Marcus Ferrara is a former teacher, district technology integration trainer, and currently is Director of Digital Instruction at Scholastic. Below, he shares three tips for effective digital instruction.
For the past year, we have been reimagining learning. Whether you are an educator, a parent, an administrator, or a student, much of what you thought were the requirements—or the how—of K–12 education has certainly changed. As we approach summer, it is time we pause, reflect, and consider which lessons to take with us moving forward.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, our idea of the typical classroom was transformed. We were challenged with logistics and staff capacity, while the inequities in our communities grew painfully transparent. We quickly had to refocus our energy and pivot plans to create and implement new strategies for a “new normal.”
Many schools turned to digital learning programs to keep their students engaged and to facilitate effective teaching and learning, not only as a response to an emergency but also as a proactive measure to keep education going, regardless of where the classrooms were. In New Jersey, for example, Plainfield School District knew it would have limited resources during remote instruction. With a combination of digital programs—Scholastic F.I.R.S.T. for grades K–2, Scholastic W.O.R.D. for grades K–5, and Scholastic Literacy Pro for grades K–8—the district’s students were able to access high-quality ebooks and learn foundational reading, vocabulary, and comprehension skills through game-based activities.
Donna Mullaney, Supervisor of Elementary ELA, shared that “students independently read authentic literature, and teachers were able to monitor and assess learning. Teachers also used [the programs] for read-alouds and guided reading lessons during virtual instruction, which provided additional support during the literacy block.” For younger students who struggled with phonics and phonemic awareness, teachers used the personalized aspect of the digital programs to target learning in small groups and centers. Mullaney explained that students were able to “practice essential skills while having fun.”
For this district and others, digital programs made the school year less stressful for educators and parents, while accelerating learning for students. What made this transition to digital so successful? Once a school or district has its technological devices and plans in place, there are three things that make digital instruction effective.
- Use Technology Purposefully: In a world where we have a multitude of virtual applications and extra exposure to devices, administrators have to pare down to high-quality programs that are best for their students. Screen time must be both intentional and engaging, if we expect students to truly learn from it. It all starts with determining what students need and providing programs that focus on those needs. Educators and administrators can ask themselves: What skills do our students need the most support with? Will this program help us differentiate instruction? Is this program personalized? Does it provide data to inform whole-group and small-group instruction? In my conversations with districts over the past few months, one trend has become increasingly clear. Those districts which provided students with highly engaging programs that personalized learning to each student's skills and level were reporting little-to-no digital fatigue.
- Implement with Fidelity: It’s easy to start the school year with the best intentions and then lose momentum later. During this past year, those educators who saw the greatest learning gains were the ones who used data and reports continuously and strategically. Checking real-time data and keeping track of usage ensure that programs are being used appropriately by students. During remote and hybrid learning, data helps educators understand which students need more support and helps administrators understand where the gaps are. Pandemic or not, with steady usage of digital programs, educators can see class trends and dig into performance to make instructional decisions.
- Commit to Continuous Professional Development (PD): When it comes to digital programs, educators need PD more than once per school year—in the beginning, and again, after four-to-eight weeks of regular use to review what is and isn’t working. Teachers need time and space to reflect and refine their use of digital programs. PD is best when used with a gradual-release approach, including question-and-answer portions. Ongoing sessions are the most ideal and encourage collaboration among teachers. Schools have benefited from creating a support system within each grade level with “master” teachers who help with program implementation, data review, and action steps.
Returning to the classroom will present new challenges, but as we evaluate what types of technology to use and create plans for success, it is vital to consider how that technology will continue to expand student learning. By being purposeful with technology, selecting programs that offer personalized learning paths, and supporting educators (and families) with implementation, we will ensure that students are not only learning but also engaged in the process of learning.