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Problems of Practice

Digital Design: How can leaders build educator capacity to leverage technology as a core component of instruction?

Key Takeaways

To effectively leverage technology as a core component of instruction, schools and districts must take steps to:

  • Engage teachers to clearly identify needs.

  • Reimagine coaching and professional development structures to increase teacher capacity with digital tools.

  • Create alignment between school-level vision and district-wide policies.

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What is the problem?

Divisions separating students based on their socioeconomic status (and, relatedly, race) have long been documented when it comes to digital access and digital use. However, when it comes to effective learning design, divides may exist between classrooms, schools, and systems based on whether educators receive enough time, resources, and professional support to design effective learning experiences with technology. Failure to address these divides at the educator level prevents systemic implementation of high-quality learning experiences with technology – regardless of the presence of powerful devices and high-speed internet.

“The Digital Design Divide is between and within those systems that provide every educator the time and support they need to build their capacities to design learning experiences with digital tools, and those that do not.” – 2024 National Education Technology Plan

Why is it important?

To ensure that all students experience meaningful learning opportunities through the active and effective use of technology, school and system leaders need to create the conditions for educators to leverage technological tools as a core component of their instruction. Teachers’ ability to effectively design learning opportunities for students relies on appropriate knowledge, training, and increased capacity. Unfortunately, not all teachers have the time, support, and knowledge necessary to design effective and engaging learning experiences.

The research says...

How: Solution

Before meaningfully tackling disparities in digital design, students must have equitable and consistent access to devices and the internet. As with the digital design divide, school leaders can play an essential role in addressing access disparities. To learn more about what school leaders can do to ensure that every student has access to the tools they need to become expert learners, explore TLA’s Problem of Practice on digital access.

Closing the digital design divide relies on school and systems-level actions that enable teachers to develop their skills and capacities with digital tools. These include:

  • Partnering to understand barriers and solutions: Elevate teacher voice by gathering input on current challenges then collaborate to address them.

  • Revising systems of support: Reimagine the way that teachers are coached, developed, and supported in their professional growth to increase their capacity with technology. This includes articulating competencies educators need as well as fostering a culture of learning and continuous improvement among all educators.

  • Expanding district-level vision and policies: Ensure the conditions are in place for educators to create meaningful digital experiences through aligned opportunities, policies, and resource allocation.

The three approaches below can help school leaders make meaningful progress toward these outcomes. While each can be executed individually, they will be more powerful if implemented together.

1

Identify what teachers need – and whether or not they’ve got it.

Understanding teachers' needs is key to supporting them. Begin by evaluating and understanding your current school culture when it comes to student technology use. Leaders can do this by implementing mechanisms to collect input and feedback, curating products and resources responsive to educator and student needs, establishing processes to evaluate the effectiveness of digital technologies, and engaging diverse stakeholders. Not only will you better understand the current state of digital use in instruction, you’ll understand teacher perceptions around need and can help to cultivate their readiness for change.

What this looks like in practice:

  • Conduct a needs assessment with feedback from stakeholders: Engage with teachers, administrators, students, and families to gather diverse perspectives on current instructional practices with technology and potential areas for improvement. This takes into account the diverse backgrounds and learning needs of teachers and students, and it ensures that decisions are informed by the experiences and insights of those directly involved in the educational process.

  • Understand existing technology capacity: Assess the existing technological infrastructure, resources, and support systems within the school or district as well as teacher and student proficiency with existing tools. Understanding technological capacity helps identify potential areas for improvement and helps you consider whether proposed changes are feasible and sustainable.

  • Exercise inclusive decision-making: Leverage insights gained from feedback, technology assessments, and needs assessments to inform decision-making and drive meaningful change. Ensure future decisions continue to include diverse voices, creating a comprehensive and inclusive approach to professional learning transformation. This approach can lead to more successful and equitable educational practices.

2

Revise and reimagine systems of support.

Once you’ve gained a better understanding of what your teachers need, you can provide more tailored support. Broadly, professional learning structures should encourage and allow educators to continuously improve their practices. Additionally, this learning should occur within a culture that nurtures collegial trust and empowers educators to take risks, collaborate, and innovate their teaching methods.

What this looks like in practice:

  • Get clear on new professional expectations. Specifically define the technology integration competencies you expect teachers to have. A district-wide "portrait of an educator" can be one way to do this, outlining the skills, knowledge, and attributes necessary to effectively integrate technology into teaching.

  • Prioritize building broader teacher capacity over training on discrete tools: To improve professional learning structures, leaders must move beyond curriculum and focus more on cultivating teacher capacity. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework centers on the principle of designing learning experiences that impact all learners – which applies to teachers as well as students. By utilizing frameworks like UDL, leaders can move beyond professional development that simply provides instruction on tools and can instead focus on increasing teacher proficiency around powerful learning principles and guidelines.

  • Focus on building digital literacy: Help educators understand the significance of digital literacy and how it relates to the active use of technology in their teaching. This focus ensures that teachers develop requisite technology capacity and leverage it to enhance learning experiences for all students.

  • Reallocate resources based on priorities: Shift resources (including funds and time) to support new professional learning approaches. Meaningful reallocation ensures that resources are directed toward strategies with the most significant impact on student learning. Implement a coaching model that extends beyond traditional workshops and offers personalized, scaffolded support and feedback, and continue to hold ongoing, recurring time in all professional development structures to make way for adequate time and attention focused on teacher capacities.

3

Advocate for district-level vision and policy alignment.

School leaders are in a position to advocate for the needs of their school, staff, and even budgets to address the digital design divide. At the district or system level, leadership plays a critical role in creating clarity and the right conditions for educators to meaningfully shift their instructional practice.

What this looks like in practice:

  • Align vision with opportunities for practice and learning: Building on new expectations for teachers, districts must make it easier for school leaders and teachers to try new practices, tools, and approaches aligned to that vision. One way to approach this is to create more opportunities for collaboration among schools, as well as a process for more quickly identifying and promising initiatives to scale. This can create district policies (particularly those related to professional learning) that are more conducive to the types of effective learning experiences and collaboration noted in the approaches above.

  • Create policies to protect student and teacher privacy and security: Providing students and teachers with apps, devices, and internet access does not adequately address digital equity if it sacrifices their right to privacy. Districts must develop – and help teachers understand – strategies and guidance to limit systematic monitoring (which can lead to surveillance), uphold student data privacy requirements with digital providers, and plan ahead to address the impact emerging technologies (including AI tools) can have on student privacy and security.

  • Effectively calculate costs: Accurately addressing the costs associated with implementing digital design initiatives is crucial for budgeting and resource allocation. These costs must go beyond devices and infrastructure, and include sustainability, professional development, and ongoing support. School leaders can support district leadership by highlighting these costs and advocating for their inclusion into budgets and allocations.

Take it further

To learn more about ways leaders can close the digital design divide, explore these additional resources:

Additional Resources and Content:

  • Essential Conditions to Support Digital Equity: This portion of our Digital Equity Guide helps school and system leaders have meaningful, actionable, and iterative conversations about the conditions that support digital equity and to develop concrete plans of action. This resource is great for school and systems leaders who want to begin setting a vision and planning for action.

  • NETP Digital Design: This resource presents a deeper review of the digital design divide, including recommendations and school strategy spotlights. Appendix B includes additional examples, and Appendix F offers a guide for school leaders.

This resource is part of a Problem of Practice series that provides guidance for educators on how they can work to increase digital access, use, and design in their classrooms – critical levers identified in the 2024 National Educational Technology Plan. Explore the other parts of the series: