Deborah A. Gist: Our goal is to be the first state to fully blend technology into all schools

Aug 13, 2014 by

The nation’s smallest state has embarked on an ambitious partnership with The Learning Accelerator, designed to make Rhode Island the first state in the nation to use blended learning in all its schools. TLA, a California-based nonprofit group, works to spread blended learning – an approach combining traditional teaching by an educator in a classroom with self-paced online learning directed by the student – to schools across the country.

The partnership, announced last week, comes with an initial $100,000 grant, to enable the state to develop a five-year strategic plan for implementation of blended learning in all of Rhode Island’s 296 public schools, along with a communications campaign to spread awareness about it.

Rhode Island is already experimenting heavily with various forms of digital learning, with two new virtual charter high schools; an annual statewide conference on innovation, technology and learning; and a homegrown nonprofit institute that provides professional development and consulting to districts interested in expanding digital learning.

Critics of increased use of technology in classrooms say it doesn’t necessarily lead to more positive student outcomes and is a poor replacement for a teacher. Supporters say when properly used, technology can greatly improve achievement and empower students to progress at their own pace.

The Hechinger Report spoke with Gist about the prospects for blended learning in Rhode Island.

Deborah Gist. (Photo: Ken Richardson Photography)

Q. The goal of this partnership is to make Rhode Island “the first fully blended learning state” in the country. What does that mean, exactly?

A. Our vision is that all Rhode Island students will be pursuing flexible, student-centered pathways that are proficiency-based. What that means is that students themselves will be making decisions about their next steps, and will move on when they are ready. The technology is a tool that helps them do that. We know that students learn at different rates, and we want to make sure they are challenged and that they get support when they need it.

We envision some form of blended learning going on in every school in the state, but our local educators and school committees will be deciding how they want to integrate the technology. This is not something we will require, because we are so confident that teachers in our state recognize how valuable blended learning is.

Q. Why has Rhode Island taken the leap to be “the first” in the country?

A. Without question it’s because of the enthusiasm of our educators. We have a growing group of teachers and principals and superintendents who recognize the power of this movement. They understand that it’s not the technology itself, because just having the technology won’t change learning. But they are rethinking the way education is delivered and making it more personalized and seeing how technology helps them get there.

It has taken off in our state organically, led by educators who are exploring all the ways technology can improve teaching and learning. All over Rhode Island we have teachers who are breaking new ground and sharing what they are doing with each other.

The Learning Accelerator was already working in Rhode Island, supporting the FUSE RI fellowship program with the Highlander Institute. These teacher-leaders work with districts that are starting to implement blended learning, helping to identify the resources districts need to be successful and providing funds to help schools purchase technology.

We also have a supportive General Assembly and our Governor [Lincoln D. Chafee] and our state Board of Education all understand the potential of digital learning.

Q. What would you say to a skeptic who questions whether adding technology to classrooms will really make a difference?

A. I would invite them to come visit our schools. There is so much exciting work going on. You have to imagine a classroom that is very busy, with some students in small groups who are each on a laptop or tablet working, while a teacher is working with a different small group of students. There is very active learning going on. This is not a situation where students are sitting there, watching a screen. One of the toughest parts of teaching is differentiating instruction, meeting each student where they are within the pressures of the curriculum and the school schedule. What is so exciting is that this approach allows the kind of individualized instruction students need to keep them engaged and energized and to become prepared for college and careers.

Q. In some places, blended learning has resulted in a loss of teacher jobs. Do you see that happening in Rhode Island?

A. Technology can never take the place of great teachers. It is a tool for our great teachers to use. Even at Village Green, a virtual charter high school that is using technology perhaps to the greatest extent in our state, they understand that they need great teachers. In fact, they ended up hiring more teachers than they had originally planned after the school opened last year. Blended learning is not a replacement for teachers.

Q. Many schools in Rhode Island and across the country lack enough technology infrastructure and teacher expertise to successfully integrate digital learning into classrooms. How will you overcome these problems?

A. First of all, we’ve done a lot together as a state. Our leaders have supported investments in technology, including a wireless infrastructure bond that is allowing us to expand access to every classroom by February 2015. The Rhode Island Telecommunications Educational Access Fund ensures that Internet access is affordable for all schools – public and nonpublic – as well as libraries. And the Rhode Island Department of Education negotiated a master price agreement with vendors to help school districts purchase devices for the best price. The purchase price includes training and professional development for teachers. The goal is to move to a 1:1 ratio, so every student has access to a device.

At the heart of teaching and learning are great teachers, and blended learning is no different. We think about technology not only as an effective learning tool for students, but for adults, too. There are so many ways we can personalize professional development for teachers and principals with technology. Teachers are joining professional learning communities through Twitter and other online groups and social media. They are sharing resources with each other, mentoring one another and learning from one another.

Q. How will the costs associated with embracing blended learning be paid for?

A. Whether it’s purchasing technology and software, or providing professional development to educators, we believe this is something we can do within our existing investments. Of course, it’s wonderful to get additional resources so you can do even more, and we’ve been fortunate to get some grants.

Q. What most excites you about the potential of blended learning?

A. Today, every student in every school can have access to the world’s best learning, thanks to technology. Every single high school student in our state will be able to take any Advanced Placement course, for example. Previously, if you lived in a district with limited access to a wide array of courses – whether through the school’s small size or budget constraints – there were barriers to this kind of access. Those barriers no longer exist, and that is earth shattering.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jennifer D. Jordan covered education in Rhode Island for more than a decade as a staff writer at The Providence Journal. In 2013, she became the senior writer at Opportunity Nation, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding economic mobility and bridging America’s widening opportunity gap. She will be teaching an advanced journalism course at Roger Williams University in Fall 2014.

Q & A with Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist: Our goal is to be the first state to fully blend technology into all schools | The Hechinger Report.

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