Equity, Quality, and Digital Content

Creating modern digital learning environments for all students.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

credit-mary-creel-discovery-educationWhen he was a social studies teacher, Marty Creel wanted to integrate technology into his instruction and his students’ learning for, among other factors, a very peculiar reason. “My interest in integrating technology into instruction began with the first Macs,” he says. “The graphical user interface just grabbed students’ attention and a new program called HyperCard was a perfect fit for social studies projects.” Back in the day when projects were displayed on tri-fold poster boards, Marty often had his students show links among the different strands of a civilization, such as geography, economy, religion, politics, “with a literal piece of string or yarn,” he says. Soon after, he recalls, “HyperCard came along with this feature called a hyperlink that students could build in to connect the various content on other ‘cards’ — and away we went. Goodbye tri-folds and yarn, hello engaged students.”

High Quality Digital Content (HQDC) specifically developed for diverse student audiences and curated by experts for ease of access is among the most powerful resources available to school systems seeking to improve equity.

“Once the internet began delivering high quality digital content, I don’t think my students opened another textbook.” Now, with over 26 years of experience as an educator, Marty leads Discovery Education’s innovative Digital Instruction Group. Having begun his career as an engaging social studies teacher known for creatively using technology to deepen learning, he’s seen technology grow up quite a bit. As a district-wide curriculum, instruction, and professional development leader in a large urban/suburban school system, he was the architect of a thoughtful transition to instructional standards that empowered teachers and principals to support the success of each learner. Here, Marty delves in deeper on a number of interesting issues regarding technology’s role in education, and more generally, now that he (at least figuratively) has a much larger classroom, improving education for all students.

Can you talk a little about equity, and how our thinking on equity has changed over the years?

Marty: I think for many years, when education stakeholders talked about equity in education, that discussion was composed of two primary ideas: That all students deserve the opportunity to receive an education from good teachers in schools that are safe and conducive to learning, and that all students, regardless of race, socioeconomic standing, or special need, are capable of achieving positive outcomes. However, as our society entered the Information Age, our thinking on equity expanded. While I believe the foundations of our ongoing national dialogue on equity remains, it now also includes conversations on student access to technology and digital content. In my opinion, there is now a general understanding that the ability to access technology truly provides students a broader and richer set of learning experiences that will prepare them for success beyond the classroom. Equity of access now includes discussions on the importance of student access to digital content and the ability to connect students to their peers as well as educators and experts throughout the world. It also means thinking through the importance of sufficient high-speed broadband connections to school districts, school buildings, classrooms, and homes.

How does improving equity of access help prepare students for success beyond the classroom?

Marty: We live in a digital world. If you want to renew your driver’s license, you need to go online. Want to apply for a job at Wal-Mart? You need to go online. Apply for college? You need to do that online and in many cases, show your preparation and creativity to admissions staff in a digital format. For better or for worse, more and more basic experiences in life require some sort of technological interaction, and the communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity needed to navigate those interactions. As educators, we have to create modern digital learning environments that help students develop the skills they need to be successful. This is particularly important for students who have limited access at home, as school may be the only place these students get to experience an academic digital learning environment. It is my belief that by not providing students access to the digital world in schools, we are greatly expanding the digital divide.

What are some of the technologies educators can leverage right away to improve equity? 

Marty: Perhaps one of the most underutilized tools is the smartphone, which includes many features that can improve equity. These features, which schools used to pay thousands of dollars for as separate devices, include cameras, video recorders, GPS, text messaging, web browsers, music players, and with apps, much, much more. In addition, studies show that many students, even in low-income areas, own one. Students can use these devices to conduct first-person interviews that can enhance history projects. They can be used by students to create and edit movies as part of language arts projects. Photo albums can be created with smartphones as part of art assignments. The web browsing features in smartphones can be used for research and to interact with high quality digital content, as many content providers, including Discovery Education, design their content to be responsive to the size and shape of the screen it is being viewed on. When their use has a clear connection to the goals of learning, smartphones can be powerful tools in closing gaps in equity of access. As schools explore expanding BYOD policies, the support of equity of access should be a major consideration.

