Scaling Innovation: A System’s Approach to Transforming Teaching and Learning

This post originally published on the Future Ready Schools blog, co-authored by Tom Driscoll and Dr. Mario Andrade

Like many districts across the nation, Rhode Island’s Bristol Warren Regional School District (BWRSD) has a firm understanding of best practice and current research. However, the difficulty in scaling any innovation is converting the theory into action. To overcome this, BWRSD has adopted the Future Ready Schools® (FRS) framework, a systematic approach to scaling innovative digital learning practices while promoting long-term sustainability. This transition to digital learning affords BWRSD the opportunity to provide greater clarity and coherence regarding the district’s vision of teaching and learning. At BWRSD, we have used the opportunity to develop and communicate a new, shared vision of personalized instruction that fosters deeper learning for all students.

Our journey began in fall 2015 with the convening of a FRS leadership team representing a cross-section of school and district leaders. (View our evolving implementation timeline here.) The team’s primary goal was to develop a shared vision for deeper learning through innovative uses of digital technologies. In January 2016, the team collectively took a district self-assessment to gauge the district’s digital learning readiness. We also engaged stakeholders across the entire district via assessment surveys conducted through the FRS dashboard, then analyzed the results along each “gear” area, exploring our strengths and weaknesses. The areas we decided to focus on first were technology infrastructure as well as curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices.

Upgrading Infrastructure

The team quickly realized that BWRSD lacked the robust infrastructure and support systems needed to fully implement the district’s vision of personalized learning. BWRSD made several strategic investments to upgrade its network infrastructure, paving the way for 1-1 device access. We also developed a comprehensive five-year device refresh plan, implemented a new inventory and IT support system, enacted new responsible use and device policies for students and staff, and redesigned the technology department to better support the district’s FRS goals.

Digital Learning Teams

BWRSD also committed to further supporting and expanding its Digital Learning Teams (DLTs). DLTs are comprised of 3–5 teachers in schools that were early adopters of effective technology integration. The design of BWRSD’s DLT initiative is based on the theory that “successful school reform grows from the inside out” (Elmore, 2004). These teams have assumed leadership roles in their schools, exploring emerging educational technologies, and developing models of instruction that have the power to transform teaching and learning. They have participated in extensive professional development and received onsite coaching and support throughout the year.

To help DLT members evaluate the academic impact of their new strategies, they developed and conducted a series of short-cycle action research projects. These 6–8 week cycles focused on improving a particular student skill/competency, during which the teacher chose a blended-learning instructional model along with a set of digital learning tools/resources. Since the goal of the action research was discovery, it was ok if a particular project was not as successful as hoped. A “failed” project still proved a success since we learned not to further devote time and resources to that particular strategy and edtech tool. On the other hand, successful action research projects moved to the next phase of iteration and scaling across the school and district.

When teachers are empowered to take risks and make changes related to teaching and learning, student achievement is enhanced (Marks and Louis, 1997; Sweetland and Hoy, 2002), and schools become more effective learning communities (Detert, Louis, and Schroeder, 2001). The outcome of DLT action research has been shared with colleagues at faculty meetings, during peer walkthroughs, at community technology nights, and even showcased at school committee meetings. For School Year 2016–17, the team expanded to thirty-three members across six schools representing various grade levels and areas of expertise.

Scaling Innovation

To further support BWRSD’s vision, the FRS leadership team is expanding to include a greater cross-section of the district, while also splitting into gear-level teams to implement the action plan in each school. We are also developing a comprehensive communications plan through a new district FRS websiteYoutube channel, and social media campaign (#BWRSD) to reach all district stakeholders to articulate our goals, monitor progress and celebrate successes. BWRSD’s administration team also conducted a crosswalk of its FRS plan with the district’s newly adopted strategic plan, along with other initiatives underway that align with and support FRS. This provided clarity and coherence regarding what are, at times, seen as competing initiatives, yet are actually integral pieces of the district’s larger goal to become Future Ready.

