ASF's Future is Here
ASF's Future is Here

Starting right now, the learning experience at The American School is taking a giant leap forward

The 2017-18 school year is bringing with it a major advancement in the learning experience of American School Foundation students. What happens in the ASF classroom, and how it's communicated to the home, are undergoing ambitious changes for the better. Those changes start right away.

They have to do with digital technology.

Tech use in the classroom and for intra-community information is nothing new at ASF, of course. What's new are four thoroughly researched, digitally enabled strategies that will enhance (not replace) the state-of-the-art approach to education that the school already offers.

The improvements will also streamline communication between parents and the school, formally train students to use digital media safely, and ensure access for all.

All this is coming about via a four-part initiative years in the making, the culmination of efforts by virtually the entire school leadership. The key players include the Board of Trustees Technology Committee under the chairmanship of John Serrano, the IT Office directed by Javier Landeros, the administration of Executive Director Paul Williams, the office of Academic Director Juan Breene, the front-lines input of faculty members, and the academic wizards of ASF's Center for Teaching Excellence.

You can add to that list an array of global organizations, programs and consultants representing some of the the finest minds in education science, whose expertise has been tapped for this project.

The four improvements coincide neatly with the school's Technology Vision Statement crafted more than two years ago. Here is the statement's leading sentence:

"The American School Foundation uses educational technology seamlessly for teaching and learning by engaging students through a strengthened curriculum in a safe environment with access to modern technology."

Yes, it's a tad on the jargon-y side, but the words are carefully chosen and correlate neatly with the four new policies. The phrase "a safe environment," for example, is the precise goal of the Connected Citizens leg of the four-part initiative, which will train students at all levels to use digital technology with maximum efficiency and minimum danger.

Connected Educators is the meat-and-potatoes of the initiative (if vegans will excuse the expression), with faculty members set to receive intensive training in "us[ing] educational technology . . . for teaching and learning." The new ed-tech will be implemented "seamlessly" — i.e. without causing undue disruption — and aimed at keeping students responsible for their own progress ("engaging") as they take their learning to new levels ("strengthened curriculum"), rather than merely using tech for tech's sake.

The phrase "access to modern technology" applies to both of the other two policy categories. One is a Revised BYOD Strategy, which clarifies what and how digital devices will be used in the classroom, and assures that everybody will have one available. More on this in a bit, but for now here's a spoiler: Students will bring laptops or tablets to class, but never cell phones.

The other is a New Learning Management System that will streamline and simplify how students and parents access grades, assignments and class materials through the ASF website at home. Parents will applaud this advancement, as will teachers who will find it much easier and quicker to post the information in the first place.

So, how do these new policies work? What's going to be happening in ASF classrooms in 2017-18 that wasn't happening last year? Let's take a quick look at them one by one, along with some questions that will no doubt arise.

1. You — yes, you — leave a digital footprint every time you go online. Make sure it's positive.

The Connected Citizens program is here by popular demand. ASF parents have been expressing increasing concern about how much screen time their kids are accumulating, and how they're spending that time. Is there such a thing as too much? What kinds of use need to be limited and what kinds should be encouraged?

Most important, how can they stay safe online?

Parents today generally understand the value of the internet for education, information, research, sharing, personal connections, communication, community service, social activism and all those other good things that mark our digital age. At the same time, they are more aware than ever that the internet today is a minefield. Cyberbullying, identity theft, copyright infringement, privacy violations, public shaming, bogus information and negative digital footprints are just some of the dangers lurking out there in cyberspace.

Perhaps the key question parents have been asking is this one: "What is ASF doing about this?"

Starting with this new school year, there is a good answer: ASF is implementing the Connected Citizens program, a formal course of study to train students at all levels to use digital technology to maximum advantage and minimum danger. It is no longer nearly enough to simply caution students to be careful and act responsibly. They need solid knowledge and specific skills, and this curriculum will provide them.

What is this thing called the "digital footprint"?

You can't erase the internet. Everything you put up, stays up . . . somewhere. Every site you visit, every topic you google, every email you send, every chat you participate in, every Instagram photo you post, every Snapchat image you share, every Facebook entry you make — in short everything — is on the record somewhere, even if you trashed it. It's viewable. It's searchable. It's your digital footprint.

