Connected Learning Initiative Goes from Draft to Device in Nebraska

By Daedalus Howell

LINCOLN, Neb. — No one can say that schools in Lincoln lack class. Thanks to a bond-funded district improvement plan for Lincoln Public Schools, the county has class in all caps, due to the Connected Learning for the Achievement of Students and Staff Plan, aka the CLASS Plan.

Comprised of four elements, the CLASS Plan consists of device-assisted learning and instruction, connected classrooms, systems for learning and information management, and personalized professional development. One of its key facilitators is Kirk Langer, chief technology officer (CTO) at Lincoln Public Schools. Langer will oversee the plan’s implementation across 39 elementary schools, 12 middle schools, six high schools and several specialty programs.

The effort is, in part, the district’s means of keeping its curriculum contemporary to the needs of its 41,000-student body, which keeps growing at about 1,000 students per year. Getting connected and conveying digital educational content is a way of meeting this growth.

“Computing devices are, ultimately, a conveyance in the same way that an automobile is a conveyance. Devices ‘convey us’ through networks and communication protocols to sources of data, information, peers and teachers,” said Langer, who emphasized that the CLASS Plan doesn’t diverge from the traditional Three Rs curriculum that involves reading, writing and arithmetic. In fact, Langer explained that it supports the pedagogy by providing the resources needed to embrace digital tools and environments and to connect students to multimodal learning opportunities.

Langer believes that devices will continue to keep pace with new learning modalities be they touch, speech, motion, augmented reality or biometric integration. One can also infer that the reverse will prove true as well — as devices continue evolving new functionalities, educational uses will likely follow. Coupled with nurturing a familiarity in coding, and the CLASS Plan presents a formidable immersion in the pedagogical applications of tech.

“There is tremendous value in learning to code, and those concepts remain an important part of our curriculum. At the same time, the CLASS Plan looks at the use of devices both as tools for work and instruments to play,” said Langer. “The tools and instruments will change over time just as automobiles have changed over time. We will change to leverage the ways they support the teaching and learning process.”

When it comes to preparing the teachers to use the technology, Langer’s car metaphor extends aptly. One can teach someone to drive in a parking lot, but they won’t learn how to be proficient until they learn in actual traffic, he said. This is essentially his approach for training teachers to use technology during instruction. The process begins with the district assessing the teachers’ present technology skills and proficiencies using their Blueprints for Assistant Technology Skills (BLATS) framework, which evaluates teachers’ strengths in relation to technology. Thereafter, teachers are given a cogent rationale as to “why” the district is embracing digital tools and instruments to support learning in the first place.

“This is an effort to focus on what we are doing (embracing digital tools and resources) rather than what we’re not going to embrace (going paperless),” said Langer. “When paper is the best way to mediate the learning process, we would be foolish not to embrace the best way to do something.”

The CTO added that teachers can also expect a clear prescription for what sustainable tools and instruments will be provided and how they can be used most effectively. Moreover, those same tools will be used to help educate the educators, and as such, the “professional learning method” is a form of modeling, Langer explained.

“Because we are embracing digital tools to deliver professional learning opportunities, teachers can expect to time-shift and repackage course content to meet their specific needs,” said Langer. “Finally, teachers can expect that we are learning with them, and while we concede we can’t be perfect, we will strive for excellence.”

To read the entire article, check out the November/December issue of School Construction News.