Along with the focus on leadership and communications and the expansion of the digital learning team, the district also is making strategic investments in digital devices across the district that best align with the instructional goals and learning needs of each grade level. To further support this, we are actively conducting pilots of digital learning tools, such as WeVideo Edu, that can support the district’s path toward personalization and deeper learning for all students. This is all part of developing a robust digital learning ecosystem that supports innovating teaching and learning for students across the district. With a focus on student learning, strategic use of the gear framework, and strong collaborative leadership, BWRSD is on the path to being a world-class, Future Ready school district.

Navigating Our Digital Lives

Last Spring, Media Smart Libraries and EdTechRI hosted a regional event in Barrington, RI called "Navigation our Digital Lives: In School and Beyond."  This event was geared towards parents, educators & administrators to discuss topics such as student privacy, safety, & digital citizenship. It was an honor to join a panel of experts in this field, many of whom are leaders right here in Rhode Island.  

One of my key takeaways from the event was the need to establish a stronger relationship and dialogue across all stakeholders in a school district to address both the promise of educational technologies as well as the potential dangers and how we can all play a role in keeping children safe in an increasingly digital world. 

Check out the video highlights of the event below, and make sure to check out the Media Smart Libraries site for resources and information about upcoming programs and events. 

RIDE Innovation Powered By Technology Conference - Session Resources

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend and present at yet another inspiring Innovation Powered by Technology Conference in Providence, RI.  I was also fortunate to be joined by several teachers and administrators from my district (BWRSD) who presented and shared their stories with educators throughout the day. 

Below are the slide decks for both of our presentations.  Feel free to share them with anyone you think would benefit from these resources.  

Session 1 Title  Digital Learning Labs: Discovering Which Educational Technologies Truly Improve Student Learning

If you have any questions about these resources or would simply like to connect and explore these ideas, please reach out to me!  thdriscoll@gmail.com or on Twitter @Mr_Driscoll

5 Guiding Principles to Help Evaluate EdTech

Innovative edtech products are being developed at an increasingly rapid pace, making it more challenging than ever for educators to decide which to use in their classroom.  As a former high school teacher who was eager to try anything that could improve student learning, I was at times overwhelmed by all of the new tools that claimed to transform teaching and learning as we know it.  Now, as a school district’s Director of Educational Technology, it is not only my role to help us make district-level edtech decisions, but also to help educators make the day-to-day decisions regarding which instructional technologies will work best in their particular learning environments.

Based upon my experiences as a teacher and administrator, along with several resources including the powerful Future Ready Framework, here are 5 guiding principles that should help us make these edtech decisions. Whether you are considering which edtech tools to try out in your classroom on Monday, feature at an upcoming PD day, or invest in across a school or district, these concepts can help provide guidance before committing valuable time and resources to any particular product.

FR Framework Alignment: Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment

FR Framework Alignment: Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment

1. Learning Outcomes First

Before diving into any edtech products specific features, you have to get a clear understanding of how it will actually improve teaching and learning. It is equally, if not more important to get a grasp of what type of student learning outcomes will actually be improved.  

Questions to Consider

  • How does this edtech tool connect to core elements of the curriculum?
  • What student skills/content knowledge will be improved with this technology?
  • What instructional strategies will be implemented along with the technology? (Ex. Flipped Learning, Project Based Learning, MakerSpaces)
  • How will this technology enable personalized learning and experiences that are more engaging and relevant?
  • Does this tool collect formative data and provide reports that teachers can effectively use to adjust instruction? Can it also curate resources and create work for students based on collected data?

2. Student Use Is Key

Source: National Educational Technology Plan 2016

Source: National Educational Technology Plan 2016

Although the digital divide may be closing as more districts transition to 1-1, there is a new concern over the digital use divide  - “the disparity between students who use technology to create, design, build, explore, and collaborate and those who simply use technology to consume media passively.” (NETP16)  Although accessing information (consumption) through technology is certainly important in some respects, it should seldom be students’ primary use.  They should also be curating, collaborating, and most of all, creating with the technology.

