By Cyri Jones, ZEN Strategic Consulting Services Inc.
In looking for case studies for this environmental scan project, one of the most intriguing and potentially useful as a model was an exciting initiative right here in the Lower Mainland, British Columbia in West Vancouver entitled the Digital Dashboard.
I had a personal connection to this case as my three kids are in a West Vancouver School District school, all using the Digital Dashboard and so I was able to see first-hand as my kids used the platform and its impact on their learning and engagement.
I noticed my kids, two boys in Grade 5 and a daughter in Grade 7 on the computer writing, checking homework and communicating with other kids in their classes. My kids are all too young for Facebook, even though in my daughter’s class, she is apparently one of the only kids “not on Facebook” despite the age restrictions. As a parent, I appreciated that they had in the Digital Dashboard something similar to Facebook where they could interact with their peers, where they could access their homework information and resources, where they could be creators of content, not just content consumers… and all using a platform that respected their privacy.
They said they were told by their teachers that they should only use the Digital Dashboard for education related areas but it wasn’t surprising to see a lot of their initial writing focus on adding friends to their network, uploading avatar pictures and saying hello to each other. Although they were also told to keep their network to their classmates in their school, they were happy to find their friends that went to different schools on the network too and to be able to connect with players from their soccer team, or friends from a previous school they attended.
Some might argue that they were just “fooling around” but it was good to see they were doing more writing than they had before on the computer, they weren’t just watching funny YouTube videos, they weren’t being bombarded with advertisements. They were able to download homework files, and if they wanted to they could easily interact with their instructor.
I could see it contributing to my kids’ personal development and growth, they were building a kind of early-stage portfolio.
I had the opportunity in December, 2011 to meet with Gary Kern, the Directory of Instruction at the West Vancouver School District (#45), to learn more about this Digital Dashboard project that he had been spearheading.
The project so far has been very successful; their digital literacy teacher has visited all Grade 4 classes in the district and explained the Digital Dashboard to them. Gary said he was impressed when he himself was contacted by a Grade 4 student asking when Gary could come to his school to talk about the Digital Dashboard. It’s not in every district that you have a Grade 4 student messaging the school district’s CIO!
When the platform first launched, there were some parents that followed up with Gary and questioned the value of students being on the Digital Dashboard, would it really benefit them academically but the majority of parents were supportive and the students liked it.
West Vancouver School District 45 is serious about preparing students for the world they live in and helping them learn about digital tools, how to use them ethically and how to use them efficiently.
Their focus has been mainly on Grades 4 to 7. Gary acknowledges that secondary school students live more on external networks like Facebook and Twitter and so their Digital Dashboard approach needs to be different with this older group (although they still have access to the Digital Dashboard and many are still using).
The response has been overwhelming. Ninety-five percent of Grade 4 students have blogged at least once.
Gary said the Digital Dashboard has enabled schools in different parts of the district to communicate better with each other. For example, a more remote school on Bowen Island is collaborating with a more urban school.
Gary is aware that their students will get more than enough screen time in their lives so the challenge is to make sure that the time they do spend on the Digital Dashboard is meaningful and as helpful as possible for the student’s learning.
He sees a fundamental shift from teacher-driven to student-driven learning and that we have really turned a corner for access for our kids to high quality digital learning tools and resources.
Their program is based on a “triangle” model of:
1) Learning Activities
Digital tools are transforming all three of these areas. Here is a presentation with more background on School District 45’s Learning with Dashboards Implementation.
Gary Kern said the technology is really not the focus of the project and although he was clearly an IT expert, his focus was on improved pedagogy and ensuring students are properly prepared for the 21st century. Their district already used a number of Microsoft products and it made sense to continue with their products for this new digital platform.
The Digital Dashboard is based on Microsoft SharePoint. They have been happy with the product and see even more potential with upcoming versions of SharePoint with integrations with Office 365.
Each student is provided with Web space for file storage and sharing. They haven’t put quotas on the space and have been able to scale up as necessary. “Storage space is relatively cheap” said Gary. We see a hierarchy of needs with basic file storage space a foundation.
So far, Gary says the data storage they are able to provide at the district level, hosted locally has been fine but they are in the process of looking at how using Microsoft’s SkyDrive service could provide even more massive, free storage.
What does the Digital Dashboard include? It has:
- Instant messaging
- Authenticated login
- Classroom resources and assignments
- Personal Profile / Web Portfolio
- Online Document Library
Gary says blogs are the anchor — it has really been the core of the other tools.
The first step is providing a digital learning and communications environment and Web space (Digital Dashboard as it is now). The next step is to integrate individual learning plans tied to learning outcomes. Individual learners should be able to expand their learner profiles as they grow and move from grade to grade. Parents should be able to access when their children are younger. Finally, it would be good if this kind of system could scale provincially, kids from one district could take their learning data with them to another district.
“Kids create so many things in school and parents often can’t keep it all, wouldn’t it be great to be able to access samples of their work from elementary school grades all the way up to secondary school and graduation and see how they have grown as a person and learner!”
Grade 4 to 7 seems to be the sweet spot for introducing digital literacy.
“You don’t want to introduce too much technology when they are too young and still developing other important, basic skills. By Grades 8-12 they all live in Facebook. What we’re finding though is that the older students don’t mind having a separate network for their school context. In the future we will look more into how to have more tie-ins for example to a student’s portfolio and their third party networks they are part of like Twitter and Facebook.”
Some future challenges include how to engage parents more and how can you help teachers collaborate better.
“This is not an instant thing. It has been a six to seven year conversation. A lot of the things we wanted to do pedagogically in the past were not very feasible technically. Now technology is more accessible than ever and there is tremendous potential.”