You mention high quality digital content.  What makes high quality digital content different from other types of digital content?

Marty: Not all digital content is equal. A quick internet search shows there is a lot of free digital content purported to be appropriate for classroom use. However, I believe standards-aligned High Quality Digital Content (HQDC) specifically developed for diverse student audiences and curated by experts for ease of access is among the most powerful resources available to school systems seeking to improve equity.

Not all digital content is equal. A quick internet search shows there is a lot of free digital content purported to be appropriate for classroom use. 

HQDC provides the youngest students exposure to a wide variety of school-oriented language. Whether it is through video that comes in dual languages, or digital text that can be read aloud through digital readers, early access to HQDC can help our youngest learners improve their vocabulary. Once students enter school, HQDC provides learners multiple pathways to understanding. The basic goal of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is to provide students as many ways as possible to learn, so that various barriers to understanding can be overcome. HQDC also has structures in place that encourage the feedback loops between teachers and students and students and their peers, and provides students alternative venues for showing their understanding through a variety of mediums, such as simple graphical presentation, digital drawing, or quick self-produced video.

Finally, HQDC that is expertly curated ensures more student engagement, which then results in richer thought. Whether it is a virtual reality experience, an information graphic, or a favorite video clip, HQDC deploys assets that make students want to read a passage, analyze data, solve a problem, or discuss a topic to learn more.

How has the use of technology to transform learning changed in the last five years? 

Marty: The biggest change in the last five years that I have seen is the shift from encouraging students to be consumers of content to the empowerment of students to collaborate with one another to create content in synchronous or asynchronous settings. This movement, in turn, has expanded the learning day beyond the school bell. For many of my generation, when the 3pm bell rang, the school day and learning ended. Yes, we’d grudgingly do our homework, but for all intents and purposes, teaching and learning dramatically decreased at the end of the school day. Now, thanks to technology, teaching and learning does not end with the school bell. Through HQDC, students can, from their bedroom or their kitchen table, go back in time to ancient Rome, or to the center of an atom. Technology has helped create an environment in which students, with the proper supports, can continue their learning from wherever they are, whenever they want. The trick, of course, is to make sure that content and online learning experiences are designed to engage students to want to learn on their own.

Where do you see curriculum and instruction trends heading with respect to technology’s role in the next 2-3 years?

Marty: One of the most heartening developments I’ve seen in the last few years is a convergence in curriculum, instruction, and technology. When educational technologies first began to filter into the classroom, they were, in many ways, seen as separate from curriculum and instruction. Often, we’d hear about “technology in education” or “infusing technology”. I believe this gap is closing rapidly. More and more, educators today are focusing on how technology can power learning initiatives and not on creating technology initiatives. We are now seeing technology and digital content, integrated thoughtfully into curriculum and instruction and supported with sustained professional development, as a tool that improves teaching and learning. I think in the coming years we are going to see this trend deepen and result in better outcomes for students.

What does ‘deeper learning’ really mean?

Marty: Deeper learning encapsulates the many current movements in education emphasizing students’ abilities to apply knowledge to real-world circumstances to solve unique problems. Based in the research underlying the Common Core, NGSS, project-based learning, STEM, and changes in AP courses and the SAT, deeper learning replaces repetitive instruction and empowers learners to achieve understanding and transfer learning to other contexts. The idea is that learners engage in the big ideas of the disciplines and have opportunities to apply them to their world. Also, in the deeper learning context, teachers command strong content knowledge and understand how individual students learn.

Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning edtech, tech’s role in education, future Discovery Education exciting developments, or anything else? 

Marty: I think we are lucky to live in one of the most exciting and promising eras in education. Technology has reached a point where it can support deeper learning for a much wider and more diverse body of students. The potential to narrow historic opportunity gaps is just enormous. Companies like Discovery Education are truly privileged to help students, teachers, schools, districts, and nations combine professional development and HQDC in ways that help all students reach their fullest potential.

Write to: marty_creel@discovery.com or follow him @creelmar

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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