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E-learning: Not Just Child's Play

As Chief eLearning Officer of the Chicago Public Schools, Sharnell Jackson serves 425,000 students and 25,000 teachers in over 600 schools. A 25-year veteran of the classroom, Jackson has been a visionary administrator for the last 8 years. School CIO recently spoke with her about best practices in e-learning.

Q. What e-learning initiatives has Chicago Public Schools undertaken in the past two years?

A. One example is using PDAs (personal digital assistants) for kindergarten to 3rd grade early literacy screening, data-informed and differentiated instruction, and ongoing progress monitoring of students. The scope of it has been 66,820 students in 457 elementary schools. This PDA is from Wireless Generation, and it's called DIBELS—Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills. It gives you an indication of which students are on their way to successful early reading, and which are struggling. It allows the teacher to make data-informed decisions, and it identifies strategies for teachers to use. There's also a parents' report to give parents specific strategies in order to identify and address gaps in early literacy.

We have also implemented a student information system along with a curriculum instructional management system. Now we have all the data in the system—scheduling, grades, benchmark assessments, screening tools, state assessments—along with curriculum and learning standards. So instead of creating a lesson and then implementing an assessment, a teacher can flip it and say, "Looking at a student's assessment results, how do I plan instruction based on where they're at?" That's called backwards design.

Q. Why should K–12 CIOs build out their infrastructures to support e-learning?

A. Training is a short-term activity. That means that you're not going to have a return on that investment. It's a waste of time. Why is classroom training for teachers and administrators declining while e-learning gains? I'll tell you why. Because there's a reduction in cost per person, increased reach, reduced time to train, increased consistency and compliance, and increased tracking and reporting. So think about the benefits—it's immediate interaction and feedback, collaboration and social learning, reduced travel costs, and reduced time away from work and home. Those are huge benefits. Classroom training is like eating out at a restaurant: you need to make reservations. Asynchronous e-learning is like doing your own microwave dinner at home. But synchronous e-learning is like room service. Who doesn't like room service?

Q. What challenges do CIOs face when it comes to supporting e-learning?

A. CIOs need to be more collaborative and more innovative, and they have to build an entire system that's going to work over the long term. You've got to have learning and development. [Learning and development are] the first things people want to minimize. But learning and development are going to give you the greatest return on investment.

Q. How do you measure return on investment?

A. The return on investment for us is increased student achievement. We need to increase the ability of people to do their jobs, which ultimately increases student achievement. You can have all sorts of electronic systems, but if people don't know how to use them effectively, it's all for naught. The single best indicator of whether a school is going to be effective is if you have an effective leader. If they don't have the capacity to lead the school in effective uses of technology, then it's not going to happen in that school.

Q. Are there trends in this area that are just starting to emerge?

A. Oh yeah. If you think about why we are increasing learning and development for teachers and administrators, it's because there's return on investment. We increase teacher effectiveness and administrators' capacity to lead. Students are more engaged and motivated to learn; it's more student-centered, focused on where students are. With these electronic systems, we can zoom in on individual student analysis and understand what we must do to increase their capacity to learn.

Lindsay Oishi is a graduate student in Learning Sciences and Technology Design at Stanford University.

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