board member Peter von Braun asked whether there was any indication yet if there had been improvement in student achievement. It was offered, though, that it was too early for any clear data on that to be ready. Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said it would be an “aggressive timeline” to be asking for reliable finding on that already because the work has to be done to impact the professionals first so they can impact the students through the program.

“The problem in education is you go into it and you drive too fast and change the student learning and don’t invest in the professionals and you fail,” Dr. McKersie said. “We’re looking at this in a multiple way. We’re seeing results but you’ve got to change the professionals or you’re not going to get the student learning change.”

Mr. Dunn said the program was designed to be agile so that it could be adjusted as needed to improve student achievement but backed up Dr. McKersie.

“We’re in year one and this is large-scale, transformative initiative,” Mr. Dunn said. “We do not want to throw a bunch of new at people and then say, ‘Where are the results?’ in less than a year.”

As part of the overall report, Mr. Dunn said there were no security breaches and that all the devices and apps had been thoroughly tested. Mr. Dunn said that the network that all these devices are used on has a good record of being up and available 99.9% of the time and that it was showing a rate of download speed comparable to most home wi-fi networks. All schools are being wired for a high-speed pathway and he said this was the result of the “tremendous investment” the district had made in the infrastructure for this initiative.

There continue to be concerns about the long-term benefits of the program, especially with other districts across the country experiencing significant challenges when it comes to digital learning. Mr. Dunn said the phasing in of the program over multiple years has allowed the district to adapt as needed and make sure things are being done in an effective way with a “rigorous program evaluation.” He mentioned how Los Angeles, Calif. schools had recently ended their iPad program but that Greenwich was able to learn from that and avoid the same mistakes.

“Our biggest takeaway is that we need to maintain our professional learning focus and our ability to scale the initiative for year three,” Mr. Dunn said. “As with anything involving people we need to enhance communications and leverage all those opportunities to clearly communicate and build consensus. Finally we want to improve our school support model and develop the capacity for internal program evaluation.”

The Chromebooks are scheduled to be given to sixth graders in October. Ms. Ullman said the choice of which digital devices to be used in phase three with the district-wide distribution was something that still had to be addressed. She noted that one of the issues that had caused the controversy in Los Angeles were allegations of improper relationships being part of the choice to get iPads which she and Mr. Dunn said would not be an issue in Greenwich due to the safeguards in the evaluation process for picking a device insuring an “independent and objective” choice.

Dr. McKersie noted that this was not just a new way of learning for students, but a new way for the district to put an initiative in place since this did not just involve one department but had to cross-cut across the district administration. He said in order for it to work it had to be in the “fiber” of the district.

“This is a whole new management structure for how we do things in Greenwich,” Dr. McKersie said. “It’s a cross-department team…This is the first time we’re trying to do this in Greenwich. I think we’re onto an incredible success here. Yes there have been challenges but part of that success is the way we’ve organized to manage this.”

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