Re-Defining the 21st Century Classroom

The landscape of classroom learning is shifting, and with it, districts, schools and teachers are learning new pedagogy to support a 21st century education through digital learning.

by / April 8, 2015

The world is growing exponentially. Not in a literal sense, but certainly in the way students are able to access information and connect with humans around the world. Thirty years ago, classroom computers were nonexistent. Twenty years ago, computer labs were few and far between. A decade ago, students could use computers in the back of the classroom for one-way learning. And within the last five years, an increasing number of one-to-one initiatives are complimented by ed tech companies that are creating software for personalized learning. 

The landscape of classroom learning is shifting, and with it, districts, schools and teachers are learning new pedagogy to support a 21st century education through digital learning.

“The technology can allow for barriers to be broken down,” said Thomas Murray, state and district digital learning director at the Alliance for Excellent Education. “However, technology in and of itself doesn’t change high-quality instruction.”

To ensure effective use of digital learning, the Alliance for Excellent Education and the U.S. Department of Education developed the Future Ready District Pledge with the support of the Leading Education by Advancing Digital Commission. Superintendents who sign the pledge commit to ensuring that digital learning curriculum aligns with instructional best practices, that trained teachers facilitate such content, and that there are personalized learning experiences for all students.

Since announcing the pledge in October, almost 2,000 superintendents have signed. Through resources and regional summits, district leaders develop action plans and metrics to measure growth in using digital tools to advance teaching and student results.

“We have a crisis in our nation when it comes to ed tech in schools,” Murray said. “We have schools that are purchasing large amounts of computers and equipment, and then saying, ‘What do we do with it and how do we make this work?’"

When districts plan systemically, however, they empower teachers to create engagements for students that focus on high levels of thinking, he added. "Future Ready is helping districts systemically plan before they buy and creating an action plan to move toward high-quality digital learning.”

Socorro Independent School District (SISD) in Dallas, Texas, is part of the Future Ready District Pledge. Miguel Moreno, the district’s instructional coordinator, has worked at the district for 19 years and said that utilizing instructional technology has been a district priority the entire duration of his employment. 

“Digital learning really allows students to connect with others,” he said. “Ultimately, it expands to outside our school walls. We’re preparing students for the global economy. We’re bringing the world to their classroom, and we want to harness to power of being able to connect with people — via blogs, social media, Skyping, webinars. The important thing is that we teach our students how to make effective use of it and how to be productive with it.”

As a part of the pledge, for the first time this year, SISD participated in Digital Learning Day, held in mid-March. District leadership and teachers made use of Twitter to highlight and showcase digital success stories taking place in their classrooms.

“Digital Learning Day inspires, connects and motivates schools that are making it work against the odds,” Murray said. “It generates an incredible amount of social media and creates a conversation. People start to think strategically about digital learning.”

In Dallas, SISD has utilized interactive whiteboards for about a decade. Classrooms are now using mobile devices, such as iPads, NOOKs and surface tablets. And one high school in the district is in its first year of a one-to-one initiative. In addition to devices, the district uses applications such as Edmodo as a tool for teachers, students and parents to connect with one another. Moreno said that incorporating different tools and devices means re-defining expectations of classroom teachers and students.

“Technology does not make positive improvement in student performance,” he said. “It’s about how teachers and students use it. Teachers transition from the individual who had most of the knowledge to being facilitators and guides to help students develop their own learning. We have to teach certain standards and content, but we have to support teachers in helping students become their own learners.”

What’s next for digital learning? Murray said he predicts more schools will transform into 21st century learning environments and move from a one-size-fits-all model to personalized information technology. What that looks like is 30 students in the same classroom who are quite possibly working on 30 different projects at their own level with the teacher monitoring them.

“When a student can pull out a tablet that has more technology than what put men on the moon,” Murray said, “we can help kids understand how they can use that in their own learning.”

Jessica Renee Napier Contributing Writer

Jessica Renee Napier is a California-based writer who began her journalism career in public broadcasting. She teaches yoga, enjoys traveling and likes to stay up on all things tech.