Professional learning that improves educator practice is supported by ongoing, job-embedded coaching. Therefore, to build educators’ capacities in technology-empowered pedagogy, state leaders can plan for the sustainability of professional learning opportunities. And such planning involves a strategic deployment of public dollars.
This issue has become even more important in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced a rapid nationwide transition to online learning, often without adequate educator training. Utah, through its Digital Teaching and Learning grant program, is a model for using state funds to support professional learning in the effective use of technology. Utah’s DTL program has positively contributed to districts’ pandemic response. Below, Sydnee Dickson, Utah’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, shares her state’s story and advice for state leaders.
How did Utah act on the need to invest in educator capacity?
In 2015, the state Legislature called for the development of a master plan to improve classroom technology use. We subsequently convened local superintendents and technology directors, state board members, legislators, the governor’s office, and the Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETN) to contribute to the Essential Elements for Technology Powered Learning. In the plan, we identified several components of effective technology integration and proposed a statewide DTL grant necessary for implementation, which became codified into law.
With DTL, we decided against a top-down approach, which would have involved the state board directing LEAs [local education agencies] to use funds toward specified activities. Instead, we asked each LEA to conduct a readiness assessment and use that data to create a personalized plan. The state board did set some guidelines, asking plans to address, among other items, professional learning, digital citizenship and specific metrics. But by empowering LEAs to create their own plans, we ensured that they would each develop a sense of shared ownership alongside stakeholders.
What are some initial outcomes of the DTL program?
Our latest survey shows that LEAs are prioritizing educator capacity. Administrators report spending DTL funds on professional learning, and much of the training is coordinated through UETN. We also offer pathways for educators to earn an educational technology endorsement, including the ISTE Certification program. According to grantees, DTL is transforming the classroom by reinforcing students’ agency and active learning strategies.
This impact demonstrates that the culture of digital learning is changing in Utah. As shown by scenarios we’ve collected on educators’ technology use, they’re less concerned about the devices and more about the pedagogical methods for accelerating learning.
Over the past few weeks, it’s become clear that DTL is an important contributor to the state’s resilience as schools transition to online learning. Districts like Davis are implementing programs informed by their educators’ experience with technology, which had previously been supported through DTL. After a two-day supplemental preparation period, we’ve been able to ensure instructional continuity for many students.
How will Utah sustain the DTL program?
Buy-in from our legislators has been key to sustainability. The DTL program started with a modest appropriation to convene a task force and create the master plan. The DTL grant has now grown to $20 million annually, as legislators continue to see widespread participation and early evidence of impact.
What advice do you have for other states engaging in this work?
When creating a statewide grant aimed at improving educators’ use of technology, it’s important to realize that each LEA has its own unique challenges. Empower local leaders to create personalized solutions, while also giving them the ground rules to ensure that they’re set up for success. We accomplished this by requiring LEAs to submit their own plans that specify how the money would be spent on more than just devices.