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Digital Learning in Action

Using Skype, Ning and software to challenge students.

Some schools and districts are choosing to jump head first into the new digital environment. Here are a few:

In the Hempfield (Pa.) School District, 10th-grade English teacher Sarah DeMaria and her students use an extensive Moodle support site, a free and open-source e-learning software platform, as well as Sumo Paint, a browser-based online image editor and drawing application; Blabberize, a talking picture that can be used to enhance listening and speaking skills, especially for language learning; Glogster, a way to mix images, text, music and video; iMovie, which allows Mac users to edit their own home movies; Ning, an online service to create, customize and share a social network; and Wikispaces, simple Web pages that students can edit together.

This school year, DeMaria’s students read the William Faulkner novel As I Lay Dying and composed a digital journal to analyze the novel’s characters and their motives. DeMaria says she has seen a 5 to 10 percent improvement since 2007 in test scores that she credits to the use of technology to boost student learning. The tests are her own but are “identical or very similar” to standard 10th-grade tests, she says.

Superstition Springs Elementary School in the Gilbert (Ariz.) Public Schools is implementing a digital makeover that includes adding NEC NP400 projectors to its classrooms, allowing students to see subject matter better than huddling around a computer. Textbook pages are projected using a document camera, and teachers show online content from sources like

First-grade teacher Valerie Gresser used the technology to take her students on a virtual trip to the Egyptian pyramids. With 25 projectors in place so far in the school, Principal Patty Rogers says reading and math performance have improved.

In the Hunterdon (N.J.) Central Regional High School, a single-school district, students in a Spanish class use Skype to communicate in Spanish with native speakers in South American countries during regularly scheduled class periods. They often follow that up on their own with instant messaging in Spanish with the South American students over interests they discover that they share, like cars.

From experiences like those, “their motivation to learn goes off the charts,” says Rob Mancabelli, the district’s director of information systems. “They are not learning Spanish just to memorize the vocabulary they need to pass a test. They are learning it because they have a friend in another country they want to talk to,” he explains.

At the iSchool in the New York City Department of Education, students working on a project about the 9/11 terrorist attacks use videoconferences to interview students in other countries to learn what 9/11 means to them. The project is for a permanent exhibit for adolescent students that will be part of the National September 11 Memorial Museum being developed on Ground Zero in New York.

Monologues that the students create from their interviews will become part of the museum’s archives, says iSchool Co-Principal Alisa Berger. Berger calls digital projects like that “challenge-based learning,” because they encourage students to use technology to learn more than they would have to know just to pass tests.

Other terms, including “project centered,” which describes educational practices that have students learn by working on projects, also are used to label digital-learning environments. “I love ‘student centered’ versus ‘teacher centered.’ It represents a fundamental shift that has occurred in the philosophy of education,” says Elliott Levine, a former K12 administrator and now education strategist for Hewlett-Packard’s Personal Systems Group.