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Going Digital in Alabama

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August 30, 2011 05:29 pm

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This past week I spent a few days with district teams in Florence, Alabama to learn about the state’s ACCESS (Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide) Program and how it is changing high schools throughout Alabama. These dedicated state and local professionals are undertaking major transformation of middle and high schools in the face of declining fiscal revenues and concerns about improving student performance in the shadow of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Dr. Melinda Maddox, director of technology initiatives for the Alabama Department of Education, orchestrated a series of regional meetings with superintendents, principals, local board members, and information technology specialists to coordinate and support profound changes in the way secondary schools do business. It is becoming increasingly clear that effective classrooms in the twenty-first century will depend on engaging learners in acquiring, refining, and applying deep content knowledge to analyze and solve problems in a digital, connected world. By providing flexible time, pace, and place for instruction, educators can customize the educational environment so every student learns in his or her own style and at his or her own pace.

During my trip, I saw how Alabama is banking on greater local autonomy coupled with resources, connectivity, and professional development to provide not only distance learning, but various “blended learning” models that combine online learning with  face-to-face interaction in a brick-and-mortar location. Seat time requirements are now a thing of the past in Alabama, and local leaders are encouraged to move from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs to retool and enhance district systems and schools by leveraging technology.

At the regional meeting in Florence I attended, staff developers provided each administrator their own iPad and guided them through a series of tasks using the expansive digital content, resources, and online professional communities provided through a number of Alabama technology initiatives. These include ACCESS, the Alabama Learning Exchange, Technology in Motion, and the Alabama Virtual Library, which collectively offer content, courses of study, web links, personal workspace, and resources to engage teachers and students in twenty-first century learning.

ACCESS, Alabama’s first technology initiative launched in 2004, marries extensive online content for over 100 courses, credit recovery options, tools, and resources with regional support for professional development, infrastructure, and coordination. The availability of this extensive array of courses and digital content has had a profound impact on access and equity of educational opportunity throughout the state.

Since its implementation, the number of Advanced Placement (AP) test participants has almost doubled in Alabama public schools since 2004. Five times more low-income students are taking AP exams, and three times more are scoring three or higher on an AP exam. In Fiscal Year 2009, ACCESS provided 26,197 enrollments in courses needed by students to meet graduation requirements and 6,059 additional enrollments in noncredit remediation modules for the Alabama High School Graduation Exam. This year, the state received a federal grant to increase broadband access in rural areas.

During the three-day meeting, Dr. Maddox and her team mapped out a range of strategies and technological tools to address three major challenges: limited resources, diverse student learning needs and interests, and increased demands for performance and productivity. Administrators have the flexibility to move beyond the traditional one-size-fits-all approach and provide students with additional courses and electives needed to meet individual educational goals and to provide a fully rounded curriculum, including twenty-first century skills accessible to all public high schools in Alabama.

The state-led initiative is seeding innovation across the state. One example comes from Florence City Public Schools. Superintendent Dr. Janet Womack and her instructional team launched an interdisciplinary program to mesh college preparatory curriculum in English and social studies with project and service learning that integrates the use of digital learning and multimedia technology.

Students will be required to develop a cumulative digital portfolio presented to a faculty panel as the culminating assessment in lieu of the state standardized tests in English and history. The innovations center on setting a high bar; creating experiences that foster integration and application of knowledge and skills; applying effective instructional strategies to engage students in complex inquiry and problem-solving tasks; and using technology, data tools, and rubrics to ensure consistency in expectations for student work and provide continuous feedback on student learning.

Mariana Haynes is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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