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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Digital Learning Update

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
June 17, 2016


At our June 27, 2016 special meeting, staff from the Department's Office of Digital Learning (ODL) will provide an update on the state's efforts to prepare districts for next-generation learning, teaching, and assessment.

Digital Learning: Background

"Digital learning" refers to the thoughtful, deliberate use of technology to support teaching and learning. With technology we can:

  • tailor the learning environment to afford students more control over the place, time, content, and method of instruction;
  • offer differentiated learning paths for students based on demonstrated competency in a subject or skill;
  • provide students access to a greater range of learning opportunities and course options;
  • encourage teacher networking and knowledge-sharing;
  • promote greater student engagement and collaboration with peers and adults; and
  • help teachers engage and intervene more quickly with struggling students.

While there is a continuum of experiences that also includes blended learning (online learning in schools) and the range of other digital learning opportunities that are expanding in many of our districts. Our goal is not to determine which model is the best, but rather to support schools and districts in providing options and models best suited to students' learning needs and preferences.

Technology can enhance the effectiveness of good instruction. While computer-based testing may be a driver underlying the adoption of technology in schools, the goal is to equip schools for next-generation learning and teaching, not simply for online assessment.

Through ODL, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education supports the expansion of digital learning capacity and literacy to advance learning for every student in the Commonwealth. ODL offers policies, guidance, professional development, and support to schools in the following areas: district technology and infrastructure capacity, classroom level instructional tools, assistive technology resources, virtual schools and online courses, and emerging digital learning trends.

The office collaborates closely with the Digital Learning Advisory Council (DLAC), whose members include nationally-recognized experts in technology and online learning. By statute, the DLAC provides advice and guidance to the Board and to the Commissioner on these matters.

The Office of Digital Learning is leveraging the capacity and expertise of external partners to further the adoption of digital learning in Massachusetts. These partnerships are detailed later in this memorandum.

Update on Statewide Technology Readiness

The DLAC has been asked to monitor districts' progress toward technological readiness for computer-based testing and to identify ways in which the state can assist in those efforts.

  • Funding

    • Digital Connections Partnership Schools Grant: Earlier this spring the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Administration and Finance allocated $2 million to continue the highly successful Digital Connections Partnership Schools grant program in FY2017. The DCPS grant is a competitive, matching state grant program that provides upfront funding for school infrastructure projects (Internet connectivity and Wi-Fi). Local matching funds may be used to purchase devices and assistive technology and provide professional development for teachers. Administered through a partnership between the Department and the state's Office of Information Technology (MassIT), the first round of the program provided funding for 75 schools in 32 districts in FY2015 and FY2016. MassIT and the Department have set a goal of upgrading 75-100 schools across the Commonwealth in FY2017.

    • Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) Loan Program: On July 20, 2016, the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) will vote on making $10 million in very low- or no-interest loans to districts to help fund the local match required under the DCPS grants described above — or for districts that seek to fund their own projects outside the DCPS program. If the MBSA approves funding for the loans, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, through ODL, and MassIT would then administer the distribution of these funds.

    • E-Rate: The E-rate program, administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provides technology discounts between 20 to 85 percent to schools and libraries. As of June 6, 2016, Massachusetts school districts have submitted plans for technology projects totaling $49.6 million, $42.7 million of which is eligible for E-rate reimbursements and $19.6 million of which has already been reimbursed to communities. ODL provides information, tools, and technical assistance to districts in filing for and receiving E-rate reimbursements. For example, this winter, ODL helped one Massachusetts school district secure an additional $500,000 in reimbursements. In Massachusetts, 308 public school districts have submitted plans for technology projects in FY2017 on behalf of 1,832 schools.

    • E-Rate Special Construction Program: Beginning in FY2017, the FCC is implementing a program to help support the construction of high-speed broadband networks, typically fiber. The FCC will match the state contribution on a 1-1 basis, up to a maximum of 10 percent of the project. In recognition of the work Massachusetts has done, the FCC has given DCPS special recognition as an example of an eligible program.

