The Digital Design Divide
While the digital use and access divides are well documented by decades of scholarship, we present the digital design divide as a new consideration of the intersection of school culture, professional learning, and edtech. The design divide is between and within those systems that provide every educator the time and support they need to build their capacity with digital tools and those that do not. While socio-economic status has historically been a predictor of where schools and school systems may fall on either side of the use and access divides, the same is not true of design. Absent vision and sustained support, effective learning design using edtech can vary between neighboring classrooms within a school, schools within a district, and districts within a state.74 75 76 Considering the instructional core defined in the introduction of this report, the design divide can limit equitable, active student use, even when all students can access the necessary technologies and content. Not all teachers have the time, support, and capacities necessary to design instruction that incorporates active technology use.
Closing this divide requires a clear vision, re-imagining systems of support, and bringing teachers to the table as co-designers of their professional learning. The guidance, recommendations, and examples that follow lay out a path to supporting teachers inundated by increasing demands on their time and unclear expectations as to how they utilize technology most effectively.
In systems where the average teacher can access more than 2,000 digital tools in a given moment, training on a tool’s basic functionality is insufficient. Closing the design divide moves teachers beyond the formulaic use of digital tools and allows them to actively design learning experiences for all students within a complex ecosystem of resources.
Recommendations for Closing the Design Divide
- Develop a “Portrait of an Educator” outlining the cognitive, personal, and interpersonal competencies educators should have to design learning experiences that help students develop the skills and attributes outlined in the profile of a graduate. (States, Districts)
- Design and sustain systems that support ongoing learning for new and veteran teachers and administrators, providing them with the time and space needed to design learning opportunities aligned with the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Framework. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
- Implement feedback mechanisms that empower educators to become leaders and co-designers of professional learning experiences. (Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
- Provide educators and administrators with professional learning that supports the development of digital literacy skills so that they can model these skills for students and the broader school community. (States, Districts, Building-Level)
- Develop processes for evaluating the potential effectiveness of digital tools before purchase, including the use of research and evidence. (State, District, Building-Level Administrators)
- Foster an inclusive technology ecosystem that solicits input from diverse stakeholders to collaborate on decision-making for technology purchases, learning space design, and curriculum planning. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
- Support and facilitate a systemic culture that builds trust and empowers educators to enhance and grow their professional practice to meet the needs of each student. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
- Regularly solicit educator feedback and evaluate professional learning efforts to ensure alignment with the Portrait of an Educator. (District, Building-Level Administrators)
Modeling Student Learning Environments Building Educator Capacity
Recognizing that teacher professional learning environments and opportunities should mirror the learning environments desired for their students, education leaders at Arizona’s Mesa Public Schools are committed to changing their approach to professional learning. Having identified synergies between professional learning opportunities and the practices they wanted to see in the classroom environment, the district intentionally began weaving the attitudes and skills in their portrait of a graduate into the professional learning experiences for educators.
Modeling desired classroom practices through professional learning experiences is especially important because changing teaching practices takes time. District leaders realized they needed to do things differently to create the environments they wanted in classrooms. They learned that adults who have gone through an educational system with high levels of accountability don’t know they can personalize their learning experiences. They required explicit permission along the way.
Mesa provides educators with voice and choice in professional learning by developing badged specializations, allowing teachers to choose how they learn and demonstrate their learning. Developed with Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program grant funding, educators can earn badges by taking Arizona State University classes or designing their learning path to acquire and demonstrate the knowledge and skills required to earn the badge. Specializations are available in Blended and Online Learning and Deeper and Personalized Learning, with additional specializations under development.
In alignment with UDL principles, professional learning experiences are co-constructed with educators and administrators to better meet their needs. Because helping students understand who they are as learners and what does and doesn’t work for them is a component of UDL, the school system takes the same approach with their adult learners. Building educator capacity to personalize learning both in the classroom and as facilitators of professional learning is a key component of Mesa’s approach.
The district’s belief in and commitment to their students drives their commitment to the principles of UDL in professional learning. By doing so, they are working to ensure that all students have opportunities to learn.
Begin with the End Goal in Mind: Design Portrait of an Educator
The previous section discussed the value of developing a Portrait of a Learner/Graduate to define a clear vision of cognitive, personal, and interpersonal competencies students should have when they transition between grade levels and at graduation. As Mesa Public Schools realized, for students to develop the skills and competencies outlined in their Portrait of a Learner/Graduate, they require educators who embody and exhibit these competencies. Developing a Portrait of an Educator, aligned to the Portrait of a Learner/Graduate, connects educator habits and capacities with expected student learning. Setting a clear vision for educators aligns hiring practices, professional learning opportunities, and educator evaluations with these competencies. Moreover, such educator profiles can set clear expectations for educator needs and abilities regarding edtech. From there, state and district leaders can backward design professional learning systems to ensure all educators have the time, space, and capacity necessary to develop key learning design abilities.
