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Conservative Maine Group Pushes Digital Learning Initiative
03/09/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Digital learning is going to have a larger role in Maine's schools in the coming years, In February, Gov. Paul LePage signed an executive order to expand online learning options. Today, the Maine Heritage Policy Center hosted a conference on digital learning. Presenters included online curriculum companies to representatives from online schools.

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Rick Ogston runs Carpe Diem schools in Arizona, a group of public charter schools that offers a blended-learning program. He says he remembers the moment he got the inspiration to change the way his school operates.

"I was walking around my campus about nine, nearly 10, years ago now, a campus of 300 students and teachers, and I noticed various levels of engagement of both the students and the teachers," Ogston said. "I was struck by what is called often an 'Ichabod Crane' moment."

That's the teacher from the 1800s-era story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Ogston says he realized that Ichabod Crane would be as comfortable in one of today's classrooms as he was back then. "And I began to think, can it be possible that an 1800s style classroom could truly offer the pedagogy required for 21st century students and equip them for what they're going to be facing in the future?"

The answer for Ogston, of course, was a big no. He says he realized he needed to get to know his students better as learners. Ogston says a lot of kids are "info-snackers": They're online a lot, but they don't necessarily retain what they see and read. Ogsten says he also realized that education tends to be system-centric, versus student-centric.

So, he instituted the educational equivalent of a one-eighty. "At Carpe Diem, we have flipped the classroom - and the entire school, as a matter of fact."

Ogsten says instead of just integrating some digital learning into existing curriculum, they embedded it. When kids come to school in the morning, they go to the "learning center." It's a large room that looks like a call center, with hundreds of cubicles. Students decide which subjects to work on in what order. Ogston says there's an ebb and flow of students alternately working at their computers at their own pace, and having workshops with teachers.

"The ecosystem changes because the role of the student changes from the one who sits there and just gets spoon-fed information, to the one who now is responsible to decide what they're going to do, how they're going to do it and at what pace they're going to do it," he said.

The teacher becomes more of a manager, tailoring workshop sessions to what students specifically need. But here's the kicker: Carpe Diem has just four primary teachers, one for each core subject. Ogsten says workshops are still small - usually a maximum of 15 students, because of that ebb and flow between computer and classroom.

The benefit, he says, is that each teacher works with students for their entire six through twelve education. Ogsten says that strengthens teacher-student relationships. "The digital curriculum and digital blended learning kind of concept doesn't replace anything," he said. "It augments the learning environment, and it enables and releases the teacher to become the professional they were intended to be."

It's the kind of learning environment that teachers like Peter Faloon are looking for. He's a math and science teacher in school system AOS 66 in northern Maine.

"I realize that a lot of the things I'm doing in the clasroom are no longer successful," he says. "Constantly trying to keep kids off their phones, from texting, doing all the things that they do, just isn't working anymore. And I've seen for awhile there's got to be a way to bring that into my curriculum and have them enjoy what they're doing while they're learning."

Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen closed out the conference. His vision for digital learning in Maine echoed a lot of the themes that Rick Ogston talked about: blended learning, tailored to individual student needs. "A lot is going to change," he said. "The role of the teacher is going to change dramatically."

Bowen says implementing more digital learning into Maine's school systems will be a learning process. But one thing's for sure, he says: The current education system is in for big changes


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