Digital Learning Snapshot: District of Columbia Public Schools
District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) has implemented digital instruction in three main areas:
- School redesigns of a total of thirteen schools using extensive digital instruction.
- A dozen initiatives using digital content in many subjects, across all grades levels, in all district schools.
- Credit recovery that is offered in a blended format in which content is delivered online and students meet with teachers two to three times a week.
Beginning in fall 2012, DCPS began blended learning in eight schools using a feeder pattern (4 elementary, 3 middle, and 1 high school). The district brought in a group of outside experts to help design digital instruction in these schools, and because of the mix of schools (each making some autonomous decisions) and different grade levels, the implementations vary in significant ways.
In two of the elementary schools, students move through three instructional stations in literacy and math. One station is small group direct instruction with the teacher, one block involves working with digital content, and the third block is often focused on independent practice, such as reading or writing, or collaboration with other students. In these schools, teachers help select digital content and receive professional development from a Technology Instructional Coach who is shared by the schools. Professional development focuses on helping teachers analyze and use the data being produced by the digital content.
The redesigned middle school is focused on math instruction and is using a different approach than that used by the elementary schools. All students have a laptop that allows them to move through the content at their own pace, with support from a team of teachers. The middle school uses different digital content providers than the elementary schools, a different outside expert who advised on the instructional design, and a staffing model that is unlike any other school in the district. All students are assessed at the end of each day to determine what math topics they will focus on the next day, and how. Instruction is done directly with a teacher, with digital content used independently or with peers.
In addition to the blended school redesigns, students in grades 6–12 use online courses for remediation, credit recovery, and acceleration.
Digital content and tools
In addition to the digital content and tools used in the blended schools, a variety of initiatives across the district use digital content in math, literacy, language development, science, social studies, and world languages. Content selections are made primarily at the district level. Students access digital content from schools, homes, libraries, and other locations. Digital content includes the following:
- Three math providers are collectively used in grades K–9 in most elementary and middle schools, for 11.5 hours per week in sessions that range from 10–45 minutes each.
- Two English language arts content providers are used. One is used in 17 schools in grades preK–5, for up to 1.5 hours per week in 20 or 30 minute sessions. Content from the other provider is used in 27 schools in grades preK–8 for one hour per week in 20 or 30 minute sessions.
- A world language supplement is used in grades 4–8 for 1.5 hours per week.
- Digital textbooks are being piloted in social studies and science courses for grades 6–9 in five schools. The district has set aside funds to expand the use of digital textbooks to 30 additional schools, pending results of the pilot.
- A learning management system is used in grades 6–12 in four schools.
Significant technology infrastructure upgrades were needed throughout the district, and especially in the blended schools, including installation of wireless network capabilities and increased bandwidth. Schools across the district, including the redesigned schools, use a variety of devices including tablets, desktop computers, and laptop computers. The elementary-level redesigned schools have students rotating through instructional models and therefore do not need devices for all students at the same time. The redesigned math program at the middle school requires laptops for all students. A total of $10 million has been spent in the past year to purchase new devices and implement a four-year refresh cycle for technology, including upgrading labs, teacher devices, and any other outdated computers across the district.
Although the district is focused on school redesigns and the use of digital content and tools for instructional reasons, in many cases technology requirements for the new national online assessments—DCPS is using The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)—are driving the device decision-making process for devices and infrastructure. The digital learning changes are able to build on, and take advantage of, those technology improvements.
Teaching and staffing
Existing classroom teachers are implementing blended learning in the redesigned schools, and 13 instructional technology coaches were hired in 2014 to support the blended classroom teachers. The instructional technology coaches work with teachers in their respective DCPS buildings to help them integrate digital content and technology tools. DCPS has a blended learning manager who is located in the Office of Teaching and Learning. DCPS believes that technology is a core part of education, and the merger of instruction and technology is essential to allowing students to have ownership in their learning.
Teacher evaluators in blended learning schools had to be retrained on evaluation techniques that were applicable to the blended learning classroom. Teachers and administrators were concerned about what impact blended learning might have on the existing evaluation system, and as a result the system was updated to address the concerns.
Budget and funding
DCPS supports its blended learning rollout through a variety of grants, including $2 million from Next Generation Learning Challenges and the CityBridge Foundation, which is working to create a system of high-performing schools in Washington, DC. Funds were allocated in the annual budget to support blended learning; no additional tax revenue was needed to implement the program. DCPS also receives a significant amount of fiscal and in-kind support from the local government and businesses that have helped to bring blended learning to life.
The redesign of the first set of blended schools is part of the larger district strategy to implement blended learning in more schools across the district. DCPS has found that it needs to add additional professional development time for teachers, to allow time for them to understand the instructional approach using digital content and tools, and also to select the content they wish to use, and become comfortable with it. In addition the district is considering how to establish routines for students transitioning between instructional modes in classrooms. As with other blended schools, moving from a traditional classroom in which students are being instructed by the teacher for most of the class period, to one in which they are partially self-directed and moving between stations, requires different classroom management techniques as well as varied pedagogical methods.