Aligning Educator Evaluation Systems with a Portrait of an Educator
New Hampshire’s School Administrative Unit 16 (SAU-16) comprises seven smaller school districts and eight school boards around Exeter, NH. In 2020, SAU-16 brought in teachers, paraeducators, principals, and other stakeholders to begin imagining a companion Portrait of an Educator.
SAU-16 leaders recognized that without the right evaluative tools and support, the Portrait of an Educator would be just another piece of paper, so they decided to move to an asset-based evaluation system. Now, teachers develop their own growth goals—a knowledge goal focusing on pedagogy and a skill or mindset goal based on where they want to grow professionally.
Once a year, an assigned administrator observes educators, and twice per year, they can choose among peers, students, community members, and others to conduct observations. SAU-16 trained administrators in appreciative inquiry and framing their feedback through a positive lens. Teachers were asked, “How can this feedback help you grow?” and then were challenged to create their growth plan. Educators complete growth reflection sheets during the year and submit artifacts to document their progress.
Teachers indicate they appreciate the collaborative nature of the process and that observing, sharing, and having rich conversations improves their practice and sense of connectedness. They also understand the relevance of the growth process to their teaching. Teachers report that having a choice in naming their goals, choosing their collaborators, and creating their vehicles for growth is empowering and helps them tailor their professional development to their needs.
Developing a Portrait of an Educator in Rural Wyoming
Sheridan County School District 3 (SCSD3) in Clearmont, Wyoming, is a rural K-12 district with 96 students. To help the district develop a Portrait of an Educator, they hosted facilitators from the University of Wyoming (UW), who asked teachers a series of questions, including:
- What do students need to be able to do when they graduate?
- What do teachers need to be able to know and do to help students develop these skills in the classroom?
After collecting data, teachers were grouped to categorize responses to the questions and to paint a portrait of an educator at SCSD3. Teacher responses focused heavily on tailoring their approach to curriculum to meet individual student needs while providing them with opportunities to grow. They also emphasized the importance of creating trusting, safe, positive relationships with students, maintaining clear communication, and improving their professional skills.
SCSD3 teachers identified the following goals and abilities for their Portrait of an Educator:
- Model and cultivate learner-centered mindsets
- Design and implement learner-centered assessments
- Build learner-centered relationships and cultures
- Design and implement learner-centered instruction
- Sustain and cultivate wellness
- Collaborate, communicate, and create in a learner-centered system
- Champion learner-centered systems and communities
By actively involving teachers in the process of developing their Portrait of an Educator, SCSD3 and the UW facilitators helped ensure buy-in by giving teachers a voice.
In addition to the Portrait of an Educator, school systems may also consider creating a Portrait of an Administrator, outlining the skills and competencies needed by district-level leaders. Principals significantly impact school culture at the building level and create the conditions necessary to support the Portrait of an Educator. As Todd Whitaker has said, “When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold. This is neither good nor bad; it is just the truth. Our impact is significant; our focus becomes the school’s focus.”77 Just as developing a Portrait of an Educator can help support the learning environments that help students acquire the skills and dispositions of a Portrait of a Graduate, creating a Portrait of an Administrator can set the stage for a school culture that supports the success of both educators and students in using technology to support learning for all.
Considerations in Closing the Design Divide
Closing the design divide requires context-specific solutions. Still, some universal considerations remain the same across geographies. Once systems have set a vision by developing a profile of an educator, the following considerations can help clear the path to transformation.
Capture current culture. Understanding the current culture of an education organization is the first step to closing the design divide, whether a state education department, a school district, or an individual school. Capturing a clear understanding helps reveal the disparities between the current system state and where it wants to be. A needs assessment tool, such as the Title IV-A Needs Assessment from the Office of Safe and Supportive Schools, or asset mapping tools like those developed by Digital Promise, the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education in Vermont, or You for Youth, may be helpful. In addition, organizations can gather climate and culture survey data using tools like the Project Tomorrow Speak Up Survey or other survey instruments.
Calculate cost. Historically, investments in building professional capacity around the use and design of lessons with edtech have paled compared to the billions of dollars invested annually on the technology itself.78 Costs should include monetary expenses associated with hardware, software, and also professional learning and potential modifications to educator schedules. For example, suppose education leaders expect a digital tool to be used heavily across classrooms. In that case, systems should budget for the time and money necessary for educators to develop proficiency commensurate with that expectation.
Cultivate capacity. Using a tool and designing learning experiences that include using that tool are different skill sets. States, school systems, and schools working to close the design divide must cultivate educators’ capacities with new tools while increasing their proficiency with key learning frameworks. Neither a template nor a curriculum, UDL provides a common research-based structure and language to help all teachers design learning experiences to impact all learners.
