One Urban District's Digital Learning Revolution: When Students Are Empowered by Full Access to Technology, Learning Goals Can Be Achieved

By McPhail, Jay; Paredes, Judi | Leadership, September-October 2011 | Go to article overview
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One Urban District's Digital Learning Revolution: When Students Are Empowered by Full Access to Technology, Learning Goals Can Be Achieved


McPhail, Jay, Paredes, Judi, Leadership


Planning and implementing major innovations in large urban districts can be a daunting and overwhelming idea--particularly when it comes to technology--due to real and perceived obstacles. Added to this challenge is the reality of the worst budget crisis in California history. Yet, we felt we needed to act.

Almost everyone you talk to in education will tell you technology is a powerful tool and most are trying to figure out a way to incorporate technology into their districts. Yet at the same time there are some serious doubts concerning the effectiveness of technology in improving student achievement and the ability to provide technology to all students, and there are cynical predictions about the trouble kids will find with an open access policy.

We have been able to move forward and change that conversation by focusing on "outcomes" rather than "inputs," using resourcefulness in providing devices to students, and truly engaging and empowering students by allowing full access to high quality educational resources and technology.

The district's vision

Riverside Unified School District has a population of approximately 44,000 students. Our student population is culturally and linguistically diverse, and some of our schools struggle with high levels of transiency. Approximately 63 percent of our students are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

In RUSD we began our digital learning revolution by developing a 2020 (20/20) vision of technology and learning. We came to the realization that the key outcomes we wanted to achieve focused on individual learning at the pace of the student, with the variable being time rather than learning. By that we mean that if a student takes three weeks to master a particular concept or course, he or she should be able to move on to the next one. On the other hand, if a student needs more time than our regularly scheduled classes provide, he or she should be allowed to take more time without being penalized.

In addition to this concept, we realized that our current systems and approaches are not all conducive to these goals and we began to again look at who our customers are (students and parents) and what our student outcomes have been. We realized that we needed to begin acting now to move closer to what our outcomes could be and should be. As a result of this 2020 vision, we began to examine what we could do now to use technology to provide 24/7 access to high quality teaching and learning opportunities for all our students.

In addition, we were given the charge by our district leadership to provide effective and efficient solutions- effective in the sense that they improve learning, and efficient in that they cost less money. Just as important was the encouragement to provide leadership and not management, results rather than compliance. It was with these "eyes" that we began work that has resulted in a true digital learning revolution.

By August 2011 (just about two years after starting the 2020 conversation), RUSD provided more than 10,000 different devices for student use at home and school and empowered another 20,000 students to use their own technology devices in our system as learning tools. Recognizing the magnitude of the change, we count on our students, parents and staff to help us define our vision for the future.

The one constant for our participating kids and classes is the use of technology to empower student learning 24/7. Although the devices range from Android slates, iPods, Netbooks and iPads to laptops, our approach in fostering the innovation is the same.

1. Identify specific instructional goals and target populations.

2. Identify funding possibilities (grants, public/private collaborative, vendor-provided materials and resources, categorical funding resources).

3. Survey parents and students to identify what they have or would be willing to pur chase, and use that technology to expand what we can do for those who don't have access.

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One Urban District's Digital Learning Revolution: When Students Are Empowered by Full Access to Technology, Learning Goals Can Be Achieved
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