    • Special Technology Package for K-12: Through ODL, the Department and MassIT are finalizing a statewide procurement that provides special K-12 pricing for "bundled" technology solutions (consisting of a device plus the ability to choose from a menu of other products and services). The program will offer bundles for a single, per pupil cost (by manufacturer) that may be discounted further based on volume. The goal of the program is to bring greater transparency to school technology purchasing and to incentivize bulk purchasing by consortia of districts.

    • Federal Funding: Looking ahead to FY2018, Title IV, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the successor to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), allows federal dollars to be spent on "access to personalized, rigorous learning experiences supported by technology." While this restores federal funding for educational technology, which had been eliminated in the FY12 federal budget, the level of funding is still to be determined.

  • Partnerships

    • Partnership to Increase District Access to Affordable, Scalable, High-Speed Broadband: I already noted that the Department's partnership with MassIT is expanding to include the MSBA. Additionally, a local foundation has provided support to EducationSuperHighway, a national nonprofit, to help districts assess their infrastructure needs and leverage E-rate and other funds to obtain affordable, scalable, high-speed broadband. The three-year partnership will include assisting the Commonwealth's executive agencies in identifying strategies to increase the overall affordability of broadband, particularly in rural areas of the state.

    • Partnership to Promote the Adoption of Technology-Supported Personalized Learning: In Chapter 6 of their 2014 report, The New Opportunity to Lead, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and Brightlines called for an "Innovation Collaborative" to "create a forum for sustained dialogue among educators, innovators, and investors about new pedagogies and blended learning approaches." To that end, the Department will be formalizing a partnership to establish the Massachusetts Personalized Learning Edtech Consortium (MAPLE), which will promote the adoption of high-quality personalized learning models that leverage the use of educational technology for K-12 students and educators across the Commonwealth. By coupling the convening power of the state with a skilled and reputable partner, MAPLE will aim to knit together current efforts so as to facilitate greater access to professional networks, identify resources to strengthen local models, and promote effective ideas by and for educators. I look forward to providing the Board with more information about MAPLE next year.

    • Partnership to Help Communities Adopt Best Practices in Information Technology in Education: Through ODL, the Department is partnering with MassIT, the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative (MBI), the Department of Revenue (DOR), and other state agencies to provide technical assistance to districts seeking to implement one or more "best practices" as part of the Governor's Community Compact program. Governor Baker's first executive order created the Community Compact Cabinet to increase partnerships between state and local government. More than 225 communities have signed up for the program in the first year and over 150 compacts have been signed by Lieutenant Governor Polito. There are more than 30 best practices to pick from, including education and information technology options. In FY16, ODL and MassIT provided support to 16 communities in the Berkshires region to explore the feasibility of consolidating certain IT functions across districts. Year 2 begins in July 2016 and will include new and updated best practices, as well as expanded opportunities for current compact communities.

    • Partnership to Provide Free Online Courses to Students: Through ODL, the Department is partnering with EverFi, a private company selected through a competitive bidding process, to provide five online courses: digital literacy and responsibility (middle and high school); science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (elementary and middle school); African-American history (high school); and two courses in financial literacy (middle and high school). So far, approximately 31,921 Massachusetts students have taken the online courses with their teacher's supervision. EverFi partners with the private sector, foundations, and non-profits to offer these online digital courses to K-12 schools at no charge.

    • Partnership to Build Educator Capacity in Using Technology: Some Massachusetts districts turn to their students to provide IT support to teachers and fellow students in their schools — supplementing staff resources while enabling students to gain important skills and leadership experience for college and career. Through ODL, the Department is partnering with the Northeast Comprehensive Center (NCC), a federally-funded technical assistance organization for state education agencies, to document case studies of student technology support teams. The partnership with NCC also includes the piloting of a free online course for 18 high school teachers in Massachusetts who are interested in turning one of their courses into an online or blended course. Teachers can take the course for graduate credit.

