Feature                                                   Pages 18-23


The Empowerment of Social


Four Iowa school districts have moved beyond the usual fears to model creative applications in K-12 teaching and learning


Here in Iowa, approximately half of our 340-plus school districts now have a 1:1 computing initiative. From high school all the way down to kindergarten, the range of devices in use is astonishing.

High school students complete assignments online, tweet about their daily lessons and connect with students across the nation via social media.

But whether children in school are using laptops, netbooks, Chromebooks, iPads, Android tablets or even smartphones, most 1:1 schools in Iowa are trying to move beyond device and bandwidth concerns to focus on powerful student learning. As they do, we’re seeing some interesting new ways for students to connect, collaborate, and conduct their work.

A few examples:

In the Van Meter Community schools west of Des Moines, elementary students have co-keynoted the worldwide K12 Online educational technology conference and used flipped-classroom strategies to teach older students and educators how to apply digital learning tools and use Facebook, Smore, Instagram and other online accounts to help out their school library and share their academic work. Older peers in Van Meter use Skype to connect with students in New Orleans to compare extreme weather, participate in a joint, semester-long class (and mutual site visit) with a school in Philadelphia and run their own online school news station.

Two hours up the road, students in the Newell-Fonda Community Schools run online news channels, create bullying-prevention videos and use blogs in public speaking class to express their voice and reach authentic audiences. Composition students use Twitter to contact and then profile professionals who have made a difference in their fields. English students collaborate with other schools on a Romeo and Juliet project. Spanish students interact yearlong with peers at a school in Brazil. Science students collect data with Vernier probes in preparation for building their own biosphere models.

Students in the Spirit Lake district, near the Minnesota border, model politicians’ Twitter use as part of their mock election campaigns, use their laptops to design entries for the Lexus Eco Challenge and employ various social media channels to encourage usage of reusable water bottles and other environmentally friendly practices by the student body. Elementary students are co-writing books with classrooms in Canada, Georgia and Hawaii. Middle school language arts students use videoconferencing to connect with CNN Heroes, a program recognizing everyday people who are changing the world.


Additional Resources

In the Waverly-Shell Rock Community Schools located northwest of Waterloo, students use their iPads to make digital picture books to help younger peers with science concepts of force and motion. They check out library resources using QR codes and create standards-based art portfolios that they share using Flickr and Facebook. They co-host local Parent iPad University workshops and make movies reinforcing healthy behaviors. They use iMovie, computer-aided design software and 3-D printers to facilitate award-winning, community-based service projects.

Not Yet Reality
The impressive technology uses in these Iowa districts are but a small sample of what’s possible. Opportunities for students to apply digital learning tools to enhance their critical-thinking, authentic problem-solving, and global communication and collaboration skills are limited only by educators’ and children’s creativity.

At student assemblies, students use laptops to take notes or retrieve additional information about topics addressed by presenters. 

Unfortunately, these types of learning environments are not the reality in most schools. Instead, adult fears and concerns about loss of control often trump empowerment opportunities for students, even in technology-rich school systems. For example, when we examine filtering and blocking practices that are occurring right now, it’s as if some schools do everything they can to get digital technologies into the hands of students and then simultaneously do everything they can to prevent students from using them.

Most schools also are having difficulty shifting instructional practices to take better advantage of the benefits that digital tools bring to teaching and learning. They use expensive interactive whiteboards in the same transmission-oriented ways they use chalkboards and dry-erase boards. They replace multiple-choice paper worksheets with similarly uninspiring student response systems (aka “clickers”). Instead of passively viewing teacher-selected DVDs or VHS tapes, students passively view teacher-selected YouTube videos. And so on.

Most schools are using digital tools in ways that simply replicate analog paradigms, but, as Stanford emeritus professor Larry Cuban stated a dozen years ago in Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, simply mirroring traditional educational practices with expensive technological bells and whistles does little to transform students’ learning experiences. Digital technologies have the potential to be transformative, but we must be willing to shift our pedagogical beliefs and practices.

Sadly, digital equity concerns continue to remain at the forefront, as well. Typical digital divide conversations focus on students’ access to computers and the Internet. However, even when students do have access, it is common in schools to see technology usage divides. As Delia Neuman noted more than two decades ago in a research brief on equity for the ERIC Clearinghouse on Information Resources: “Economically disadvantaged students, who often use the computer for remediation and basic skills, learn to do what the computer tells them, while more affluent students, who use it to learn programming and tool applications, learn to tell the computer what to do.”

Results from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress show that students of color and students in poverty are much more likely than their white or more affluent peers to use a computer for drill and practice in math class. These findings are essentially unchanged for students of color since 1996 and actually worsened for poor students over the 15-year period. To make progress on this important front, we must examine critically which students get to use technology and how they get to use it.