Curate effective products. With vision, funding, and support in place, systems closing the design divide include structures for collaborative review of impact, barriers, and measured effectiveness. Effective systems intentionally build time and support for educators to share, analyze, and improve their professional practices.79 80 81 82 83 These systems deepen educator capacity to design learning experiences using multiple technological tools.
Build evidence. With finite time and funding, it is incumbent upon education systems to verify the effectiveness of technological tools before purchase and adoption, and during classroom implementation. Inquiring about digital resources’ evidence base can serve as a first line of defense for worthwhile use of educator and student time. See page XX for a description of the ESSA evidence tiers.
Cost Calculation Resources
The following resources developed by or in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) may be helpful for calculating costs:
Reconsidering Educator Learning Time to Improve Student Learning Time
When Brigantine Public Schools in New Jersey considered how they might improve the active use of technology for all students, they realized they needed to attend to educator needs first. They needed to reconsider teacher schedules to provide them with what was needed to design digital learning experiences that meet the needs of all students. They also realized this meant overcoming logistical and cultural challenges, including scheduling, budgeting, mindsets, and tradition. After a thoughtful design process that included school and district administrators, educators, and instructional coaches, the district arrived at a solution. They developed a new schedule that includes an additional planning period for common teacher planning time, articulation meetings, and sharing/teaching new approaches to technology use for staff and students. The new systemic approach closes the design divide in ways that translate to greater active use for all students.
Deeper Dive: Capture Current Culture
School culture impacts edtech use and student achievement. Research that reviewed two decades of evidence (including six quantitative, longitudinal studies involving 22,000 principals) found that principals have significant positive effects on student learning and that effective principals orient their practice toward instructionally focused interactions with teachers, building a productive school climate, facilitating collaboration and professional learning communities, and strategic personnel and resource management processes.84
Analysis of nearly a decade of data from schools in an urban North Carolina district, one of the largest in the country, showed that teachers achieved more significant increases in their student’s standardized test scores in schools with supportive professional environments—especially those with more peer collaboration and positive school culture—than did teachers in schools with less supportive professional environments.85
Other research analyzing two years of data on more than 9,000 teachers in 336 Miami-Dade County public schools showed that schools with better-quality collaboration—meaning teachers reported that their cooperation in instructional teams was both “extensive” and “helpful”—had higher student achievement gains in math and reading. These results held, even controlling for other characteristics of those schools’ students and teachers, meaning the researchers could be more confident that the difference was related to the quality of collaboration at the school and not to differences in the students and teachers themselves.86
Changing school culture begins with senior leadership. First, it requires understanding what educators need to help all students reach the goals in the Profile of a Learner/Graduate and creating policies and systems that help educators do so. Leaders must model the dispositions and practices they wish to see in classrooms, including using technology to support teacher voice and choice.
To aid in understanding current strengths and needs, systems can use tools such as:
- Needs assessments such as the Title IV-A Needs Assessment from the Office of Safe and Supportive Schools.
- Asset mapping tools like those developed by Digital Promise, the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education in Vermont, or You for Youth, may be helpful.
- Or surveys like the Project Tomorrow Speak Up Survey.
Shifting expectations of classroom technology use begins with changing how adults in the system are using technology. Understanding strengths and needs can be an important first step in this shift. These processes can also help to uncover biases in practice such as those documented in Matthew Rafalow’s Digital Divisions.87 Once uncovered, schools and districts can begin the work of ensuring high expectations of use for all students that includes mindfulness of unintended bias.
Deeper Dive: Calculate Costs
As discussed above, the costs of foundational changes in teaching practices go beyond the monetary expenses traditionally associated with technology initiatives: hardware, software, and professional learning. Providing educators with the time and support to become learning designers requires education leaders to reconsider time and monetary budgets for professional learning as well.
Teachers in the United States spend far more time engaged in active instruction than in other high-performing countries. Based on self-reported data, teachers in the United States spend 27 hours teaching out of 45 hours of work per week. Compare this with teachers in Singapore, who teach only 17 hours per week, or teachers in Finland, who teach 21 hours per week. Schools in these countries prioritize time for planning and collaboration, recognizing that developing and executing lessons takes time and preparation.88
Because school system resources are often tightly constrained, it can be difficult for education leaders to think creatively about scheduling. However, school systems are effectively reimagining the school day within existing budget constraints. Even small changes to existing schedules can help make a difference. Leaders considering how they might reconsider time budgets within school days can find examples from the Center for American Progress’s Reimagining the School Day and the Wallace Foundation’s Reimagining the School Day: More Time for Learning.
