Digital tools redefine learning FEATURE

Many schools throughout Silicon Valley have integrated technology into their classrooms, but the digital revolution has also left many behind.

This is a guest post written by Muhammed Chaudhry, President & CEO, Silicon Valley Education Foundation

More than ever in today’s classrooms, digital tools are redefining the process of teaching and learning.

Whether it’s through games, online textbooks, animation or videos, digital learning has become an essential part of the educational experience. It is especially vital in preparing our students to become technologically advanced to qualify for the skilled jobs of today and for future jobs that have not yet been created.           

A number of studies in Silicon Valley and across the U.S. show that most teachers believe digital tools help students develop significant critical learning skills: increased engagement, reinforced understanding, and the ability to visualize difficult concepts. The tools – hardware and software – also encourage students to take charge of their own learning and work at their own pace.

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While many schools throughout Silicon Valley have integrated technology into their classrooms, the digital revolution has left many behind. Even though the world views Silicon Valley as the center of innovation with its storied wealth and bounty of smart techies, we still have many schools that are unable to fully support digital learning.  Technology infrastructure, school district vision and funding commitment to technology, as well as teacher training, vary greatly between schools. This, coupled with the fact that technology is changing at lightning speed, places an even greater burden on those schools that are simply struggling to stay in the game. 

This “digital divide” in the Valley breaks down into two starkly different geographic and economic areas that reveal two very different Silicon Valleys that defy the stereotype of the region. The division separates schools on the Valley’s low-income east side – populated largely by students of color – from schools on the more “affluent” west side, whose students are predominantly white and Asian.      

We know that some school districts on the east side of the Valley struggle to keep up with changes in technology and the ability to provide the most up-to-date devices and provide enough for all students to use, while many schools on the west side have ample resources to fully integrate technology into their schools.

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At the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, we work with all public schools in the Valley to promote digital learning through our unique Learning Innovation Hub (iHub).  Since our 2014 launch, we have introduced more than 15 digital products to 4,800 students in 40 classrooms.  What iHub does is connect EdTech developers with teachers and schools, via an annual “Pitch Games” competition, to bring the latest digital tools to classrooms.  We are creating laboratories to bring new innovative technologies into the market and giving teachers and students the chance to shape those digital tools. Our model helps developers and schools work collaboratively to understand each other’s needs. Companies participating in iHub have the opportunity to have their products validated in live classroom settings and to get immediate feedback. Schools and students are the beneficiaries of this iterative review process – classroom needs and product features are closely aligned. 

Teams of teachers from schools across the Bay Area are matched with products for a 3-month evaluation pilot. Teachers devote extensive time and commitment to blending product use into lesson plans in a variety of subjects.  Recently, teachers at an elementary school in San Jose’s Evergreen School District were paired with the EdTech company Teaching Garage, which helped them integrate lessons on subjects, such as astronomy, into classroom activities.  Using Teaching Garage, the students explored ideas on how astronauts could exercise in space, given space and gravitational limitations. They also studied how a robotic arm might help crews in space make repairs without leaving a space capsule or station. At the end of the day, the whole process reinforced that engineering is not intimidating or boring, but fun. 

These digital tools have opened up a new world of learning outside of the traditional classroom and every day are presenting exciting, transformative experiences for students and teachers.  

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