Digital Learning Seminar

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Dr. Sybil Francis, Executive Director of the Center for the Future of Arizona and State Senator Rich Crandall, Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, discuss the Southwest Digital Learning Seminar that focused on the use of technology in education.

Ted Simons: The Southwest Digital Learning Seminar was held this week at Skysong at Arizona State University. The seminar gathered together educators, business leaders, and politicians to learn more about technology and learning. Here to talk more about the seminar is Dr. Sybil Francis, Executive Director of the Center for the Future of Arizona, and also here is State Senator Rich Crandall. Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us. Give us more of an idea of what the summit was designed to do. Held just, the last couple days?

Sybil Francis: It was on Monday and Tuesday, and we believe that online learning has a huge potential to impact educational outcomes for students in Arizona, so we wanted to bring leaders and education together from across the state, superintendents, legislators, and others to really talk about what we can do in Arizona to help advance this agenda.

Ted Simons: Where are we right now with that particular agenda?

Sybil Francis: Well, we are at the beginning of it. Arizona is pretty well positioned to take advantage of it, but there's more we can do. So we need to look at the infrastructure we have in place, we need to look at teacher professional development around online learning, and really get families and schools ready to move forward with this.

Ted Simons: Is that the kind of thing you see as well as far as where we need to go? We're talking about Arizona here, we don't want to be "left behind". But we're certainly not the forefront of this. What's going on?

Ted Simons: But we are on the cutting edge. Ted it's nice to talk about something other than recalls and redistricting, I have to say. This topic right here literally moves the needle. What we find is that your kids take 180 days to learn, my kids take 180 days to learn- that's not true, yet that's exactly how state policy is. Using technology you take the best of a brick and mortar school, the best of online and digital and blend them together.

Ted Simons: How would you do that? When I hear blended learning, I have no idea what that means. Give me a definition.

Rich Crandall: You're not the only one. It's so new, only a few states are even moving in that direction and a few teachers are even moving in that direction. Blended learning means you don't worry about seat time, you focus on outcomes. And also location. We have school districts where the learning takes place on the bus while they're driving to school using technology. It could be at school, it could be at home, it could be anywhere.

Ted Simons: Offline, online, pretty much anywhere? Is that what blending learning means?

Sybil Francis: Blended learning is a blend of using online technology and as a way also to enhance the teacher effectiveness in the classroom, and to address the needs of individual students. That's really the beauty of online learn. The ability to meet students where they are in their own education. So very individualized. That's one of the beauties of it. But you don't want to necessarily do away with kids being in school, you really want to enhance the role of the teacher.

Ted Simons: Was there something discussed at the summit that wound up, you go to these things and there's always one particular subject that people seem to go along to or focus on more than others. Was there something at this particular summit that you found people were especially interested in talking about?

Sybil Francis: I think they were really interested in what this can do for their school. We really talked a lot about how you can increase student achievement, using these different models. And I think what was really interesting for the attendees was to learn about blended learning. So many of us have this idea that online learning is a student sitting at home in their room all by themselves, and you have this impression that it's isolating. But in fact blended learning in the classroom can be a very interactive process with your teacher, with your peers, different groupings of students. I think people were really intrigued by that.

Ted Simons: When you're talking about technology, and education, and putting them both together, what do you hear from teachers? What are they telling you?

Rich Crandall: Boy if we had the time. Just like anything with technology, have you early adopters, and then those who are a little bit afraid, and those who say, "Hey my way is working just fine." One of the most interesting things that came out of the conference is we don't necessarily have parents demanding a new way to learn. They're not concerned with the fact that the United States is falling every year to other countries. "My kid is bringing home an A, why I do need to worry about it?" Education goes way beyond the report card. And so I'm not worried so much about the teachers, but parents have to demand that their kids get a better education.

Ted Simons: So that's what you're hearing from parents? And what are you hearing from students as well? It sounds as though, that's a pretty important factor here.

