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From working with students in another state on an assignment in American history, to speaking with pioneering scientists about their research, to a virtual guided tour of the pyramids in Egypt, digital technology can give young people at every educational level an exciting breadth of learning experiences. Skill in using the digital resources that make such experiences possible is also critical for success in the 21st-century workplace.

Across the U.S., educators K-12 are challenged to foster this skill by providing students with the appropriate digital technology and implementing the best strategies for creative instruction in the use of that technology. It’s a challenge that NJIT is helping to meet as a partner in the Future Ready Schools-New Jersey (FRS-NJ) initiative. FRS-NJ is a collaboration with the New Jersey Department of Education, the New Jersey School Boards Association and the National Future Ready Schools organization — and with students, parents, teachers and administrators —focused on helping schools across the state certify that they are engaged in effective preparation for the digital future.

For a Rich Digital Environment

The Future Ready Schools initiative, on which FRS-NJ is built, is a direct result of the ConnectEd program announced by President Barack Obama in 2013. The program was designed to enrich K-12 education for every student in America by empowering teachers with the best digital technology, and the training to make the most of technological resources through individualized learning and “rich, digital content.”

While the technical and fiscal challenges of achieving this positive digital future are significant, teachers, administrators and concerned representatives from the private and public sectors are convening at events such as the New Jersey Future Ready Schools Summit held on the NJIT campus in mid-January. Sponsored by Google, the two-day program brought together several hundred New Jersey educators, as well as attendees from school districts in other states. They explored the complexities of digital readiness and the need for assessing where their districts stand with respect to providing technology and implementing educational practices that will equip their students with the digital competence that the workplace and higher education demand in the 21st century.

Those attending the January summit were greeted with opening remarks by Thomas Murray, Future Ready Schools director of innovation, and Marry Ann Wolf, director of digital learning programs for the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation based at North Carolina State University. Jonathan Rochelle spoke not only on behalf of Google, but offered perspectives shared by the representatives of other supporting organizations, including Apple and McGraw Hill, present at the summit. Rochelle is the lead manager for development of two Google products in the areas of collaborative work and education.

Mary Ann Wolf from the Friday Institute gave an introductory overview of Future Ready Schools-New Jersey goals.
 
Participating from the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) were Joshua Koen, chief innovation officer in the Division of Teaching and Learning in the Office of School Innovation, and Acting Commissioner of Education Kimberley Harrington.

Rochelle emphasized that the presence of a company such as his in the field of providing resources for digital education reflected the key characteristics of life in today’s workplace, and the central role of technology in enabling collaboration for individual and corporate success. However, he went on to say, “The essence of being ‘future ready’ is not really about technology. It’s about the use of technology to engage students in creative, collaborative learning that will take them to exciting ‘new places’ in school and in life.” He also commended New Jersey educators for starting and continuing a “meaningful conversation about how to use the amazing tools that are available in the best way possible.”  

Jonathan Rochelle speaking about Google’s engagement with education for the digital future.

Taking Transformational Action

In his remarks on the first morning of the summit, Koen emphasized that digital technology was accelerating profound social change, and that educators have the responsibility of serving students by ensuring that their schools are truly “future ready.” To accomplish this, he said, means rising to the challenge of leveraging opportunities for learning and growth using technology, and doing “what we can together in a true partnership.”

Joshua Koen represented the NJDOE Office of School Innovation. 

Commissioner Harrington, speaking at the close of the event, commended all who are taking part in the FRS-NJ “Future Ready” certification program as a concrete step toward critical transformational change in the new digital world. She said, “Learning must be built on the future of our students, not on the norms and assumptions of our past. We must provide each student with digital opportunities for learning and discovery anytime, anywhere.” This will require a commitment to providing resources and implementing strategies that, in Harrington’s words, will “ignite the spirit” of every student and “inspire them to do their best.”

Acting New Jersey Commissioner of Education Kimberley Harrington shared concluding remarks at the FRS-NJ summit.

Over the next year, Future Ready Teams at school districts throughout New Jersey will engage in self-assessment to determine what they have already done — and what must still be done — to meet their students’ needs with regard to digital technology and instructional practices. Comprehensive involvement by teachers, administrators, students and parents is a key aspect of the process. In mid-year, schools that have committed to implementing best Future Ready practices can apply for special recognition at the FRS-NJ awards ceremony scheduled for the fall.

Assistance from a Digital Pioneer

NJIT has a central role in moving the FRS-NJ certification and recognition program forward in partnership with the NJDOE and other stakeholders. “The university is a pioneer in online learning, and we’ve long worked with the NJDOE to promote the effective use of technology for education at every level,” says James Lipuma, a member of the Humanities Department and director of the Collaborative for Leadership, Education and Assessment Research (CLEAR) based at NJIT.

Lipuma also cites development of the recently completed Online Professional Learning Exchange in cooperation with the NJDOE, as well as NJIT serving as the home of CLEAR. “Our long history of preparing students to meet the challenges of our ever-changing future connects with NJIT’s ongoing work and vision for our shared future. This aligns well with Future Ready School’s mission of preparing students for success,” he says.

Jeremy Reich, CLEAR project coordinator, explains that NJIT has helped to develop the set of self-reflective analytical measures for certification that a school district can choose to apply based on consistent state and federal standards. “Schools need to have a clear idea as to where they are on a continuum so that there can be goals, end points, necessary to reach a minimum level of future readiness and to provide a clear path toward higher levels of readiness. This will also help schools that already have achieved a basic level of readiness to explore what their community might want to do to go further.

“The vision of Future Ready Schools is that every student will experience a classroom that doesn’t just have digital learning technology available, but that the technology will be a truly integral part of learning each day. Learning will be personalized, including across space and time to collaborate with teachers in multiple locations, with students in multiple locations, with members of the community and people who could be in other countries. It’s a vision of how digital technology can liberate and empower every person when it comes to learning.”

Reich adds that the goal of the milestone recognition of individual districts and schools planned for later this year is to increase awareness of how empowering digital technology must be ubiquitous at all levels. “Sharing and recognizing best practices and success in overcoming the challenges involved will benefit all of us on the path to digital readiness, to the evolving digital future.”