State Program Facilitates the Sharing of Instructional Technology Coaches Among Districts
The Learning Technology Center (LTC), a program of the Illinois State Board of Education, provides edtech services, support, and professional learning for K-12 Illinois schools, educators, and technology leaders. Recognizing that many small and medium-sized school systems could not afford a full-time instructional technology coach, the LTC developed the LTC Instructional Technology Coach Program. The program leverages an innovative cost-sharing model, allowing multiple districts in a similar geographic area of the state to “share” the costs of an instructional technology coach for a predetermined number of days throughout the school year. This program allows them to access the benefits of coaching without adding staff or committing to a full-time employee.
In the spring of each year, the LTC works with districts to identify their instructional coaching needs, determine the number of days they would like support from a coach (from 10-170 days), and pairs up neighboring districts. Together, the LTC and the districts interview and select a coach with pedagogical and technological experience. Even though the coach is an LTC employee, it is essential that the districts feel the coach is a fit for their culture. Districts then complete an onboarding document that helps situate the coach regarding the district’s goals, daily procedures, and technology. Doing so allows the coach to enter classrooms on day one to build relationships and support educators.
The instructional technology coaches support teachers through coaching cycles. Teachers identify an area of need, and coaches work 1:1 with teachers to set goals, create an action plan, and support them through that action plan. The coaching cycle includes time for reflection, where coaches sit down with teachers, identify the impact that they have had on student learning, and plan how to carry that through in future lessons.
In 2022-2023, the LTC had eight coaches working across 75 school buildings in Illinois. In those buildings, more than 2,000 teachers are impacting more than 26,000 students. The instructional technology coaching program helps even the smallest school systems make the most of their technology investments while providing their teachers with personalized, job-embedded professional development.
Leveraging Staff Meeting Time for Professional Learning
Finding time to provide teachers with professional learning is often challenging for school systems. Scheduling professional learning opportunities outside the traditional school day means many educators cannot attend. Narragansett Public Schools in Rhode Island found that many teachers reported needing more time to explore new technology and determine how they might integrate it into instruction. To help address the problem, Narragansett Pier Middle School hosted a “tech tasting” instead of one of their mandatory staff meetings to address this challenge. Facilitated by teachers and instructional coaches who attended the Massachusetts Computer Using Educators (MassCUE) conference, the tech tasting followed an Edcamp model in which teachers were allowed to “vote with their presence” and attend whichever session they were most interested in. Post-event surveys found that teachers appreciated the opportunity to explore something that interested them and start planning for classroom use. Leveraging an existing meeting time for professional learning and giving educators a choice in the session they attended helped ensure that teachers could successfully incorporate new technology into lessons.
Leveraging Online Learning to Support Teacher Competency Development
Like many districts, Cajon Valley Union School District in California has faced challenges providing differentiated professional learning for teachers and staff. With limited opportunities for in-person learning, exacerbated by the increasing difficulty of finding substitutes, they decided to leverage online learning to support district employees. Built on the Alludo platform, they developed Cajon 365, a professional learning platform providing educators with anytime, anywhere access.
Through Cajon 365, which includes customized learning content, employees can demonstrate competencies and earn digital badges, points, and rewards. Educators can choose the areas to focus on to meet their classroom, personal, and professional goals. With Cajon 365, district leadership can add new content any time based on current objectives and goals. The platform is also used for onboarding new employees, ensuring they don’t miss out on important content.
Cajon 365 provides visibility on learning progress across schools and the district and is used as a metric in the Cajon Valley Local Control and Accountability Plan. In two years, Cajon 365 supported 1548 learners with more than 10,000 hours of professional learning.
Where monetary investment is needed, several federal funding sources can support educator professional learning. The 2023 Dear Colleague Letter: Leveraging Federal Funds for Teaching and Learning With Technology from the U.S. Department of Education provides some examples of how funds under Titles I through IV of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended (ESEA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) may support the use of technology to improve instruction and student outcomes. Importantly, informal supports for students with disabilities are not a substitute or replacement for IDEA compliance and reasonable accommodations.
- Title II, Part A authorizes programs to improve the quality and effectiveness of teachers and school leaders through professional development and other allowable activities at the state and district levels. Allowable uses of Title II, Part A funds focuses on job-embedded, evidence-based, and classroom-oriented activities. Title II, Part A funds may be used to provide professional development funds to teachers and school leaders, and in some circumstances paraprofessionals such as teaching assistants, instructional support personnel, interventionists, and other staff.
- Title I, Part A provides funds that may be used, in a school implementing a Title I schoolwide program, for professional development for teachers and specialized instructional support personnel if that use is supported by the school’s comprehensive needs assessment and schoolwide plan.
- Title I, Part C provides for professional development programs, including mentoring, for teachers and other program personnel, specifically in support of migratory children.
