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2016 Digital Content and Curriculum Achievement Awards Highlight Innovation in Education

Twelve school districts in three size categories were awarded for their innovative programs around digital content and curriculum, digital tools, and strategies that pair those resources with educators and students.

A vehicle for learning and information, technology has a connection to education more natural than anywhere else in society. And as the White House makes one last push for education tech before a new administration takes over, the Center for Digital Education celebrates those who support innovators in education. This year marks the fourth annual Digital Content and Curriculum Awards, in which school districts were recognized in Denver June 28 at the annual conference hosted by the International Society for Technology in Education.

Twelve school districts in three size categories were awarded for their innovative programs around digital content and curriculum, digital tools, and strategies that pair those resources with educators and students. This year's awards program was made possible by sponsorship from APEX Learning, Desire2Learn, DreamBox Learning, Edgenuity, itslearning inc.,, Microsoft, NETGEAR, Samsung, SHI and SMART Technologies Inc.

“It's exciting to see that schools all over the county are moving from  pilot projects to full-scale implementation of digital content and curriculum,” said Dr. Kecia Ray, executive director of the Center for Digital Education. “This year’s honorees are taking the practice of education to new heights that show great promise for other districts to follow.”

Submissions for the award were evaluated by judges based on a host of criteria, including an alignment between digital content and school or district educational missions, creativity in the program's application of technology, the use of mobile technology, the use of open educational resources, and the degree of success a school or district exhibited in improving educational outcomes through the use of digital content and curricula.

Rowan-Salisbury School in North Carolina was among those taking honors in the large district or school category (12,000 or more students) for its Digital Citizenship curriculum, designed "to foster ethical, safe and purposeful digital citizens."

The Rowan-Salisbury Digital Citizenship curriculum was created by 25 teachers and administrators within the district to supplement a 1:1 device take-home program that gives each student a MacBook Air or iPad. The use of technology comes with added responsibilities, risks and challenges that the school wanted to address, particularly after a local news report about scandalous social media accounts being run by students gained attention.

"We very quickly realized that students weren't getting the type of information and curriculum at home from parents," said Andrew Smith, director of innovation at Rowan Salisbury School. "Parents don't know how to help our students navigate a digital world. Many of our parents are nervous about that world to begin with. And we saw our students do some real dumb things and it was like, 'You guys should know better. You should know how to act online.'"

The curriculum includes 18 lessons per grade for students K-12 centered around eight elements of digital citizenship — lessons on topics like Internet safety, Internet image and identity, and digital footprints. Altogether, more than 230 hours of lesson time has been delivered by 2,000 teachers to more than 20,000 students across 35 schools.

In the medium school or district category (3,000 to 12,000 students), the Columbus Municipal School district of Mississippi was recognized for a comprehensive program that transformed the previously D-rated school. Student engagement is now in the upper 90th percentile, teacher and student satisfaction is at an all-time high, graduation rates improved by 10 percent, and the district is growing with financial savings of $800,000.

The school's shift began when Superintendent Phillip Hickman took over in 2014. A 60 percent drop-out rate and 70-percent rate of subpar student performance didn't bode well for the future of the student body. Old learning models, a lack of investment in professional development, insufficient funding, poor access to technology, and an over-reliance on textbooks were viewed as culprits in regard to the school's continued failures.

In less than a year, the district rebuilt the entire engine of the school. Hickman developed a blended K-16 Instructional and Technology Integration Model, adopted a digital behavioral reward system, instated 1:1 and 2:1 device programs, and began using open education resources district-wide.

Sheboygan Falls School District in Wisconsin was honored in the small school or district category for its robot-enabled programming lessons that allow students to progress at their own pace while enhancing their critical thinking skills.

Teachers with students pre-K through fifth grade have access to Kodable, a teaching and student management platform that uses mazes to teach students how algorithms work. Students can also get experience away from the screen by ordering robots to follow commands.

"For kids to be successful, it's really important to develop those higher-order thinking skills, but also the resiliency to get to that point — not giving up right away," said Barry Ludvik, technology coordinator at Sheboygan Falls School District, adding that all of these apps and lessons that go with them are based on trial and error.

"If it doesn't go right the first time, you've got the chance to figure out where things went wrong, to work with another student, so you've got collaboration built in there as well," he said. "All of those things go in there together with the main goal of, 'What makes a good thinker?' We don't want everybody to become a computer programmer. The idea is that we want you all to be good thinkers because then whatever you chose to do later on in life, you're going to be good at it."

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.