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Deborah Gist Headshot

Bringing Technology to the Classroom

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Let's imagine if a person could come back to us from the past. Let's imagine if a student from one hundred years ago could join us today and visit one of our schools. What would she see as she looks around?

For the most part, our visitor from the past would feel quite at home in most of today's schools. She would see classrooms with the teacher in the front of the room and with school desks lined up in neat rows. She would see books on shelves in each classroom and on every student's desk. She would see students taking notes on paper and doing assignments using pencils. And in many schools, she would see that the clock still determines when classes begin -- and when they end.

Today's schools may be similar to the schools of 100 years ago, but today's world is entirely different from the world of 100 years ago -- even from 10 years ago.

Today, we live in a high-tech, global economy. Technology, the Internet, the World Wide Web, search engines, hand-held electronic devices, and social media all put us in touch with people, places, information, and ideas -- instantly, and all the time. Technology has opened access to the world and provided a world of resources for our teachers and students.

Our world and our expectations are changing rapidly. The skills our students need to succeed are dramatically different today from what students needed 10 years ago. To prepare our students for success in the 21st century, we must change the way we support our teachers and students. To transform education for the 21st century, we need to rethink learning, rethink schools, and take advantage of all of the resources available to us.

One step in transforming education is ensuring that all schools are ready to embrace and use technology. As Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education in Rhode Island, I am proud to say that our state has taken dramatic steps to welcome technology into the classroom -- not as a tool, a resource, or an add-on but as an essential element in the process of teaching and learning.

In February, on a snowy New England Saturday morning, more than 300 educators, students, and interested members of the community came together for a day-long conference that we called "Innovation Powered by Technology." At this conference, we put out a call to Rhode Island schools, seeking a school community in which the teachers, parents, and students were ready to lead the way and become a model school for innovation and technology.

Following the conference, we developed a grant application, and in May we awarded our first Innovation Powered by Technology grant to the Pleasant View School, a high-poverty, persistently low-achieving school in Providence.

During the next two years, the team at Pleasant View will:

  • implement an extended daily schedule for targeted, small-group learning;
  • increase student-centered instruction and instructional time;
  • allow students to spend a portion of their time in school with online learning;
  • make content come alive with integrated multimedia experiences through technology;
  • enable students to proceed with learning at their own pace;
  • support teachers in their ongoing professional development, during the school year and through the summer; and
  • communicate regularly and engage with parents, including access to free digital-literacy classes and other online programs.

As this pilot school moves forward, we have taken several dramatic steps in Rhode Island to invest in technology and to build a policy framework that supports virtual learning.

This year, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln D. Chafee proposed, and the legislature approved, a $20-million technology bond that, during the next four years, will provide wireless access to the Internet for every classroom in Rhode Island.

In September, the Rhode Island Department of Education signed an agreement with CDW-G, a leading technology company, to make available to all schools at an excellent price Lenovo laptops, software, technical support, and teacher training. This agreement will provide all students and teachers with the tools they need for virtual learning and for the new state assessments that Rhode Island will implement in 2014.

In July, the Rhode Island Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education passed regulations to establish "comprehensive and coherent policies" on virtual learning. Among many other provisions, these regulations require us to provide greater access "to quality online content" and to "support access to online learning opportunities" for all students.

In short, we are using innovations powered by technology to transform education in Rhode Island.

Imagine if you could step into the future and visit one of our public schools 10 years from now. Imagine where our students and teachers will get their information and what resources will support learning. Imagine the ways in which we will personalize learning experiences for each student. Imagine how our students will be able to benefit from digital learning - opening up a nearly infinite number of advanced courses in world languages, sciences, engineering, and the arts. Think about how our schedules could be made more flexible, with instruction available to students at any hour day or night, or on any day.

We are asking all of our educators in Rhode Island to take this imaginary journey into the future -- and to bring that vision into our schools today.

We are proud of what we have accomplished in Rhode Island, and we are proud to be one of the states that is leading the way when it comes to using technology to transform teaching and learning.