- Title I, Part D provides appropriate training for teachers and other instructional and administrative personnel to meet the educational needs of neglected, delinquent, and at-risk children and youth.
- Title III provides funds that may be used to supplement professional development designed to increase the English language proficiency of ELs and immigrant students, for example by supplementing professional development around providing language instruction educational programs and helping ELs meet academic content standards.
- Title IV, Part A provides funds that may be used for professional development for the effective use of data and technology, academic assessments, career and technical education, and family and community engagement.
- Title IV, Part B (Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLCs)) supports the creation of community learning centers that provide academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for children. 21st CCLCs may use some funds to provide professional development for their staff. States may also reserve some of their 21st CCLC funds to provide training to applicants and recipients of these funds.
- Title V, Part B provides supplemental funds for rural LEAs that are either small or serve high numbers of low-income students. The funds may generally be used for supplemental activities that are allowable under Title I-A, Title II-A, Title III, and Title IV-A and -B.
- Title VII, Impact Aid is a highly flexible funding stream for eligible school districts serving federally connected children. Districts may use Impact Aid funds at their discretion, including professional learning.
- The McKinney-Vento Homeless Act provides funding for professional learning to facilitate and enhance the identification, enrollment, attendance, and success in school of homeless children and youth.
- Career and Technical Education (Carl D. Perkins Act) provides funds to Eligible Recipients (generally, LEAs, area CTE schools, or postsecondary non-baccalaureate granting institutions) for the purposes of career and technical education. Professional development programs related to career and technical education for teachers, counselors, and administrators is an allowable use of funds.
- The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides for professional learning and collaborative planning related directly to the provision of special education. For example, LEAs may use up to 15 percent of their IDEA Part B funds to develop and implement coordinated early intervening services for students who are not currently identified as needing special education or related services, but who need additional academic and behavioral support to succeed in a general education environment, which can include relevant professional development for teachers and other school staff.
In addition to federal funds, school system leaders should consult their state education departments regarding state-specific funding for educator professional learning. Private foundations and other non-governmental organizations also provide grant funds to support educator professional learning.
Considering UDL in Procurement
It can be helpful to evaluate edtech tools against the UDL framework as part of the procurement process. Some practical steps states and school systems can take include:
- Becoming familiar with the three UDL principles and their guidelines. Understanding how each principle aims to address the needs of diverse learners.
- Reviewing the evaluation framework for the CAST UDL Product Certification. Although geared towards edtech products seeking UDL product certification, it is a helpful resource for states and school systems evaluating edtech tools, even if they are not certified.
- Exploring the features and functionalities of the edtech tool. Does it prioritize student access and engagement? Does it consider learners’ interests and motivations? Does it ensure learners have multiple ways to gain comprehension, and does it provide multiple ways to share their knowledge and ideas? Is the tool user-friendly and easy to navigate?
- Ensuring the tool includes accessibility features like text-to-speech, closed captioning, and keyboard navigation. The Quick Reference Guide for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) can be helpful.
- Considering if assessments within the tool accommodate diverse ways of demonstrating knowledge and understanding.
Deeper Dive: Cultivate Capacity
High-quality professional learning opportunities can positively impact student achievement, especially when educators have the time to collaborate and design impactful learning experiences.89 90 However, not all professional learning opportunities are of equal caliber. Fortunately, research has identified the characteristics of effective professional learning structures.
The definition of professional development91 included in the Every Student Succeeds Act includes the critical characteristics that should be present in any high-quality professional learning opportunity: sustained (not stand-alone, one-day, or short-term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused.92 A Learning Policy Institute review of 35 methodologically rigorous studies demonstrated a positive link between teacher professional development, teaching practices, and student outcomes. This study identified critical features of effective models, finding that high-quality professional learning:
- Is content focused: focuses on teaching strategies associated with specific curriculum content that supports teacher learning within teachers’ classroom contexts. This element includes an intentional focus on discipline-specific curriculum development and pedagogies in areas such as mathematics, science, and literacy.
- Incorporates active learning: Active learning engages teachers directly in designing and trying out teaching strategies, providing them an opportunity to engage in the same style of learning they are designing for their students, using authentic artifacts, interactive activities, and other strategies to provide deeply embedded, highly contextualized professional learning. This approach moves away from traditional learning models and lecture-based environments that have no direct connection to teachers’ classrooms and students.
- Supports collaboration: High-quality professional learning creates space for teachers to share ideas and collaborate in their learning, often in job-embedded contexts. By working collaboratively, teachers can create communities that positively change the culture and instruction of their entire grade level, department, school, or district.
