Digital Content, Open Resources, Cybersecurity, and Makerspaces: That's What's on This Superintendent's Mind

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Makerspaces, robotic arms, virtual-reality goggles, 3D printers, a flight simulator, and a whole lot of iPads.

The 12,300-student Township High School District 214 in suburban Chicago already offers its students access to a wide variety of new technologies. But Superintendent David Schuler is always thinking ahead to what’s coming next and whether it has any real educational value.

When Schuler sets ed-tech priorities, he has very specific goals in mind. “It is about ensuring that ed tech provides adaptable resources to meet every student where they’re at and take them to higher levels of achievement than could be done without that ed-tech resource,” he said.

So how does Schuler determine what technology he’ll prioritize in his district for 2020?

One way is through small pilot projects funded by a set-aside in the curriculum budget. The district currently has a tightly focused process for teachers to pitch ed-tech pilots—they not only have to make the case for the expenditure, but they also have to establish metrics for measuring whether the pilot is successful.

Because ed tech changes so rapidly, Schuler said he has to rethink priorities annually. For 2020, Schuler has identified five top ed-tech areas of focus:

1. Maximizing the Use of Instructional Materials

David Schuler
David Schuler

Schuler said he’s seeking materials that don’t just digitize the print version of what’s currently used. So as part of searching for new digital materials, he’s encouraging his teachers to try using that content in new ways. He’ll be asking them to try flipped classrooms (where students watch a video lecture or do classwork at home, then come to school prepared to discuss and take part in activities based on that content), even if it’s just for a short unit or a few days.

Schuler also wants teachers to explore blended-learning opportunities—often using adaptive content that allows students to go at their own pace. That might mean students come to class a few days but work independently outside the classroom for the rest of the week, he said.

“We’re trying to prepare them for the experience they’ll have in college, where nearly every student has at least one online or blended course,” Schuler said.

New textbook-purchasing cycles have Schuler examining the impact that the shift to digital content will have on his bottom-line budget. The majority of textbook companies now sell six-year site licenses for their digital content, he said, which isn’t necessarily in line with his district’s budgeting process.

2. Rising Use of Open Educational Resources

The district is planning to boost its use of open educational resources—free digital curricular content—in 2020. It currently has at least one online course, freshman Human Geography, that uses all OER content, and there are plans for more.

But in pushing to grow the use of open resources—which sometimes come under scrutiny for their uneven quality—Schuler recognizes the need to vet them first. For 2020, one of Schuler’s priorities is to develop a vetting tool to help district educators quickly determine whether open educational resources they want to use are “viable, rigorous, and meet the expectations of our course outcomes and syllabus,” he said.

And he’s pushing for the same type of high-quality digital resources to be used for professional development for his teachers. As it is, some teachers in his district are participating in a massive open online course, or MOOC, from Stanford University on math instruction.

3. Making Virtual Reality (and Maybe Artificial Intelligence) Value-Adds to Learning

District 214 is embracing virtual reality for 2020, with the recent approval of two virtual-reality projects for the coming year. One will use virtual-reality goggles to let teachers and students “visit” foreign countries and view and discuss the historical and sociological perspective of cities there. The new technology will be used in Spanish, German, French, and Italian classes, he said.

“For kids who don’t have the resources to travel to a foreign country—to be immersed in the middle of Madrid is pretty cool and powerful,” Schuler said. “That’s a huge value-add.”

The district will also use virtual reality to allow more students to experience building with robotic arms in the district’s manufacturing lab. District 214 has two real robotic arms students can experiment with, but virtual reality will expand the number of students who can have the experience—albeit in a virtual environment.

Schuler is also monitoring the trend of artificial intelligence in K-12 education, but he admits the idea “scares me a bit.” He’s not exactly sure what AI-related products might do or of the applications for K-12. He’s skeptical of the hype around this new technology and whether it can be used to “truly transform teaching and learning.”

It’s something Schuler plans to watch closely as products continue to integrate AI technology. “I want to learn more, but I’m being cautious.”

4. Crafting a Cybersecurity Response Strategy

In 2020, the district will focus on ensuring redundancy in its technology infrastructure, so if one system falters or is hacked, the information can be accessed elsewhere. Schuler intends to move as much district data into the cloud as he can and eliminate servers where possible.

And he’s shifting the way he thinks about cybersecurity for the coming year. “For way too long, we have been asking the wrong question: What are we doing to prevent ourselves from being hacked or having our data breached?” he said. “What we need to ask is, ‘What happens when we’re hacked or when our data is breached?’”

In 2020, the district will create a cybersecurity response kit, so officials have a plan in place and aren’t scrambling at the time of an incident.

5. Continuing Support of Students as Makers and Creators

District 214 already emphasizes the idea of “making” throughout the district. Many schools have existing makerspaces, and all schools have a 3D printer.

“Creation, making, and curation of content is really important with this generation of students,” Schuler said. “That’s what makes school engaging and relevant for them.”

To Schuler, “making” can be a hands-on physical experience, but it can also be a digital one.

Schuler wants to add to the district’s fleet of existing 3D printers because he considers them essential to creating projects that cut across subjects. For example, his daughter who attends a district elementary school is designing an animal to program into the printer, then is researching and creating a habitat for her animal, he said.

At the high school level, students build prototypes of tools they need, test and refine them, and reprint. “That’s the kind of stuff that inspires students to want to continue learning,” Schuler said. “It brings learning to life.”

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