It is a crisp, bright day in early November in Southeast Washington, DC. The setting is Anacostia High School, a 697-student Title I school in DC’s Ward 8 that has long been one of the district’s most chronically underperforming schools. After giving a brief introduction to Japan’s geography and major cities, the social studies teacher we are observing asks her ninth-grade students to each pull out a netbook from a cart along one of the classroom walls and log into an online portal.
The portal is robust. Students can access an array of multimedia tools such as videos and interactive maps far beyond the scope of a printed textbook. They can request to hear passages read aloud and click on bolded terms to view their definitions. Each student can log in with a unique password, allowing them to customize their portal by taking notes and highlighting, and they can take assessments online for immediate feedback. Students can access their portal from anywhere, including at home, and teachers can track individual student progress.
Yet, as we watch, the students log in not with unique student-specific IDs but with generic ones. It takes one student almost five minutes to correctly enter the password required to log in to the computer itself. Despite the online assessment capabilities, the teacher asks students to answer questions on a paper worksheet, meaning she will have to review each one by hand that night. And at one point a student has trouble understanding a word. With the entire scope of human knowledge just a 0.21-second Google search away, the student gets out of her chair, walks over to a bookshelf, picks up a dictionary, and starts slowly flipping through the pages.
That particular anachronism—a 21st-century student turning to Merriam-Webster instead of Wikipedia—highlights both the massive potential and the stark realities of digital learning in today’s classrooms. Digital learning uses new technologies such as laptops, iPads, and online content to enhance student learning. Many believe such practices have the potential to dramatically improve the learning and teaching experience, and it seems every day heralds a new story of school districts purchasing iPads in bulk or enthusiastic accounts of the next revolutionary online tool.
But incorporating new technologies into schooling in a way that actually improves learning is not as simple as dropping laptops into a classroom and hoping for the best. It is hard work, requiring a district or school to provide ample training for teachers, make smart decisions on which products to use, and be sure any new technological tools help (and do not hinder) academic goals, among a host of other considerations.
Many highly publicized accounts of successful digital learning efforts tend to spotlight the bold vision of a pioneering school or district leader, leaving less room for a description of what central office and school staff must do behind the scenes to make those visions a reality. Such stories also tend to focus either on charter school networks (such as the San Jose–based Rocketship Education) or on smaller traditional school districts (such as Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, whose one-to-one computer-to-student initiative has attracted national attention and a keynote address from President Obama). These efforts should be applauded, but such examples tend to be more the exception than the rule when it comes to the realities facing most schools.
In this paper, then, we ask: what does it take to pursue a meaningful digital learning strategy in the large, urban districts that educate a significant percentage of our nation’s kids? Thanks in large part to the tenure of former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, DC has been in the national spotlight for its pursuits in teacher accountability and charter schooling, and it is seen by many observers as one of the country’s leading districts in school reform.
How does digital learning fit into this school reform agenda? What progress has the district made, what obstacles do its leaders face, and what lessons have they learned? Answers to these questions will illustrate some of the steps other similar urban districts must take as they grapple with the possibilities and challenges of digital classrooms.
1. According to the Council of the Great City Schools, about 15 percent of students are educated in one of the 100 largest school districts; see www.cgcs.org/Page/75.