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4 Traits Schools with Successful Digital Learning Opportunities Possess

In celebration of this year's Digital Learning Day, we look at school districts that continue to build on their digital learning efforts as they shift their focus to personalizing learning with technology.

On Wednesday, Feb. 17, the Alliance for Excellent Education kicks off the fifth-annual Digital Learning Day, a celebration of great work in schools with live webcasts, Twitter chats and Google Hangouts.

Throughout the day, digital equity remains a constant theme as educators discuss how they're leveling the playing field for students and teachers in places like California's Coachella Valley Unified School District. In this rural district, leaders equip some school buses with Wi-Fi and park them in mobile home parks at night so students can have high-speed Internet access. 

The schools that succeed in providing more meaningful digital learning opportunities for students have at least four traits in common, said Thomas C. Murray, director of innovation for Future Ready Schools at the Alliance for Excellent Education:

  1. Innovative, collaborative leadership
  2. An emphasis on student needs
  3. Community partnerships
  4. Empowering students with technology in different ways
When leaders put student needs at the heart of decisions, they serve students well. But that's not easy to do.

"Whether it's politics or contracts or your traditional school-type roadblocks of even space and time, we adults often get in the way of student learning without realizing it," Murray said.

Over the last five years, digital learning has come a long way from a focus on buying tools and learning how to use them. Now educators are figuring out how to integrate them into their classrooms so that students can go deeper in their learning, connect with experts in other places and participate in personalized learning experiences.

That said, schools still have some challenges to overcome in providing professional learning opportunities to teachers that are personalized, teacher-driven and credentialed.

"While we're personalizing the curriculum for students, we also need to be thinking very deeply about how do we personalize professional development for teachers," said Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, CEO of Powerful Learning Practice.

Along with personalized professional development, Nussbaum-Beach said she hopes that educators will move past learning how to use tools and think more deeply about how to personalize curriculum with those tools. She also hopes that school leaders will see the value of true collaboration with administrators in other districts.

Murray is optimistic that this hope will become a reality, as superintendents and school leaders started supporting one another this year in their digital transformation and collaborating for the good of all kids. 

"Too often a highway divides the experiences and opportunities for kids," he said, "and we as a nation need to get to the point where we care just as much about kids on the other side of the highway in another district as we do in our own."

Next year at this time, Murray said he would like to see more school districts look three to five years into the future to set a long-term vision and sustainable plans for digital learning. That way, they're not relying solely on one-time grants and technology funding to get digital learning efforts going. He added that he would also like to see an increased focus on equity, a broader conversation about how to engage communities and more ways to accelerate student learning with technology.

But education leaders don't have to wait until the next Digital Learning Day to hear inspiring stories of school districts that embrace learning with technology. In March, educators will have another opportunity to learn about what it means to be digital leaders as the Office of Education Technology at the U.S. Education Department launches a Future Ready Leaders Film Festival, which includes 50 videos of school districts that exemplify what it means to be a future-ready leader.