- Uses models of effective practice: Curricular and instruction modeling provide teachers with a clear vision of what best practices look like. Teachers may view models that include lesson plans, unit plans, sample student work, observations of peer teachers, and video or written cases of teaching.
- Provides coaching and expert support: Coaching and expert support involve sharing content and evidence-based expertise focused directly on individual teachers’ needs.
- Offers feedback and reflection: High-quality professional learning frequently provides built-in time for teachers to think about, receive input on, and make changes to their practice by facilitating reflection and soliciting feedback. Feedback and reflection help teachers thoughtfully move toward the expert visions of practice.
- Is of sustained duration: Effective professional learning provides teachers with adequate time to learn, practice, implement, and reflect upon new strategies that facilitate changes in their practice.93
Several organizations have developed standards for educators and administrators and/or professional learning, which school system leaders may find helpful. The Learning Forward Standards for Professional Learning, the ISTE Standards, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, along with the UDL Guidelines, can help guide the development of high-quality professional learning experiences for educators and administrators.
Designing Wrap-Around Teacher Support as a New Normal
When Denver Public Schools (DPS) in Colorado considered the patterns of teacher engagement in professional learning opportunities across the district, they noticed a familiar problem. Teachers attended one-off trainings on thoughtfully integrating technology within their practice and then moved on. The district team, including the Senior Manager of EdTech and Library Services, EdTech Manager, and Digital Coaches, knew that research has shown such one-off efforts have limited impact on meaningful change in practice. District leaders wanted to find a way to incorporate full professional coaching cycles into existing professional development sessions.
DPS shifted expectations. Teachers signing up for one-off sessions were also required to participate in professional coaching cycles related to the topics of each session. The shift resulted in initial attrition in registration numbers and required team attention to navigate the logistics of such a change in practice. The edtech team worked with the DPS professional learning department and the local union to resolve these logistical considerations. The team reports a shift in the effectiveness of their professional learning offerings, noting teachers are more likely to stay in touch or reach out when they have questions due to the coaching. Evidence is more than anecdotal. The team has seen an increase in teacher registration year over year. Additionally, they have seen increased completion rates from registration to end-of-year completion as educators settle into this new normal of ongoing support.
UDL School Implementation and Certification Criteria
The UDL School Implementation and Certification Criteria provides school teams with a blueprint for designing and improving school wide UDL implementation. Four domains are central to building a school’s UDL ecosystem: School Culture and Environment; Teaching and Learning; Leadership and Management; and Professional Learning. Each domain has four elements describing the essential characteristics of a school implementing UDL. The criteria were developed using insights from implementation, improvement, and learning science research and informed by ongoing input and feedback from experienced UDL leaders throughout the field of education. While the full certification process is not yet available, the UDL-SICC criteria and related tools—including a school self-assessment—support school system UDL implementation efforts.
The Learner Variability Navigator
Learner variability recognizes that each student has a unique constellation of interconnected strengths and challenges. The Learner Variability Navigator (LVN) is a free and open-source web-based tool designed to make the science of learning more accessible. By highlighting connections among factors critical to student success and instructional strategies, the LVN helps educators understand why certain strategies may impact students differently, thus empowering them to support the full diversity of learners. The LVN includes six learner models from grades pre-K through 12 in literacy and math, and an adult learner model—all based on a whole learner framework curated by researchers and practitioners.
Building Educator Capacity for Data Visualization and Use Across Nebraska
In Spring 2023, the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) kicked off its third cohort within its Data Visualization and Use Education Innovation Network. Educators selected to join the network participate in webinars to increase their capacity to design data visualizations to communicate student learning and engage in continuous improvement. The webinars give teachers experience with topics including:
- Why Use Data?
- Data Analysis Basics & Common Tools
- Data Visualization: Charts, Maps that Make Sense
- Storytelling with Data, Diving Deeper into Data
- Diving Deeper into Data
- Data for Improving Outcomes: Turn Data into Action
Sponsored by the NDE Data Management and Navigation Team, data visualization is one of a handful of networks created by NDE to support its “Commitment to Equity of ‘ensuring equity of access by supporting quality instructional materials.’”94 The cohort model ensures a standard level of competency for participating educators and connects participants from across Nebraska’s 19 educational services units and 247 school districts. Members meet monthly for discussion and knowledge sharing.
Procurement Best Practices
Rather than relying on retrofitting for accessibility as the need arises, the district team at Francis Howell School District in O’Fallon, Missouri, built accessibility into technology planning and procurement.95 The district also realized they would not find one device that fit the accessibility needs of all students. When special education case managers need a specific device to meet student needs, they know the district technology department has a variety of devices on hand to meet those varying needs. The district has also realized that what is necessary for some can benefit all. Originally, students needing text-to-speech features activated on their devices had to request that the district activate the services. Now, the feature is under the students’ control. Finally, Francis Howell is working to systematize accessibility as a component of technology procurement. When considering new technology purchases, the district team includes the district assistive technology and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance coordinator to ensure that future technology won’t mean students waiting to activate or install the needed features.