One of the striking features of this West Vancouver School District initiative is how transparent it has been. Gary was happy to share what worked well as well as challenges and he regularly shares the experience on the digital literacy blog for the school district (http://go45.sd45.bc.ca/district/blogs/digitalliteracy/default.aspx) and via Twitter (@Gary_Kern)
The Superintendent for the West Vancouver School District, Chris Kennedy, writes a popular blog entitled the Culture of Yes (http://cultureofyes.ca/). Together with leadership team members like Gary Kern and also with the many teachers and others involved with digital literacy, they have fostered a culture where it’s okay to try new things, to take risks, to find new approaches for improving learning and meeting student needs.
- Leadership is key and sets the tone and culture of the organization. Part of good leadership is being willing to make difficult and potentially controversial decisions. Gary Kern said he knew that what they were launching was disruptive technology and would ruffle some feathers but knew it was in the best interests of students and their other stakeholders too to go ahead.
- Related to leadership is the importance of transparency. SD#45 has had good communications with students, parents, teachers and staff about their planned roll-out of the Digital Dashboard.
- Good to launch in phases but not necessarily in small “pilots”. SD#45 launched their digital dashboard across the entire district all at once. Gary Kern explained if the platform and approach is good for one class or one grade, we don’t see why it wouldn’t be good for a larger group. Scalability has been a goal right from the beginning.
The Digital Dashboard is doing a good job of enabling communication, encouraging more digital literacy and writing in general. The one area that Gary believes needs to be improved is the discovery and integration of digital learning resources. “A teacher is doing a lesson about sharks, it would be good if from their Digital Dashboard, they could do a quick and intuitive search to find the best learning resources for that topic and integrate into their lesson”.
“Teachers need to access more and more content to pass on to their students. Google isn’t always finding the best resources and takes a lot of time to sort through so many results. Students need to be able to share or pull parts of content together… they are increasingly content creators, not just content consumers. We need a better, federated search that can find the best learning resources from multiple locations and display the results in our own network.”
After meeting with Gary and seeing the Digital Dashboard being used by my own children, I significantly modified my views for what ideal learning resources architecture would look like.
Rather than have one monolithic, provincial social network to help learners connect and find learning resources, it looks like a more compelling model is for individual school districts to have the social network technologies that make best sense for them – they are definitely in the best position to engage with students to support their learning. For this to work well though, the local systems would need to have strong integration with a provincial learning resources registry and for students to have the ability to migrate their data from one school district to another, not a trivial task.
Perhaps a provincial social networking and publishing tool like Digital Dashboard could be available by some new provincial IT services agency or by ERAC to districts unable to host and manage efficiently their own network but a uniform approach would not need to be forced upon districts.
If a district already has something working well in place, then it wouldn’t make sense to uproot and the whole idea of school districts is to enable local decision making for local needs. Some are quite capable of developing their own solutions like the West Vancouver School District clearly has done whereas other districts would likely have a more difficult time.
Students shouldn’t be disadvantaged by being in a digitally-unaware or under-funded district and clearly there are big advantages to services offered in the “cloud”.
In an age of tight budgets, is it good use of resources to have 57 different “private cloud” services in British Columbia offering essentially the same tools? In an age of awareness of the benefits of crowdsourcing and the power of data, do we want to silo our student and teacher data? Should a student that moves from Prince George to Vancouver have to start from scratch with his or her data?
The case also demonstrates the best learning resources are people, teachers, and classmates — a district wide social network can really help overcome traditional barriers and aid in the discovery of learning resources and even better, the creation of learning resources.
Perhaps the final piece is for the local school districts to support a provincial learning registry that will add new value to the local networks. Such a system could have this integration in a seamless fashion. It wouldn’t require students to leave their local learning spaces to go to a search portal — the results could be displayed right within their own, local learning space.
In an age where learning analytics will play an increasingly large role, such data flow will become paramount. This is the most difficult and likely most expensive component of an effective learning resources architecture, to tie in quality of learning resources with individual student learning outcomes to enable truly personalized learning. Jurisdictions in the United States such as New York, Pennsylvania and California have put tens of millions of dollars funding into these kinds of initiatives, in some case more than a hundred million.
Setting up a self-contained social network and blogging platform for learning isn’t trivial but can be done quite affordably. Integrating in learning analytics and turning it into an intelligent personalized learning system is an entirely different order of magnitude and complexity that would be cost-prohibitive for any one district to be a lone ranger on. Even if it was possible, the scope of the data to inform good decisions would be clearly limited compared to a larger provincial system (or better yet an international approach like what the learningregistry.org is trailblazing).
Most students and teachers in British Columbia though aren’t even part of the relatively simple offering of a social learning network, best to start there and then get to work on the more difficult and longer term task of a truly, provincial system to truly offer personalized learning, not just talk about it.
At the same time, there would be a great deal of value in having a common, provincial social network for teachers and school administrators to share learning resources, and best practices so each district didn’t need to re-invent the wheel, invest in costly IT infrastructure that could be shared, and so the benefits of crowd sourcing of learning resource reviews could be leveraged.
While looking across the world for this environmental scan project for noteworthy case studies of how students can ultimately get better connected to learning resources, it turns out one of the leading examples was close by in West Vancouver.
- “Learning Networks” by Gary Kern, Digital Literacy blog, October 4th, 2011
- “500 Blog Challenge” by Gary Kern, Digital Literacy blog, January 4th, 2012
- West Vancouver School Distict
This case study was funded by the British Columbia Educational Resources Acquisition Consortium.