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Five Things Learned on Digital Learning Day 2021

Ten years ago, the policy landscape for digital learning was uncertain. Many educators and the public had yet to realize the potential that technology could have to close equity gaps and personalize instruction for students.

Flashback to one year ago—with campus and classroom doors closed, most educators were uncertain of how they would meet the diverse needs of students, from providing meals to ensuring students had home internet access and devices so learning could happen anywhere, anytime. Yet, once again, educators rose to the challenge.

During the Digital Learning Day (DLDay) 2021 broadcast, we reflected on many of the changes from the past twelve months and celebrated the lessons learned during the past ten years. We visited classrooms, schools, and districts around the country (virtually of course) and witnessed the power that comes when educators combine a growth mindset with perseverance, innovation, and collaborative leadership.

We began in our nation’s capital to learn more about the actions federal and state leaders have taken, and those on the horizon, to ensure all students have access to learning, regardless of the zip code they call home.

Then we journeyed north, east, south, and west to hear stories from teachers, principals, and superintendents who adapted quickly and adopted new innovative learning opportunities to support personalized learning for students both inside and outside the school building.

Most importantly we looked ahead! Learning no longer looks the same, and we can’t go back to the systems and structures of the past. As we move to the future, we must reimagine learning and inspire transformative instructional practices. The roads ahead may twist and turn, but educators will continue this important work with newfound resolve and resiliency.

Take a look at lessons we learned during DLDay:

  1. Nationwide, 16.9 million children remain logged out from instruction because their families lack the home internet access necessary to support online learning, a phenomenon known as the homework gap.

Remote learning remains a reality for millions of students due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Local and federal leaders are working hard to address the homework gap. Deborah Delisle (@DebDelisle), president and CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education, and Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chairperson of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), discussed ways the FCC can help with support from Congress. 

Our conversation with Steven Reed, the first Black mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, placed the homework gap in a historical context. The homework gap didn’t just appear. The fact that one in three Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native families do not have high-speed home internet reflects the systemic racism that plagues our country to this day. On DLDay, he reminded us that we have a choice to make. After the pandemic, we can go back to the way things were or we can get into some “good trouble,” address the inequities that existed long before COVID-19, and ensure all students have the opportunity to thrive.

Superintendents Michael Conner of Middletown (Connecticut) Public Schools and Susan Enfield of Highline (Washington) Public Schools carried on the theme of emerging from the pandemic stronger than we entered it. “We can’t go back to the de facto,” said Dr. Conner. Meanwhile, Dr. Enfield noted that we have been discussing “connectivity” in terms of high-speed internet access and the homework gap, but we also need to address the relationship gap. Dr. Enfield asked, “How are we making sure that each child is known so that marginalization becomes a thing of the past?”

  1. Creating systemic change in instruction for students to meet the ever changing learning environments takes thoughtful planning and a willingness to innovate.

First highlighted in 2012, Klein ISD in Texas recently was named the National District of the Year by District Administration magazine. The district is at the forefront of educational innovation by empowering students to own their learning and solve real-world problems through meaningful community action, encouraging multigrade–level collaboration, and immersing students in the design-thinking process. During DLDay 2021, Superintendent Jenny McGown shared the growth mindset of educators, thanked the “pioneers” from decades past who laid the groundwork for today’s many successes, and discussed prioritizing the human side of the work.

Traveling west, Cajon Valley School District in California, which first appeared on DLDay 2013, continues to lead the way and be recognized nationally for its innovative practices, community solutions, and unique programming. Superintendent David Miyashiro shared his district’s approach during the pandemic—as other districts retreated, Cajon Valley increased programs and other opportunities to keep students and the community safe.

  1. Teaching methods and classrooms look different this year; but the heart and passion of teachers and their willingness and dedication to meet students’ individual learning needs remains unchanged.

The COVID-19 pandemic seemingly changed the teaching and learning experience overnight. Teachers have reinvented classrooms, curricula, resources, and instructional practices. They’ve recalibrated family-teacher conferences and recognition assemblies. The location of learning may have changed, but the purpose has not.

Melanie James, third-grade teacher in Middletown (Connecticut) Public Schools; Kyle Parido, eighth-grade history teacher in Middletown City (Ohio) Public Schools; and Zayra Rivera, high school Spanish teacher in Santa Ana (California) Unified School District, offered examples of how the new school year brought opportunities to emphasize and establish class connections by cultivating and extending trust, fostering student voice and agency, and instilling resilience. The three teachers shared stories about how their students have inspired in them renewed commitment, refreshed perspective, and resounding hope.  

  1. Leading during a pandemic has caused many to rethink their leadership approach, think differently on how they interact with the community and, most importantly, remain focused on what’s most important for our children.

This segment included was Nyree Clark, a curriculum program specialist in Colton (California) Joint Unified School District; Dr. Julie Mitchell, superintendent in Rowland (California) Unified School District; and  Dr. Henry Turner, a principal in Newton (Massachusetts) Public Schools. After reflecting on the past year, these Future Ready Schools® advisors explored three key areas: (1) student voice, (2) social justice, and (3) cultural responsiveness. Their call to action was clear: leading with perseverance and resilience means more than ensuring safety during a pandemic. It means prioritizing our most marginalized groups, and breaking down barriers so that each child has a voice that matters and the opportunities needed succeed in life.

  1. Educators need community and we are a network of educators committed to continuing to grow, learn, and collaborate together to ensure digital learning happens every day and everywhere.

The tenth DLDay celebration has wrapped, but our collective mission to ensure all students have access to robust learning experiences continues to thrive. Let’s keep the DLDay momentum going and continue to share and learn together as we reimagine, reinvent, and reinvigorate the future of learning.

The DLDay network has more than 2,500 educators and hundreds of great resources shared in the library. Together we can keep the network growing. Together we are better. Together we are Future Ready!