Stepping into the Digital Learning Center's seventh grade classroom, you'll see students spread out in small groups — some on couches, others on rugs on the floor, some working together at tables and some at learning stations. They are working on laptops and tablets.
One student is researching fashion, another the route of the slave trade in the United States and another is examining the agricultural capabilities in China. This myriad of primary sources, videos and website articles seems disjointed, yet all of these pieces are moving toward a common goal. These students have been tasked with preventing the American Civil War.
The teacher has instructed the students to select an area of interest and then trace their topics through history to find ties to the Civil War and determine how their topics might have stopped the war. After students gather their research, they will begin drafting scripts that outline their solutions. When their scripts are complete, students will use iPads to film their presentations in front of the classroom's green screen to properly set the scene for their project.
This deep-learning project was possible because Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, Arizona, put technology into the hands of all students and then set out to change the way students learn and teachers teach. The district's IT director, Jeff Billings, made that a reality by relying on early adopters, such as the teachers in the gifted programs, to model innovative instructional techniques for others.
As the district's director of gifted education, I realized that our bright middle school students craved interactive learning opportunities. These digital natives were disengaged in the traditional honors classes, so we decided to create an ideal learning environment called the Digital Learning Center (DLC).
In the DLC, the students learn literature with a combination of either social studies or science (depending on the grade level) through the use of technology and project-based learning in a textbook-free environment. The students each have Macbooks as well as full access to iPads, Google Chromebooks, Google Nexus 7 Tablets, video production software, Telepresence and Probeware to support this problem-based/project-based environment.
The DLC represents just one of the many technology integration programs, pilots and projects taking place throughout the district. This program features integrated thematic units in a personalized, student-centered classroom that allows for deep levels of differentiation.
Collaborative problem solving
Through their research and discussions, students collaborate to solve and understand real-world issues, which better prepares them to confront complex situations in their own lives.
Technology eases differentiation because it allows students to work at their own pace, learn content in a variety of ways, develop their interests and build on areas of strength. Students choose how they will demonstrate their learning. For example, artistically creative students may develop original videos or songs to showcase their understanding. Other students may create documentaries, animations or websites.
Most of these digital learning projects begin with the introduction of a concept, along with an overarching question posed to the class. For example, in the seventh grade social studies unit on World War II, students explore the question "How are wars won?" Through this question, students examine the factors that led to the Allied forces winning the war.
Eighth grade science students are asked, "How does physics govern our capabilities and limitations from a micro to a macro level?" With this question as guidance, students learn the laws of physics as well as how authors and comic book creators bend/break the laws of physics to fit their purposes.
The questions are open ended. They get students to examine the curriculum and content in different and meaningful ways. From there, a mixture of guided instruction and independent student work drives the learning of the topics. As students research, they collaborate with peers and the teacher to create a project that showcases their learning and understanding and ultimately answers the driving question.
There is no need for textbooks in the DLC. History students read primary source documents from all of the major time periods. This practice removes third-party interpretations and allows the students to develop their own thoughts about the content. This meshes well with the Knowledge Constructor standard that is part of the ISTE Standards for Students and instructs students to critically curate resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative arifacts and make meaningful learning connections. Additionally, students can supplement their readings with outside sources that enhance their understanding of the topic.
Expand to all students
Although the DLC was designed for gifted middle school students, teachers share their learning experiences through telepresence, observations and teacher workshops and by sharing students' digital projects on the district's digital resource repository.
District administrators and teachers often rely on early adopters — both teachers and students — to pilot new instructional practices and help share those practices out to others. One way we do this is through the summer Digital Learning Academy (DLA), an extension of the DLC. Over the summer, gifted teachers and IT facilitators shared their experiences with more than 100 general education teachers eager to integrate project-based learning and technology into their instruction.
The 40-hour academy ran weekly throughout the summer in a hybrid format: half face to face and half virtual. Educators from all levels and positions registered for this highly interactive training that integrated and encompassed Google Apps for Education, Common Core, ISTE Standards, elements of Generation Yes and digital age instructional strategies. Participants contributed to create a digital repository of "all things Google" that was made available to all teachers in the district.
Through teacher development opportunities like the Digital Learning Academy, other schools and teachers have started to develop the skills and implement the strategies that serve as a foundation in the DLC. Although technology will inevitably change, the foundation of the program is one that teaches universal and world-class thinking.
What are students actually learning?
When I explain the DLC program model to others, people have a two-part reaction: The initial excitement and curiosity about what sounds like "ideal" teaching practices, followed by speculation and doubt. If every student has access to technology and projects replace tests, what are the students actually learning?
Initially, some wondered how these honor students would fare in a traditional high school classroom after experiencing this atypical learning environment. However, data from the first three years of the program show that more than 90 percent of former DLC students enrolled in at least three honors and Advanced Placement classes each year in high school. The program has since expanded to a high school program known as the Digital Academy for Advanced Placement Scholars, where students take honors and AP courses through an integrated approach in a block schedule.
In addition to the content-based benefits, the major goal of the DLC is to create "world class thinkers," the school district's overarching goal. There are three ways the DLC is able to accomplish this:
Exposure to digital age skills. By channeling these skills through the context of the curriculum, students learn and understand the natural role technology plays in their everyday lives.
Atmosphere of creative collaboration. In this project-based environment, the students naturally learn from each other and benefit from their varying levels of previous exposure to the technology.
Empowerment to seek their own solutions. In the DLC students don't just ask "why." They learn how to properly search for information and find their own answers when questions arise. This process encourages them to take a more active role in the learning process.
A sample learning episode
To start the unit on the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression, a discussion sets the scene for the United States after World War I. The students' conversation leads to finances and the disparity of wealth. This elicits the unit question: What is uneven distribution of wealth, and what impact does this have on society?
Although we supply some resources, students are free to acquire the information on their own. Some chose to view clips of documentaries on YouTube, and others read online journal articles, books and other materials. Throughout this process, we hold whole-class and small-group discussions to ensure they all fully understand the content, and we provide additional support for those who have gaps in their understanding.
To show mastery of the content, students create silent films. But first, they listen to a short presentation on Hollywood in the 1920s, silent films and the advent of "talkies." We show clips from silent movies and a viewing and analysis of the trailer for the movie "The Artist." Students create their own silent films that answer the driving questions.
The students upload their projects to YouTube, and the unit culminates with a class viewing and peer critique. These projects are graded using a rubric that students receive ahead of time. For this project, the rubric was teacher created, but for other projects, students collaborate to create their own grading rubrics.
The DLC offers students the chance to learn the digital age skills critical to their future in a creative environment. In this model, students are able to address the full spectrum of the ISTE Standards for Students, with a heavy focus on Standard 1: Empowered Learner; Standard 3: Knowledge Constructor; and Standard 6 Creative Communicator.
Putting it all together
Remember those students who were working on solutions to prevent the Civil War? They have finished their research and are ready to present. The first student steps up and readies her presentation. Although it looks like a traditional slide presentation, it is much more. She has recorded herself acting out different parts in her presentation. Each of these parts is expertly timed, and she navigates her idea of traveling to the 1700s and convincing the Founding Fathers who opposed slavery to abolish it when they found the country. Through her skit, she not only showed an understanding of the climate of the country before the American Civil War, but also the events that started it. It may look unconventional, but this is learning in the digital age.
Dina Brulles, Ph.D. is the director of Gifted Education Services in the Paradise Valley Unified School District in Arizona where she has developed a continuum of gifted education programs that serve nearly 5,000 gifted students, preschool age through high school. Follow her on Twitter @DinaBrulles.
This is an updated version of a blog that originally published on June 9, 2014.