Rich Crandall: The number one thing is do we make kids power down to go to school, or let them use the way they enjoy -- you know how it is at home, they have a laptop, a cell phone, an iPod, an iPad, but they go to school, there's 30 kids in front of one teacher with a textbook.

Ted Simons: How do you implement this stuff? How do you make sure the talk turns into action?

Sybil Francis: On the subject of students and parents, there was an interesting survey results that were revealed at this summit. And they were talking about the distance between parents and students in terms of how they see online learning. Students are saying they're getting bored in school, and they like to be able to use their devices for learning. So I think that was a very important message we all heard that they're on the cutting edge of this.

Rich Crandall: And to further answer your question, we have about five or six, some pretty good models, Madison just launched their innovation school, Vail School District, Chandler at Willis Junior High is doing things with blended learning. I even heard Winslow is doing something. But the problem is we're only doing it for one, two, 300 kids. That's not going to move the needle until we do it for 10,000.

Ted Simons: Are there particular subjects in which blended learning lends itself better than others?

Rich Crandall: Let me take this one Sybil if I can. The number one -- language, we had the CEO of Rosetta Stone come out, and fascinating, young guy, just full of enthusiasm. And as he talks about what's happening with Rosetta Stone K-12 across the world, it blew our minds with what they're accomplishing with languages. Math is second for blended learning.

Ted Simons: Is that how you see it as well?

Sybil Francis: Math is really the top of the list. In addition to which if you think about our rural areas, there's a huge opportunity there with bringing online learning in the math area, because it's so hard to get math and science teachers in the rural areas. Of course we have the issue of getting them the infrastructure and the connectivity but it's a very, very great opportunity.

Ted Simons: I was going to ask, does Arizona have the resources for these kinds of ideas?

Sybil Francis: Well, I think the first resource we have is the excitement and the vision for this. And I think we do have some work to do in terms of bringing the technology. But we're pretty well connected in Arizona in terms of broadband schools. A lot of kids have their own device and that was one of the really interesting ideas, which is kids bringing their own devices to school. So we're actually in pretty good shape. I think we've got some challenges in the rural areas, but I think we've got a good start.

Ted Simons: Is the legislature ready to meet some of those challenges?

Rich Crandall: What the legislature and the governor's office typically don't do is they don't fund start-ups. What they're looking for is a concept. If you think of when the governor gave some money to Teach for America. They came to Arizona first and for three years proved that they worked and then the governor stepped up with some money for them. I see that same thing happening here. What we're finding is with blended learning, you can redirect some dollars and make this work fantastically.

Ted Simons: I was going to say, redirecting dollars sounds like something that would catch a lawmaker's attention. How many lawmakers were at this summit? How many legislators were there?

Rich Crandall: I think we had six lawmakers, we had most of the county school superintendents, state board members. Those who needed to be there, about 50 of the big school superintendents.

Sybil Francis: Just to jump in on the resources, certainly there are start-up costs, but over time we believe that online learning can actually make the educational system much more effective and efficient. It's done that in so many other industries, in some ways education is the last big industry if you will that hasn't been invaded by and benefited from technology. So we actually think in the long run you can conserve on resources or make your system much more effective.

Ted Simons: And change the game as far as accountability, I would think would be concerned as well. You've got test scores that you can't hide there from the computer, can you?

Rich Crandall: No.

Ted Simons: Yeah.

Sybil Francis: Well, and even more than that, what's beautiful about the technology is that if it's done right the teachers can get data every day from their students and pinpoint and target their areas of need and help them where they need the most help. Right now with the teachers standing in front of several classes of 30 kids a day it's very hard to give individualized attention.

Ted Simons: All right. Very good. Thank you both for joining us. We appreciate it.

Sybil Francis: Thank you.

Dr. Sybil Francis:Executive Director of the Center for the Future of Arizona, Rich Crandall:State Senator and Chairman of the Senate Education Committee

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