Deeper Dive: Curate Effective Products
While having a vision or north star for using technology in instruction is critical, carefully considering a given edtech product’s prior evidence of effectiveness before purchase and then evaluating the extent to which it is achieving important student learning and other objectives during and post-implementation is equally important. In the digital use divide section, we discussed how education leaders can evaluate tools associated with the more open-ended practices of active technology use. The classroom success of these kinds of tools is likely influenced by how they are deployed and utilized, as well as the features of the tools themselves. In this section, we’ll discuss the role of research in edtech evaluation, which often aligns with more closed-ended, subject-specific digital tools such as digital textbooks and curricula, math and language learning apps, or adaptive learning/assessment platforms.96
Despite the significant financial investments made in education technologies, school districts often make purchasing decisions without considering available evidence regarding the effectiveness of technologies. According to a 2023 LearnPlatform report, only 26 of the 100 most accessed edtech products in K-12 classrooms during the first half of the 2022-23 school year had published research aligned to one of the four tiers of evidence in ESSA. Research has found that nine in 10 educators admit they rely on general web searches to gather information about edtech,97 while 59 percent base their procurement decisions on recommendations from peers.98 A 2017 survey found that 90 percent of teachers and education leaders said they didn’t insist on research being in place before adopting or buying a product.99 Even when research is available, it may not take into account contextual differences across districts.100
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)101 encourages state and local educational agencies to prioritize evidence-based practice, which can include the use of edtech in schools.102 The U.S Department of Education has defined “evidence-based” and other terms for use in ESEA programs and other programs in its regulations (see 34 CFR 77.1). Under ESEA, there are four tiers of evidence, with the first tier providing the strongest form of evidence: (1) Strong Evidence, (2) Moderate Evidence, (3) Promising Evidence, and (4) Demonstrates a Rationale.103 Refer to the graphic below for definitions of the four tiers of evidence.
Deeper Dive: Build Evidence
High-quality evidence about a given edtech product’s effectiveness isn’t always available to support adoption decisions—and educators don’t always receive the training and support they need to build evidence of a product’s effectiveness on their own.104 As a result, there is a substantial need for accessible professional learning resources specifically designed to support schools in evidence-building activities. To help close this gap, the U.S. Department of Education developed the EdTech Evidence Toolkit, which includes four Evidence One-Pagers and a Blog Series. The toolkit offers educational leaders support in using evidence to inform edtech adoption decisions in schools by providing:
- Introductory evidence-building activities for four tiers of evidence, as outlined in ESEA
- Example case studies for using evidence-building activities to inform edtech adoption
- Suggestions for collaborative activities to encourage the use of evidence in schools
The purpose of the EdTech Evidence Toolkit is threefold:
- To offer an introductory resource for understanding the four tiers of evidence, as outlined by ESEA, concerning edtech adoption,
- To present a practical school district case study across the four tiers of evidence that uses evidence-building activities incrementally to inform edtech adoption, and
- To serve as a resource to inform professional development efforts supporting use of evidence in schools.
State education departments can and should help empower districts and schools to expand current uses of evidence (for example, diagnostic data to inform individual student intervention) by providing professional learning and guidance to build district-level capacity. When educational leaders help school systems adopt the scientific method to inform decision-making, school systems can engage in evidence-building activities that support positive student outcomes. Including schools as participants in evidence-building supports self-advocacy and lessens the gap between research and practice.105
Additional resources available to help education stakeholders successfully choose and implement evidence-based project components designed to improve learner outcomes include the following:
- U.S. Department of Education’s Non-Regulatory Guidance: Using Evidence to Strengthen Education Investments. This guidance: (1) reviews steps for effective decision-making about evidence use and evidence building; (2) describes in detail the four evidence levels introduced in Section 8101(21)(A) of the ESEA and how they are used by the Department in its discretionary grant programs through EDGAR (34 CFR 77.1); and (3) clarifies how a variety of evidence can be used to inform decision making.
- The What Works Clearinghouse provides practice guides and intervention reports which provide evidence-based recommendations for educators and research findings for education interventions and practices.
- The Regional Educational Laboratory Program (REL) consists of 10 regional laboratories which collaborate with school districts, state departments of education, and other education stakeholders to help generate and apply evidence with the goal of improving learner outcomes.
Massachusetts State Resources Help Ensure Equitable and Effective Edtech Use
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education’s Office of Educational Technology (OET) promotes the strategic and equitable usage of edtech in the state. The OET recognized that despite significant progress in access to devices and the internet for students, that access was not necessarily translating into equitable learning experiences.
