Most school leaders would agree that cultivating an educational program that optimizes student achievement and prepares students for a successful transition to college and 21st century careers is one of the most important priorities for the board of education.

But what exactly does that mean? The college and career environments some of us approached a few decades ago were vastly different than what students approach today in 2015. What’s more, the 2015 college and career environments may look very different from what today’s kindergarteners will encounter in 2027. Can we even imagine what we are trying to prepare our students for?

The students of today are a part of a much larger community than many of us were during our primary education years and one thing is certain – in the future, the world will not get smaller. The community our students know has grown beyond the school, neighborhood and church and now includes an expansive global digital community that is accessible 24/7 worldwide. For today’s educational environment to successfully prepare students for college and careers in an unpredictable “tomorrowland,” it needs to accurately reflect this digital evolution and become a fully functional and adaptable digital learning environment. A responsive and secure network infrastructure with adequate bandwidth for consistent access to online resources needs to be maintained in every school facility, updated regularly and most importantly, used routinely by each student as a seamless part of his or her educational program.

Maximizing Network Upgrades

This is the big picture and it is why boards across the state have invested time and money creating upgraded school network infrastructures. It is the focus behind the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) initiatives of the last five years to modernize education in the state by integrating high student achievement standards, teacher effectiveness, and the innovative instructional models of the Common Core State Standards, with rigorous assessment.

Unfortunately, many New Jersey school districts are reeling from the outcry over the implementation of the digitally-formatted statewide assessment instrument, the PARCC test. The bitter taste of controversy has skewed the big picture and caused eyes to narrowly focus on one isolated piece of the 21st century classroom – digital assessment. Assessment in education is indisputably important but should never obscure the significance of the broader concepts of the digital learning environment including innovative teaching strategies enhanced with creative uses of technology and the Internet.

On the practical side, much money, time and effort has been invested in updating district network infrastructures and purchasing the equipment/hardware to give each student the appropriate Internet access to roll out PARCC. It follows that using this investment only as a means to administer a test is a waste of resources. Most of our children will spend a significant part of each day communicating, managing their personal and professional lives and performing work online throughout the rest of their lives. Education must train students and refine the skills they will require to continually adapt to the rapidly advancing technological landscape.

NJSBA is working with the NJDOE to develop information, resources and policy language that will help school districts implement strategies to maximize the district’s investment. The goal is to provide support to districts that enables them to use their network infrastructures and technological capacity to give students and staff access to information, to personalize learning, to provide professional development opportunities and to support collaboration in learning – all characteristics essential to effective digital learning environments.

The board of education can be instrumental in reestablishing balance and promoting a school culture that embraces the integration of core academic content standards with the relevant and evolving teaching and learning strategies of a digital learning environment. As your board reviews and updates district policies, the board’s position can be amended to influence changes in the school culture that support the integration of digital learning throughout the educational program.

Policies to consider updating include:

1000 Series: Community Relations

  • 1000/1010 Concepts and Roles in Community Relations
  • 1100 Communication with the Public; and
  • 1111 District Publications

These policies express that community engagement in the educational program is valued and encouraged. Integrating the resources of home, school, and community helps meet the needs of district students by strengthening the connection between the learning process and the resources of the community making education more relevant to real world dynamics. These policies can be expanded and customized to describe and emphasize communication resources that are available on the district website and through password-authorized access to the district network. Many district websites have parent and community portals that offer online access to information, schedules, grades and district data, notification of events and activities and announce volunteer and employment opportunities, among other things. Describing these online resources and encouraging use of the district’s website is one means of promoting community input and involvement. Branding your community relations program through a clear policy emphasis that describes the available digital connection possibilities communicates that the schools and educational programs are a vigorous 21st century force connecting the lives of students with the home, the local and the digital global communities.

3000 Series: Business and Noninstructional Operations

  • 3000 Concepts and Roles in Business
  • 3100 Budget Planning Preparation and Adoption
  • 3300 Purchasing (and other discretionary policies related to cooperative purchasing, shared services etc.)
  • 3510 Operation and Maintenance of Plant
  • 3600 Evaluation of Business and Noninstructional Operations

These policies communicate various aspects of the board’s fiscal responsibilities and priorities. The general policies on concepts and roles, budget planning and evaluation can be expanded to task the business administrator or create a technology team to explore the district long-range and short-term technology needs, and create reporting requirements to the board regarding technology priorities that are justified and linked to consistent annual funding streams.

Purchasing policies can be added or amended to specifically cover creative financing strategies like leveraging business-school partnerships, cooperative purchasing and shared services that financially support a sustainable technology program. Operation and maintenance polices can include sections specifically related to planning for the selection and/or replacement of equipment, software, hardware, infrastructure and Internet service providers, and the regular review and maintenance of the district’s or school’s technology.

4000 Series: Personnel 4131/4131.1

Professional Development is already a long and detailed policy statement that specifies the procedures and practices required for the board’s legal obligation to support the fulfillment of 20 hours of professional development for teaching staff members annually. This policy may be supplemented with a regulation that describes opportunities your district offers for staff involvement in professional learning communities that enable educators to collaborate, share best practices and integrate 21st century skills into classroom practice and/or opportunities for alternative, personalized models of professional development enabled through technology and social media.

6000 Series – Instruction

Board policies covering curriculum design and development (file code 6141) can be augmented to describe curriculum and teaching strategies that provide students with digital learning choices and experiences in every class, as well as anywhere-anytime learning support through the school network. In updating the district curriculum, the board can create the expectation that the selection of materials and courses of study that leverage technology and digital learning in the teaching and learning process are important priorities.

Policy development is an essential board responsibility that sets the direction and the priorities for the district’s educational program. An educational program that supports the kind of student achievement that leads to individual success and, by extension, the overall success of our society, must keep pace with the technological innovations that are here now and changing rapidly.

Policy development is a thoughtful, well-researched and methodical process that creates clear, legal and workable direction for your educational program. Most school districts are already operating educational programs where students use various forms of innovative technology on a regular basis in their school work. Moving one step at a time is always the best approach for supporting large transitions in school culture. As policies come to the board table for review, consider ways that you can describe existing or new initiatives that support a progressive emphasis on cultivating your digital learning environment. As always, the NJSBA policy staff is available to help districts with projects, provide research, and supply or develop policy language to meet district needs.

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