How one school district built a digital ecosystem through real-world learning

By Melissa Rayworth

Todd Keruskin remembers his father marveling over how much hospitals had changed in the time between his heart surgery in the early 1990s and the surgery he experienced just a few years ago.

Two decades of digital transformation had come to medicine. The goal of getting healthy remained the same. And yet the tools, the tests — even the operating rooms — were different. Digital technology was saving lives, but also requiring doctors and nurses to build new skills and reshape their understanding of their work.

Educators are facing their own industry-wide digital transformation, says Keruskin, superintendent at Elizabeth Forward School District. As in medicine, the shifts are life-changing and also daunting. It’s no small thing to bring personalized, digitally powered learning to every classroom in a community. 

Keruskin’s district has pursued this transformation for a decade, he says, and their work is far from complete. But along the way, they’re seeing positive results and earning accolades, including their recent Digital Ecosystem of the Year award from the National Council on Digital Convergence (NCDC). 

What have they learned and how does digital transformation impact today’s learners?

THE CHALLENGE: Create truly personalized learning.

According to research from Learning Heroes, 92% of parents believe their child is at or above grade level in reading and math. The actual number of students performing at grade level is closer to 35%. And the degree to which kids may be above or below grade level varies widely. 

So how can one teacher educate a roomful of kids when some need help catching up while others are hungry for a challenge? Even if teachers are committed to working with each child individually, how do they find the time and energy to meet each child right where they are on a given day? 

WHAT THEY DID:

To answer this question, the administration took on the role of a curious 21st-century learner — researching and experimenting to find good solutions.  

They reached out to learning scientists at places like Carnegie Mellon University, and connected with the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative and Modern Teacher. Essentially, they leveraged their real-world ecosystem to build the best digital ecosystem for their students.

That led them to information about training teachers in the art of grouping (and regrouping) kids accurately: “Group work has been happening for years,” Keruskin says, but research has begun showing that “teachers who regrouped almost on a weekly basis showed the most growth with kids.”

Research also led them to choose the learning management system (LMS) Canvas, where teachers can create their own “playlists” for the day’s learning. With help from Modern Teacher, they’ve created what Keruskin calls “unique learning environments” within Canvas. The various kinds of learning software they use can be accessed from inside Canvas, so kids don’t need to log in and out to do their work. 

Elizabeth Forward was recognized by the NCDC for designing, developing, and deploying a digital ecosystem that reflects the integration of hardware, software, & content to enhance personalized learning.

WHY IT WORKED: The initiative prioritized people.

Elizabeth Forward’s recent award from LCDC was for “the district who has designed, developed, and deployed a digital ecosystem that reflects the integration of hardware, software, and content to enhance personalized learning.” 

But Keruskin is clear: Even the best hardware, software and content won’t help students thrive without a caring adult right there teaching and supporting them. 

WHAT OTHER COMMUNITIES CAN LEARN: That people belong at the heart of even the most digitally-focused decisions. 

Fred Rogers discovered many decades ago that technology can reach children in amazing ways, but tech-enabled learning requires the presence of caring adults. His insistence on the essential importance of human connection and compassion is as relevant today as it was when he started broadcasting in 1968. And it can inform the choices schools make as they pursue personalized, digital learning in 2021 and beyond.

Learning happens when teachers offer direct instruction and support independent work. So it’s important that teachers are offered professional development around both of these skill sets, and that teacher training is truly personalized.

“The days of putting everybody in an auditorium and giving them the same professional development are way, way over,” Keruskin says. Just like their students, these teachers need a mix of digital instruction to use at their own pace and hands-on, face-to-face support from another human being. 

Like all districts, Elizabeth Forward is still figuring out what life will look like post-pandemic. But they’re excited to see how they might take the best aspects of this strangely disrupted school year and use them well once all learners are back in classrooms full-time. 

Change is challenging, but it can be wonderful, Keruskin says. Post-pandemic, “you can’t go back to just worksheet after worksheet. And you can’t go back to a first-grade teacher who just teaches first-grade curriculum.”