Who cares, you ask? Well, college admissions officers care. Prospective employers care. Both are as likely as not to track your online history and factor it into their decisions.

The new digital citizenship curriculum will emphasize reflection before revelation, and teach students how to take full advantage of what the internet has to offer while keeping their footprints clean by navigating their way around the digital dilemmas. The goal is to create a positive school culture that supports safe and responsible technology use, and eventual designation as a Common Sense District.

How will digital citizenship be taught?

For its Connected Citizens effort, ASF has adopted (at no cost) the Digital Citizenship curriculum from the internationally renowned Common Sense Education program, which in turn is part of the Common Sense Media organization. The sessions will take place during the Advocacy period in Upper School, tech classes in Middle School, and split between tech and regular sessions in Lower School.

These won't be informal chats. The Digital Citizenship program is substantive and comprehensive, with 65 grade-differentiated lesson plans based on research from Dr. Howard Gardner (he of the theory of multiple intelligences) and the Good Play Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. There will be learning resources and assessments — a real class, in other words.

How do we know it works?

Because it's already been tested at ASF. Fifth graders had 12 weeks of the Digital Citizenship curriculum last year as a pilot program. And sure enough, the inappropriate communications that were plentiful at the beginning of the program were no longer to be seen by the end.

Will parents be involved?

Yes. They will get handouts explaining the lessons, weekly messages, and a lot of encouragement to continue the discussions at home, which is where, after all, most screen use takes place.

2. There's no point in going full digital in the classroom if you end up doing the same thing with a mouse that you did with a Bic

The tech-driven advances in the classroom will come about through the Connected Educators part of the initiative. Why "Connected Educators" and not "Connected Students"? Well, it will be both, of course. But first things first.

For the next two years, the ASF faculty will be dedicating their professional development time to intensive training in digital learning techniques aimed at enhancing the kind of project-based education that ASF emphasizes. They will bring what they learn to the classroom, but they won't be waiting two years to do it.

"By attending the training, the teachers are going to see examples of what to do, and they're going to be responsible for producing lesson plans to implement in the next week or so," says Chris Muller, who as head of the Center for Teaching Excellence for the last several years played a major role in developing the tech initiative. "So with training starting in September, we expect to see changes in the classroom by October."

Who's giving the training?

ART-EDU is a highly regarded Swiss-based education consulting firm with a strong presence in Latin America, operating out of offices in Mexico City. Its staff is flush with Apple Distinguished Educators, including CEO/founder Alexandre Robert-Tissot, from whose initials the ART part of the company name comes. One of those game-changing visionaries who flourish in the space where digital technology and education meet, Mr. Robert-Tissot is fluent in Spanish and English as well as the Swiss languages (French, German and Italian). You can see a 2013 interview with him, in Spanish from the Dominican Republic here.

The consultants will first evaluate how ASF uses tech in the classroom today. Their nuts and bolts data collection will be complemented with classroom observation, survey responses and interviews with teachers. ART-EDU will then provide most of the training (probably at least eight sessions over two years), and conduct periodic follow-ups to gauge effectiveness.

What are the strategies that teachers will be learning?

As much as we love a challenge, we can't summarize two years worth of innovation in one Focus Online article, especially since everything discussed will be massaged and adapted to ASF's specific needs. What we will share, though, is the model they'll be using to judge proposed approaches. And that's enough, because this model is really the key to understanding what's going on here.

It's called SAMR. Each initial stands for a category of classroom tech use, in ascending order of usefulness.

The "S" is for Substitution, which is pretty much what its name implies — substituting some kind of digital tool to perform a familiar task. Mr. Muller uses as a simplified example a verb conjugation worksheet in an English or Spanish as a Second Language class. Instead of handing out a piece of paper to each of 20 students, the teacher loads it as, say, a Word document and sends it to their tablets or laptops. They fill it out on the screen and email it back to the teacher. Voilà! The digital classroom has arrived.

But not really, says Mr. Muller, who this year will serve as the Upper School dean of students. "You´re just substituting a different format for the same task," he says. "You're not enhancing the learning experience. You're doing the same thing you could have done 20 years ago."