Powerful Usage
To move beyond low-level, replicative and inequitable technology use in classrooms, school systems could look to these Iowa schools for ways to enable more meaningful student work.

Scott McLeod, director of innovation with Iowa’s Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency, develops a workshop agenda with Erin Olson, an instructional technology consultant, in advance of a training session for a school district. 
Perhaps the biggest transition needed is to focus on empowerment rather than fear. On that point, Deron Durflinger, superintendent in Van Meter, Iowa, a 645-student district, says, “Our leadership team attempts as best we can to never put any restrictions on anybody. We have tried to empower our teachers to use whatever they could to empower students. We teach kids appropriate uses [and then] focus on reciprocal empowerment, freedom and trust.”

His superintendent colleague David Smith, who leads the Spirit Lake schools, says his district is “not limiting social media but rather teaching students the appropriate use of social media as well as teaching social responsibility.”

An emphasis on enabling, not disabling, social media and other digital tools is critical to creating technology-rich learning spaces, as is a concurrent recognition of our responsibility as educators to help students learn to use digital technologies in productive ways rather than simply blocking them.

Bridgette Wagoner, director of curriculum/staff development for Waverly-Shell Rock, calls the work “a constant ebb and flow,” adding, “We fought really hard for the default to be openness, but then we continually scale back a bit or reopen services. [Student technology misbehaviors] are educational, not punishment, opportunities.” A similar mentality is present in Spirit Lake, where Smith says students’ missteps in technology use ought to be viewed as teachable moments. When misuse takes place in Van Meter, says Durflinger, “we don’t drop the hammer on them unless it’s really hurtful. It’s more of a conversation.”

Another key characteristic of all four of these tech-savvy Iowa districts is the urge to move beyond comfort levels. “We keep encouraging teachers to take risks. We support mistakes,” says Jeff Dicks, superintendent of the 450-student Newell-Fonda district. Durflinger references students and staff always “pushing the envelope” in their technology and social media applications. “We give them ownership and the authority to use it,” he adds.

But these Iowa school district leaders emphasize that risk taking cannot be forced. Smith says teachers in Spirit Lake’s three schools “have been pushed, encouraged and supported by administrators and peers, but we do not force technology use.” Teachers integrate the technology over time.

The superintendents also point to the value of modeling technology use in new and creative ways. As Dicks puts it: “Better to show and encourage than to require it.”

Idiosyncratic Paths
These pacesetting Iowa districts recognize student and teacher technology use is an ongoing journey, not a destination. “We continually challenge people to be moving,” Smith says. “The district has a future focus and we talk about that constantly. We never want to be stagnant. Our leadership team continues to ask thought-provoking questions that force us to be innovative.”

Similarly, Dicks affirms his district “talks about innovating all of the time. They’re ongoing discussions. We’re constantly asking, ‘So what? What are we going to do next?’”

As educators and schools navigate their individual, idiosyncratic paths toward greater technology learning, an overall vision to guide the journey is absolutely vital.

In the Waverly-Shell Rock schools, where she oversees the integration of technology, Wagoner says the key element “is the way we relentlessly tie technology integration to our vision.” The district connects everything technology related to Iowa’s Characteristics of Effective Instruction.

Rather than simply focusing on technology for its own sake, this means the district stages and promotes technology clubs, lunch-and-learn sessions, “appy hours” and other learning opportunities for teachers to serve larger instructional purposes, such as assessment for learning or teaching for learner differences. The result has been a constant grounding of teacher learning in pedagogy, not technology tools.

Mindset Changes
Perhaps surprisingly, few school district policies in these Iowa districts had to be modified beyond a few tweaks to favor openness rather than restriction. In fact, the school board policies in these communities often resemble most board policies statewide. What’s different in these technology-empowering systems are the mindset and mentality, implementation and practice.

It’s hard not to be inspired by how students use technology in these Iowa districts. While the top leaders make it seem simple and straightforward, in actuality, this is complex work. Upending existing belief systems about learning, teaching and schooling is enormously difficult. Helping educators, parents, school board members and communities evolve in necessary new directions is extremely challenging but also can be invigorating and rewarding.

Fortunately, there are plenty of examples — in Iowa and across the nation — of schools and districts creating new learning environments using digital learning tools to better empower students. If we’re brave enough to rethink our own visions and set aside our fears and learn from others, the possibilities are endless.

Scott McLeod is the director of innovation for the Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency in Pocahontas, Iowa. E-mail: dr.scott.mcleod@gmail.com. Twitter: @mcleod. He blogs at www.dangerouslyirrelevant.org.


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