Toward that end, the office published an EdTech Strategic Planning Guide identifying the foundational conditions for a healthy school technology system. The office then partnered with The Learning Accelerator to produce the more technical Edtech Systems Guide: Equity-Driven Selection, Implementation, and Evaluation to help school system leaders strengthen their edtech processes. The impetus for the Edtech Systems Guide came from edtech leaders asking for support as they struggled to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of tools purchased during the pandemic. Department leaders also saw the opportunity to reinforce the idea that how edtech tools are selected and implemented is integral to their ultimate impact. The EdTech Systems Guide helps edtech leaders work through that process while keeping equity at the forefront. District technology leaders were essential to the development of the guide, ensuring it would be relevant and practical for practitioners. A companion workbook accompanies the guide so district teams can work collaboratively on the recommended action steps. The guide also includes considerations for students who are English language learners; students with individualized education programs; and large and small school systems.
The state has supported leaders to implement its recommendations to bolster the guide’s impact. In continued partnership with The Learning Accelerator, OET launched an EdTech Peer Learning Cohort for district teams composed of edtech, instructional leaders, educators, and, sometimes, students. Cohort participants developed a problem of practice related to improving edtech systems, received individualized coaching, and collaborated with other participants in virtual sessions. Examples of issues that cohort teams worked on include incorporating student voice into edtech evaluation and how to increase student information system usage by families of English language learners. These case stories capture the cohort experiences.
Mendon-Upton Includes Student, Teacher Voice in Edtech Procurement
Mendon-Upton Regional School District (MURSD) is a small suburban district in central Massachusetts which provides their teachers access to more than 200 edtech tools. MURSD participated in the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education’s OET 2022-2023 EdTech Peer Learning Cohort. During this cohort, MURSD improved edtech evaluations to align with the district’s vision and curricular needs.
MURSD incorporated student voice in the edtech evaluation process by appointing a high school student to the technology committee, which determined the criteria for evaluating each edtech tool in the district. The committee also included a teacher, a media center specialist, a technician, and the technology director, who led the committee. They included the student in every conversation and the student even built a technology inventory database for the district.
The committee also developed a process for teachers interested in piloting edtech tools. Teachers can nominate tools they want to test using the Digital Tool Pilot Proposal Form. The technology team reviews the submitted proposals and scores them on the MURSD Digital Tool Pilot Evaluation Rubric to help ensure the pilot’s success. Finally, pilot teachers participate in an annual Digital Tool Evaluation process each school year in May. Educators and students self-report their experience with the tool using the district’s evaluation form. The form differentiates questions by role and asks users about impact, usability, engagement, and whether they would recommend the tool. Based on this input, the technology team can renew the pilot and potentially scale the tool, abandon the tool, or consider redesigning the pilot.
By including teacher voices in the selection process, the MURSD technology team hopes to identify the tools supporting student learning and thoughtfully invest in effective solutions.
Study Indicates Technology Can Support Reduced Juvenile Justice Recidivism
When researchers from Arizona State University and the Oregon Research Institute set out to determine how to reduce recidivism in juvenile justice offenders, they began with two questions: 1. Were youth receiving technology-enabled support services less likely to recidivate than peers who weren’t receiving these services? 2. Were any specific components of these supports significantly associated with recidivism reduction? Youth in the treatment group received services such as:
- Technology-enhanced education and cognitive restructuring
- Individualized and intensive educational and vocational programming
- Access to a transition specialist from prerelease to at least 30 days post release
- Intentionally integrated technology practices
Results of the non-randomized comparison study106 published in 2023 showed “the comparison group had a significant 201% greater odds to recidivate two years post-release from the facility.” While technology played an integral part in supporting the youth in the treatment group, the study offers a powerful example of the importance of considering each component of the instructional core. Transition specialists served as teachers, technology delivered individualized content, and the youth were called on to be actively involved in their own education. Such studies show the power of what is possible when the design divide narrows in support of all learners.
While the closing of the digital use divide calls on systems to envision and enact equitable active use for all students as a part of the instructional core, the digital design divide calls on schools and districts to leverage resources necessary for all teachers within the core to execute this vision.
Unlike the use and access divides, the design divide cannot be predicted by student socio-economic status because it can exist between teachers in neighboring classrooms teaching students with the same demographics and access to the same technologies. Closing the divide and bringing equity of capacity to these and all other teachers will include mechanisms like professional learning communities, coaching cycles, and feedback systems that provide teachers with the evidence they need to make informed design decisions. It will require insistence on research-supported tools, re-considering schedules, and providing educators with a framework to design effective student learning experiences for all.
For schools to realize the potential of edtech to help transform learning for all students, they must be willing to imagine how they can transform learning for all educators.
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