    • Partnership to Safeguard Student Data: ODL recently compiled and distributed a set of resources designed to assist districts in safeguarding the privacy of student data. The office is collaborating with the Massachusetts Student Privacy Alliance, a voluntary organization of school districts, to help design model contract language for districts in procuring online educational products and services.

  • Other Digital Learning Initiatives

    • Online Modules for Educators: As a service to other units in the Department, ODL develops online modules for use in educator training and professional development. The most recent module is Understanding the Impact of Poverty on Student Outcomes, a cornerstone of the Department's Low-income Education Access Project (LEAP).

    • Digital Equity: Through ODL, the Department released a Request for Responses (RFR) to all telecommunications vendors on the state contract to identify very low or no-cost products and services that help low-income families obtain access to high-speed broadband at home (initiatives that help bridge the so-called "homework gap"). Recent Census data indicate that although the statewide percentage of residential broadband access in households is about 80 percent, many communities in Massachusetts have much less. ODL will follow up with a strategy for helping school districts provide greater awareness and support to families about these options, which may include residential high-speed Internet, Wi-Fi, mobile Wi-Fi plans, portable Wi-Fi hot spots; cellular service; related devices and equipment; and parent education.

    • Statewide Repository for Open Educational Resources: Through ODL, the Department has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a state that is committed to helping districts and educators access high-quality, openly-licensed educational resources online. Over 100 curriculum units developed by local educators have been uploaded to a free, online content management platform. The units will be searchable by publisher, location, subject area and standard. Educators will be able to self-publish their own materials, add ratings and reviews, get recommendations based on their previous selections, and create their own lists of resources. The units will be indexed in the Learning Registry, an effort led by the U.S. Department of Education, with support of the White House and numerous federal agencies, non-profit organizations, international organizations and private companies, to help districts more easily find and share openly licensed educational resources. Local school districts will ultimately decide how to use these resources. The repository is expected to go live in FY2017.

    • Technology Readiness Assessment: ODL is piloting a web-based technology and digital learning readiness tool with 11 districts. Called TRAx, the software has been used successfully in some other states to help districts assess current infrastructure and human capital needs and develop effective plans for addressing them.

    • K-12 Mobile Technology Implementation Guide: ODL released a guide entitled, Implementation Considerations for BYOD and 1:1 Technology Models. This guide provides information to foster discussion among educators who may be planning for a learning environment in which every student uses a device for learning and instruction. The guide includes legal FAQs concerning each district's obligation to provide every student with a device if the school requires one for learning and instruction.

    • Free Professional-Grade CAD Software for Students: ODL has obtained free licenses for districts to access computer-assisted design (CAD) software. 116 districts have downloaded the software since the program began in 2013.

    • Blog: ODL is collaborating with Massachusetts educators to blog about their experiences using technology to support learning and teaching.

Looking Ahead to the 2016-17 School Year

During the 2016-17 school year, I intend to invite members of the Board to visit a school district during the school day so that you have the opportunity to see technology-supported learning and teaching in action. The Department has received many offers to host. I look forward to arranging a visit and will provide the Board with more information in the future.

This fall I will engage the Board in a longer conversation about educational technology and online learning. Earlier this spring the Board voted, with reservations, to renew the certificate for the Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School (GCVS). My staff is analyzing data on the performance of students in the state's two virtual schools (GCVS and the TEC Connections Academy Commonwealth Virtual School, or TECCA). Once these analyses are complete and include data from spring 2016 assessments, I will present the Board with the information and my recommendation on possible next steps.

Kenneth Klau, director of the Office of Digital Learning, Barbara Treacy, chair of the DLAC and a national expert on digital learning, and Julia Freeland Fisher, member of the DLAC and director of education for the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, will present information at the June 27 special meeting and respond to your questions. We look forward to the discussion.


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Digital Learning Advisory Council (DLAC) Members

Last Updated: June 20, 2016
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