Dynamic Learning Project Bridges Second Level Digital Divide

Google, EdTech Team, and Digital Promise have teamed up to fund “digital coaches” in 50 underserved schools nationwide, including 3 Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Leah McCord, principal at PPS King, a PreK-8 school on Pittsburgh’s Northside, is surrounded by technology. Her 500 students are each assigned an iPad at school. Each class has a digital suite with an Apple TV and smart boards. She’s even got teachers who have been through the Apple Teacher program to learn the ins and outs of Apple devices and software. But last year, she felt something was still missing—tech sort of felt like an event, and she wants it to be part of her school culture, “part of the process by which we educate students.” McCord says, “We were looking for ways to use these devices to elevate student achievement and transform the learning environment.”

Researchers have noticedthat there are major differences between how teachers and students use technology, and these differences can sometimes result in ineffective teaching and learning situations. This gap is called the “second level digital divide,” and national nonprofit education accelerator Digital Promise is looking to build bridges while answering the research question, “What are the conditions necessary for instructional coaching to effectively foster powerful use of technology for instruction?” They launched the Dynamic Learning Project, funded by a $6.5 million grant from Google to support a full-time Digital Coach at 50 schools nationwide. McCord applied for the program and PPS King was chosen as a pilot school.

Selected schools (including 11 in Western Pennsylvania) must classify as underserved, have an existing technology infrastructure, and be willing to participate in case studies and ongoing surveys with faculty and students throughout the school year. Professional development and mentoring for the coaches and principals in pilot schools will come from EdSurge, an educational technology company that will be available year-round to answer questions or offer feedback on strategies or lesson plans.

Expanding the Tech Boost

Just up the hill, PPS Schiller middle school was also selected, and principal Paula Heinzman is also looking to deepen her faculty’s relationship with technology as an integrative part of the curriculum. Schiller is already a STEAM magnet, which means Heinzman has on staff a STEAM coordinator—a teacher who helps other teachers plan hands-on, project-based lessons.

In the 3 years since getting the STEAM designation, Heinzman says Schiller has seen double-digit gains in testing scores for English and Science, with 5% gains in math. Her enrollment is up 30 students—a huge gain for a school with fewer than 200 students. “But we have so far to go,” she says, noting that Schiller has seen an increase in the racial achievement gap since adopting the common core curriculum. This means that students of color at Schiller have been scoring lower on standardized tests than their white peers. Heinzman believes that incorporating technology and engagement more fully into the curriculum will increase achievement for all students at Schiller. “Our teachers are all in with this idea and have been, since we are a STEAM magnet,” Heinzman says, “But it’s a new age of children and we have to do different things to engage them.”

The Gift of Time

Heinzman knows teachers could spend hours searching online for tech-based lesson plans, but they just don’t have the time to do these things on top of all of their prep and grading and other work.

While teachers are passionate and focused on instruction, Heinzman says, “it’s hard to find what’s best for the students and to be creative.” She’s thrilled to bring in Angelique Benjamin as Schiller’s Digital Coach because, “Angelique will have nothing but time to find the most interesting and engaging lessons incorporating technology.” Heinzman can’t wait for Benjamin to work side by side with the school’s STEAM coordinator as a “phenomenal pairing” for faculty development.

Strategic Staffing

McCord saw the Dynamic Learning grant as an opportunity to make strategic changes in her staff at King. Middle school math teacher Craig Bauman will fill the role of coach and McCord was able to replace him with someone dually certified in both middle school math and science. “We want to do more integrated coursework,” she says of her vision for the school. She and Bauman decided to begin his coaching work impacting teachers who frequently don’t get coaching and support.

McCord says, “We are going to include art, music, physical education, and library science and really think about how we can support innovation and tech integration in those courses.” McCord wants King students to see that technology is ubiquitous in our society, that it doesn’t end in those academic core classes.

High Tech Pedagogy

“I want the devices in my students’ hands to transform their learning and connect them to authentic audiences and authentic problems they want to solve.” — Leah McCord, Principal, PPS King

Part of Google’s grant for the Dynamic Learning Project included a week-long learning institute at the Google campus in California this summer. The selected principals and their newly-hired Digital Coaches spent 13-hour days learning about ways to integrate technology into their schools’ teaching practice. Heinzman was encouraged by a Google team who really seemed to understand what it means to teach in an urban school district with a high poverty rate. Readings and discussions throughout the week included topics such as extreme poverty and trauma and their effects on students’ learning. Heinzman says, “I have never been part of a gathering with an outside organization that was so in tune with our experiences at PPS.”

McCord was taken aback at Google VP Eisar Lipkovitz’s answer to one principal’s question of how they as educators can best prepare students for careers at Google. McCord noted that Lipkovitz said nothing about math or science or even technology. He talked instead about “the 21st century skills of collaboration, teamwork, delayed gratification, and executive functioning.” McCord sees that those skills are sometimes classified as “soft skills,” but “if that’s what Google is looking for in their hiring practices, then that’s what we need to incorporate!”

Strategic Alignment

PPS Superintendent Anthony Hamlet challenged principals like Heinzman and McCord to prepare students for college, career, and life. Part of the district’s new Strategic Plan includes these 21st century skills, and Heinzman says the Dynamic Learning Project aligns with district initiatives. “We don’t just want our kids to be Pittsburgh Promise ready,” she says, referring to minimum attendance and grade point average requirements for higher education scholarships awarded to all qualifying PPS graduates. “We want our students to be ready for life.”

McCord says that more fully integrating technology into the curriculum will impact every aspect of student life. She says, “I expect to see movement and growth in our standardized test scores because this technology will allow our students to do more complex and rigorous tasks.” She looks forward to using technology to substitute some low-level tasks with more difficult work requiring more complex thinking.

Hit the Ground Scrolling

Both McCord and Heinzman are planning to roll out the Dynamic Learning project as soon as teachers report back for duty this week, when they will receive Chromebooks and learn what resources they have available throughout the year. Students and families will get a sampling of some new ideas for tech integration at Welcome Back Night—Schiller parents will complete a survey using their mobile phones and King parents will learn to use an app to upload inspirational messages that will be displayed throughout the school for their children.

The principals are feeling excited about the new opportunity, even as they know there will be bugs and bumps at the beginning. McCord says, “One mantra of mine is that I want our students to be producers rather than consumers of technology. I think this initiative will empower them to become active participants in their community.”

Published August 22, 2017

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