A digital learning initiative has spurred major culture changes in one of the nation's largest school districts.
In Florida's Broward County Public Schools, individualized learning and collaboration have become part of the culture with the launch of the Digital 5: Pathways to Personalized Learning Initiative this fall. Designed to promote blended, student-centered learning, the initiative puts laptops, digital textbooks and online resources into the hands of 3,200 fifth-graders.
With laptops, students can play the same online educational game, but at learning levels that match their abilities. This way, teachers can personalize students' learning without them even knowing it, said Erika Bretz, a teacher at Maplewood Elementary School.
Along with personalization, digital resources will prepare students for an increasingly digital world, added Jeanine Gendron, director of STEM and instructional resources for the district. But not every student has Internet access at home. That's why the district has placed interactive textbooks from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in three different places: on the Schoology learning management system, the B.E.E.P. Student portal and the Kno textbook application. The textbook app allows students to have a local version of the textbook on their laptops so they don't need Internet access to read it.
Not every fifth-grade class is participating in this digital endeavor. The school district wanted to make sure that everyone would be invested in the initiative, so it asked schools to apply. Just over half of the 141 elementary schools applied, and the district chose 27 to participate because that was the number the budget could cover.
"This is a major shift in how instruction takes place on a daily basis, and so we wanted to make sure that the parents, the community at large, the students, the teachers and the principals all were really committed to the project," Gendron said.
Part of that commitment involves collaborating more closely with other teachers at the same grade level. Principal Sherry Bees worried that her teachers at Maplewood Elementary School wouldn't pull together after a year where they weren't on the same page. But they did pull together, and some of them changed their attitude about teaching and learning after going through professional development.
"I told them, 'If you're not willing and you're not able and you're not interested, you need to be honest with me and I need to move you to another grade level,'" Bees recalled. "And they all were on board."
That's not to say that this year has been easy. It takes a lot of time for teachers to find online resources, differentiate instruction and work together. To give them the collaboration time they need, Bees freed up some time in the morning for them to meet while other teachers took care of the children.
While the work is challenging, it's also one of the best things teacher Bretz felt she has done. Instead of just working with her team teacher, all six teachers are working with and learning together.
"We're trying to teach these kids it's all about college and career readiness, how you need to work collaboratively and talk things out," Bretz said. "If we're teaching that to the students, we need to be role models for them. And that's our biggest goal this year as a team."
This year, students are already collaborating with each other in the learning management system. When a teacher post something for students to reflect on, they have to respond before they can work together with students on assignments, said Charles McCanna, principal of Nova Blanche Forman Elementary School.
As a result of the D5 initiative, students are taking charge of their learning and playing a more active role in their education, McCanna said.
After just a few months, schools reported that student engagement is up, absenteeism has dropped, and both tardyism and behavioral problems do not exist, Gendron said. Student and educator feedback has also been positive, though she acknowledged that the district may be in a honeymoon period with the initiative.
By the end of the school year, the district would like to see increased student test scores, higher literacy skills, and better collaboration and communication within a digital learning environment, Gendron said. An outside evaluator will track the district's progress on these goals and share the results in a 2014 research report.
Next year, the district is contemplating an extension of the initiative to sixth-graders so that these fifth-graders will be able to continue learning digitally.
While Broward County has launched a number of initiatives over the years, this one has made the biggest difference in McCanna's time as a school leader.
"I've been a school administrator for over 20 years — either assistant principal or principal — and I've never seen any single event or intervention or program have such an impact on the culture of a group of my students, my teachers and my parents in all that time."