Schools don’t need inclement weather for digital learning days

Most school districts in metro Atlanta have some form of digital learning days — or are looking to implement them soon. AJC file photo

Most school districts in metro Atlanta have some form of digital learning days — or are looking to implement them soon. AJC file photo

For most school students in metro Atlanta, snow days are still work days.

The same technology that allows them to communicate with each other through video games, texts, tweets and IMs, will allow educators to teach from a distance. But some school systems are finding that the technology has so many advantages that they're looking at making it a permanent part of the learning structure.

Forsyth County schools says it was the first to fully implement digital learning days district-wide five years ago. In the early days, issues such as adequate internet bandwith and access to devices were worked out by collecting feedback from students, teachers and parents, said spokeswoman Jennifer Caracciolo. By the second year, things were running smoothly, she said.

“We were the first Bring Your Own Technology district in Georgia, so our students have been using their own devices for many years. If they don’t have devices, we have provided them to them,” she added.

Gwinnett County, the largest school district in the state did a complete roll-out of digital learning days last year. In a report at the December school board meeting, Tricia Kennedy, executive director for Instructional Development and Support, pointed out that the six days in 2017-2018 where inclement kept students from school, the digital learning days kept them from losing instruction.

After bugs were worked out the first day, 63,154 students and teachers were able to seamlessly work on assignments and answer questions almost as if they were in the same room.

Some lessons learned, Kennedy pointed out, were: making sure assignments weren’t too long, creating a mix of offline assignments so technology can be shared by siblings or assignments can be completed without internet if need be, standardizing assignments for an entire school or cluster and providing alternative assignments if necessary.

The first year went so well that the calendar for this year and next has only two inclement weather days built in.

“This has proven to be an invaluable tool that keeps the kids on track,” Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said.

The success of the inclement weather program has prompted the district to add school-based digital learning days where specific days are already planned regardless of the weather:

Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology will use it four times on early release days; Dacula High School, five days; Coleman Middle School, three days and Paul Duke STEM High School currently uses digital learning days every Friday.

But a national advocacy group warns against using the technology just because it’s available.

There’s a right way to use digital learning days, said Tom Murray, director of innovation for Future Ready Schools at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.–based national nonprofit.

“Technology is a tool and it can make great instruction better,” said Murray. “But if it’s used poorly it can set students up for failure.”

Building life skills that will help students with collaboration, abstract thinking, etc. are all positive outcomes from digital learning, he said. But point out red flags that can lead to a homework gap.

School districts should not assume that everyone has access to internet, he said. The students most likely to be without internet are probably those most at-risk. It’s the school’s responsibility to make sure the kids can participate before making digital learning mandatory.

A 2016 study from The Pew Research Center shows that about 59 percent of Hispanic adults report having some sort of internet access at home. Hispanics who are foreign born (48 percent) or Spanish dominant (35 percent) are much less likely to have home internet than those who are U.S. born (72 percent) or English dominant (75 percent).

“Issues with connectivity can further disadvantages for under served students,” Murray said.

In Forsyth County, students have had devices and Wi-Fi for internet access. A local doctor and wife annually raise funds for the devices and connectivity. Teachers work individually with students to recover the lost instruction if they lose internet access.

In DeKalb County, the state’s third largest school district, a program is underway to provide laptop devices to every middle and high school student in phases over the next two years. The Digital Dreamer program will also provide 25,000 mobile hotspot devices to some high school students. These devices will provide each household up to 3GB per month of free internet connectivity free of charge.

To encourage more school districts to embrace this use of technology, the Alliance for Education Excellence created an annual event called Digital Learning Day. It's Feb. 28 this year and provides information for school districts looking to implement digital learning days through webinars, discussions and information sharing.

“We have a map with hundreds of schools pinned on it and they share best practices,” said Murray. “We’ve found that a never-ending feedback loop for students, teachers and parents makes the entire system work better and more effectively.”