Substitution, clearly, is not enough. We have to move up the SAMR ladder.

The next letter stands for Augmentation. Here the teacher may add links to the document to sites that review the conjugation rules, or that list the irregular verbs. Students may be asked to supply their own links, perhaps to examples of the verbs conjugated correctly in sentences. The idea is to augment the standard work by taking advantage of what's available digitally.

It's probably occurred to you that most of the "S" and "A" rungs on the SAMR ladder are old hat at ASF. Where we're heading now, though, is toward more "M" (Modification) and then to a point where "R" (Redefinition) dominates.

For example, a task can be modified, by being shared among groups of students who work together, using online collaboration tools. Or it can be redefined so that the task is transformed instead of enhanced. A student could make an animated video, for example, with a script that uses all the correctly conjugated forms of the verbs being learned. What may have been a months-long term project not so long ago can be an overnight homework assignment in a modern digital-learning environment.

The rewards of such new tech-enabled approaches are many. Students are more engaged and therefore more likely to find ways to acquire, and then demonstrate, knowledge. Teachers get a deeper insight into how well their students understand the lessons. And the students are developing the kinds of skills that future employers will be looking for — collaboration capability, critical thinking and creative solutions.

Same question as before: How do we know it will work?

It already has. The Highlands Institute here in Mexico City, to cite one example, began work with ART-EDU a few years ago with initial evaluations revealing high rates of Substitution with almost no Redefinition. Two years later, the reverse is true at that school. Same company. Same program. It works.

3. Keep bringing your own device. It's part of coming prepared to the classroom. Just make sure it's the right kind.

ASF has been ahead of the game for many years since its BYOD policy recognized that digital devices on campus could be learning tools rather than mere nuisances. That policy has been fine-tuned for this coming academic year as the new tech initiative begins to kick in.

Students from fourth grade on up are now required to come to class with a laptop or a tablet, Apple or Windows, that meets certain specs (such as screen size) that have been and will continue to be communicated to the families.

Cell phone use, on the other hand, is forbidden in the classroom. The logic is simple: A laptop or tablet is part of the learning process; a cell phone distracts from it.

ASF has an Equitable Access commitment that it takes seriously. It means, among other things, that those students who can't get access to their own laptop or tablet can check one out for a day at a a time from the Learning Center.

Equitable Access also means that there will always be enough bandwidth and connection speed for digital classrooms to function smoothly school wide. A big part of the prep work for the tech initiative has involved a major effort by the IT Office to make sure the capacity is there.

Also thanks to IT, the needed apps will be automatically pushed on to the students' devices once classes start. Most are already at the ready, having been requested by teachers in advance. Many more will be coming as the Connected Educators program begins to hatch new learning strategies that teachers will want to implement in the classroom this school year.

What should parents do?

Three things. One, arrange for your child to have available a suitable laptop or tablet to take to class. Two, make sure she or he leaves enough space on the device for the learning apps to load. And three, have patience. The devices will be used for some things right away, but the major innovations we've been exploring here won't be showing up until after the training starts on Sept. 18.

4. A better way for teachers to organize their efforts and for parents to keep up with what their kids are doing at school

The fourth element in the new tech initiative is more of a communications upgrade than an educational breakthrough, but it's already making a lot of parents and teachers happy. Welcome to the New Learning Management System.

Teachers use learning management programs to create, organize, store and work on the million and one things involved with educating young people — from attendance to lessons to homework assignments to grades. Parents and students have been able to access the assignments and lessons from home using Moodle. But to check grades and attendance, they had to switch to another app (PowerSchool).

No more. ASF has switched this school year to the Unified Classroom concept. Everything is now in one place, called PowerSchool Learning. That's clearly convenient for parents, but even more so for teachers, who were spending inordinate amounts of their precious time moving heavy files in and out of Moodle.

This, then, is an improvement that helps carry out another Tech Vision Statement element:

"ASF parents access platforms and programs designed for increasing their involvement through enhanced communication of student life."

The entire tech initiative, in fact, fulfills ASF's Equitable Access commitment in ways that go beyond adequate bandwidth and device availability for all. Every ASF student now has the opportunity to learn from teachers who understand how to use technology to enhance the learning experience.