Managing a Successful Digital Transition: Five Key Principles

Managing a Successful Digital Transition: Five Key Principles

Remember when we thought moving from 16mm and film strips to VHS and DVDs was the biggest jump we’d see in the evolution of digital media in our lifetimes?

Ok, I might be dating myself, but over my 20 years of experience working with school systems across the country, I’ve had the opportunity to not only witness that transition, but also the truly revolutionary introduction of digital content into classroom instruction. From sprawling urban districts in our largest cities to extremely rural districts in the heartland of America; I’ve had a front seat to the tremendous changes in teaching and learning that a host of technologies have driven during the last two decades.

In my role as Discovery Education’s Senior Vice President of National Partnerships, I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with some of the most innovative administrators in K-12 education as they’ve transitioned their school districts to dynamic digital learning environments. Each of those transitions was shaped largely by the geographic, demographic, and political contexts in which they occurred, which in turn has made each transition unique. However, each of the successful digital transitions I’ve seen has been guided by five core principles. In no special order, here are the five core principles I’ve observed:

1. A focus on learning drives success.

In the successful district-wide digital transitions I’ve seen, the school systems consistently focused on a specific learning goal, not technology. This focus was driven primarily by district leadership, who played a central role in defining expectations for instruction and articulating what this transition should look like and feel like during classroom walkthroughs. This focus on learning crystalized what success will look like for stakeholders such as parents, students, and the larger community. Good leadership paints a vision for teaching and learning that everyone can follow and implement.

2. Students and teachers need help navigating the oceans of digital content.

In a 2016 blog post entitled the Equity Case for High-Quality Digital Content, my colleague Marty Creel, Discovery Education’s Chief Academic Officer opined,

“Not all digital content is equal. While the internet is awash in free digital content purported to be appropriate for classroom use, we believe standards-aligned High Quality Digital Content (HQDC) specifically developed for diverse student audiences and curated by experts for ease of access is among the most powerful resources available to school systems seeking to improve equity.

School leaders understand this, which is why they turn to trusted services for vetted, organized, standards-aligned High Quality Digital Content. Before the rise of digital content, it was not efficient for teachers to individually cobble together curriculum from their school libraries, so why would we ask them to do so with digital resources? We demand a lot from our educators--we ask them to serve as content experts, instructional masters, motivational coaches, language specialists, conflict mediators, and many other demanding roles. Time is an educators’ most valued resource. By providing educators with high-quality instructional assets, schools enable classroom teachers to focus their time on increasing academic achievement.

Remember, your students interact often unknowingly with High Quality Digital Content for hours each day in their lives outside the classroom. The media they use at school should be equal to or better than the media they are interacting with in their personal lives. If it is not, students will quickly disengage with the content.

3. Effective digital transitions are thoughtfully planned, executed, and measured.

Effective digital transitions begin with a succinct description of goals and a vision for meeting those goals that is shared with teachers, students, parents, administrators, community members, and other stakeholders. From there, successful school districts generally align professional development to their goals and create and implement a comprehensive content plan that ensures students and teachers access to High Quality Digital Content.

Then, with professional development planned and content identified, school systems should plan how students will access content. Questions such as what types of devices should we use? Should we go BYOD? Should we go 1:1? Educational goals should be the key driver in answering these questions.

Finally, a rigorous method of analyzing and monitoring progress that also addresses deficiencies, should cap off any digital transition plan. Successful transitions I’ve seen include plans to implement, change, and promote continuous improvement.

4. Communication is key.

Teachers, parents, students, and other community stakeholders alike need to understand why their school has decided to make the digital transition, so it is critical that the necessary stakeholders are in the transition early and often. School districts that successfully make the digital transition have done an outstanding job communicating the importance and benefits of the digital shift to their community and have created detailed communications plans intended to help keep various stakeholders informed of developments. This effort will pay tremendous dividends, as it will grow buy-in and engagement. Among the components of the most successful plans are:

· An Emphasis on Students. I cannot stress how important engaging this stakeholder group is to a successful digital transition. It is important to hear the students’ perspective on what this shift means to them, and how to meet their needs. Have them be part of the planning, research, branding, and communication efforts associated with your digital transition, as their insights and feedback are critical.

· Press releases for local media. In addition to sending press releases announcing significant milestones in the digital transition to local newspapers, television and radio contacts, successful school systems share this news with their stakeholders, such as elected officials, local community leaders, and the presidents and executive directors at local education associations. Local business partners, foundations, and nonprofits that school districts work should also receive this news.

· Blog posts. Blog posts from various members of the school community offer another avenue through which school systems can tell the stories of their digital transitions. When written by those leading the digital initiative as well as those impacted by this effort, these blog posts not only serve to inform the community, but also help to personalize the positive impacts of this change.

· Presentations to the School Board. Simply put, a School Board’s most important role is to work with its community to improve student achievement in their local public schools. As the leap to dynamic digital learning environments is 100% aligned to that mission, it is important that School Boards are kept informed of key developments during the digital transition.

· Op-Eds for local newspapers. School administrators have a unique and valuable perspective to share with their communities. Op-Eds in local newspapers can help explain the work a school district is doing to create digital learning environments for today’s students, as well as the importance of those environments for preparing students for college, careers, and citizenship in our increasingly global society.

· Highlighting educational technology at community and parent/teacher nights. Community and parent/teacher nights are crucial to engaging parents in various district initiatives. The leaders of successful digital transitions take advantage of these gatherings to share the news of their school system’s investment in High Quality Digital Resources. Students can play a central role in planning and staging these events, so be sure to enroll them in this effort.

5. The Digital Transition is seen as a true cultural shift.

The digital transition is more about the people involved than the technology. Schools and districts that ignore this often wonder why they are constantly in the technology replacement phase or why their students’ devices have become expensive digital notebooks. Even worse, when people are not considered in the digital transition, the possibility exists that expensive tech investments will be used for occasional entertainment, or worse, collect dust in storage.

Successful districts take the time up front to help teachers learn what instructional shifts are expected. The first year of a successful tech rollout should include demonstration classrooms that serve as learning labs where it is acceptable to “fail forward”. Districts successfully making the digital transition also allow other teachers, students, parents, and community members to see the changes expected, while teachers have access to the anticipated technology. This ensures that year two, which may include a wider scale transition, is built on a firm foundation of in-district experience.

This type of attention to the human-cultural aspects of digital transitions dramatically increases the likelihood of an instructional return on investment.

When these five core principles are observed, I believe a successful digital transition will follow. In the comments below, give your thoughts on the key ideas you think underlie a successful transition to digital teaching and learning.

A seasoned leader skilled in building long-lasting relationships with educators at all levels, Coni Rechner serves as Discovery Education’s Senior Vice President of National Partnerships. In this capacity, Rechner manages the creation of innovative collaborations with school-based partners that deliver the best-in-class digital content and professional development educators need to transform teaching and learning and meet their strategic goals. Previously, Rechner managed Discovery Education’s Urban Partnerships team. In this capacity she oversaw the creation and implementation of unique, public/private partnerships that support the creation of dynamic digital learning environments in the nation’s largest school districts. You can contact Rechner directly at