Building Digital Communities of Rigor and Relevance

This post was originally published on Eric Sheninger's blog, A Principal's Reflections, and was updated for Shaped during Computer Science Education Week. (You can learn about why teaching computer science, including coding, to K-12 students is important on our blog here.)

Mindset. Behaviors. Skills. A combination of all of these is required for schools to become places where social media and digital tools are integral and beneficial parts of a rigorous program, and where they work symbiotically with active, engaged, and applicable learning. 
How can we take the greatest advantage of this moment in time and create compelling and challenging learning spaces for students?

The most important things for administrators to do are give up control and trust students and their teachers to use real-world tools to unleash creativity and a passion for learning. After putting these tenets in the foundation, follow these steps to build digital communities characterized by rigor and relevance.

Step 1: Realize that social media is a predominant tool in the world. It fosters personalization, creativity, and collaboration, giving students infinite ways to create artifacts of their learning and knowledge. 

Step 2: If 1:1 is not in the cards, make use of devices students already have, know, and use. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) signals to kids that teachers know and understand their basic makeup. Employing the energy surrounding personal devices allows them to use the tools that help them do what they do better. BYOD enhances learning, increases productivity, allows students to grow their research skills, and gives teachers the chance to teach appropriate digital responsibility. 

Step 3: Create spaces for making, collaborating, and tinkering. Give students chances to build and create using real-world tools (wood shop, electronics, metal work, and coding stations) and solve open-ended, real-world problems. Bring play back into the picture. These spaces provide students with challenging problems to solve where there is no one correct solution. Through self-directed learning, students are driven to find solutions and create a product that has value. 

Step 4: Structure schools so that they more accurately reflect the real world. Ubiquitous connectivity, charging stations, and casual zones that promote conversation and play increase students’ sense of belonging and engagement. Digitally astute students engage through such models as blended learning, flipped classrooms, games, makerspaces, and virtual learning

Step 5: Give students access to open courseware and open source technology. Inherent in these approaches is a high level of personalization and choice about what to focus on, which in turn leads to greater ownership over learning and personalized ways to demonstrate understanding. 

The bottom line: Ambitious, successful teaching and learning have become inherently intertwined with the digital world. Educators must be able to develop and enact rigorous, relevant instructional methods and formats while using digital tools effectively to underpin their instruction. Students and teachers can transform learning so that it not only prepares them to excel in academic life but also endows them with essential digital age skills. 

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Blog contributor Eric Sheninger is an ICLE Senior Fellow and thought leader on digital leadership and learning. You can book a keynote with him to help your school or district explore solutions for leading and learning in the digital age.