Question to Consider

In which of the following ways will students be using this technology

  • Consumption: Access information through some form of digital media to deepen knowledge.
  • Curation: Sort through content and present it in an organized and logical way.
  • Collaboration: Communicate and collaborate with others (students, teachers, community) for deeper learning.
  • Creation: Create original products to learn new concepts and provide a representation of their learning.

3. Investigate Infrastructure Requirements

Before diving into any new edtech product, it is vital to evaluate the product’s technology & infrastructure requirements.  This will avoid an instance where considerable time and effort is put into a pilot only to realize that implementation is impossible due a mismatch in existing infrastructure and what the tool needs to effectively function.

Questions to Consider

What steps need to happen for initial setup? Ex. Software installation on devices, class roster upload, student password creation.

  • What type of devices will the software work on? (Ex. iPads, Chromebooks, Laptops, All?)
  • Will the company provide direct support to customers?
  • What set-up and maintenance is required by teachers? By IT?
  • Can students access to this technology outside of school?

4. Take Student Data And Privacy Seriously

As we strive to personalized learning for students, we will also be using tools that collect information and data about students at unprecedented scales.  We therefore have to be increasingly aware of the student data and privacy implications of our edtech decisions.

Questions to Consider

For more info, here is a great student privacy guide for educators.  

5. Be Mindful of Resources, Both Time & Funding

It is no secret that schools have limited resources. And by resources, I include both funding and time.  We must be strategic about where we allocate our monetary resources as well as how much time it will take educators to comfortably implement any new tool.  We also need to be ready to shift resources when necessary, away from tools that provide little academic return on investment towards those that better align to the school’s vision of teaching and learning.

Questions to Consider

  • What is the upfront and recurring monetary cost of the tool (if any)?
  • Is the product intuitive enough for teachers to implement right away? Or, will substantial time and resources be needed for professional development?
  • Is it financially feasible to scale this edtech tool across the school or district?

Of course there are many other considerations, but these are jumping off points for evaluating edtech tools in a way the puts learning first.  Any comments, suggestions and feedback on these principles is much appreciated, please leave them in the comments section below or reach out to me on Twitter or via email (thdriscoll@gmail.com).

Asking the Right Questions

After my first year in a district leadership position, I now have more questions than ever about the future of teaching and learning.  I firmly believe that is a good thing.  

Throughout my years teaching, I was obsessed with asking questions about my own practice.  As a history teacher who started out with a rather traditional approach (lecture, discussion, quiz, project, test... repeat), I just wasn't satisfied with the level of engagement and achievement in my classes. The real changes started when I began dipping my toes into the digital learning waters with student-created wikis and online discussion forums in my AP US history courses.  Then the floodgates opened when I connected with Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams and began flipping my class in 2011, posting a wide range of instructional videos on a new YouTube channel for students to access anywhere at anytime.

At that point I joined Twitter and quickly connected with incredible educators from across the country that both inspired and introduced me to innovative new concepts.  I dove into approaches such as mastery learning, gamification and 20% Time, regularly blogging on my Flipped-History.com site.  Across several platforms, I posed questions about these approaches in hopes that educators in my expanding professional learning network (PLN) could provide insightful feedback. They always did.   

To me, it all starts with asking the right questions and posing them to the right people. The launch of this new blog is my attempt to spark conversations around important questions regarding the future of education and leveraging the collective expertise of those who have a common passion for learning. 

I'll wrap up with a few questions that are on the front of my mind.  As my district has adopted the powerful Future Ready Schools Framework, I'll pose them along the "gears" guiding our work.  

Vision of Teaching and Learning

What does a future ready vision of teaching and learning look like?  How do schools & districts choose which areas to focus on most? (Ex. Personalization, 3 C's, Student Voice…)

Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment

How can teachers leverage technology to personalize student learning?  Once successful approaches are identified, what are effective ways to scale these innovations across a school or district?

Personalized Professional Learning

How can technology expand access to relevant, job embedded professional learning for teachers and administrators?  How can districts provide support for professional learning though social media, unconferences, and other informal learning experiences? 

Robust Technology Infrastructure

How can schools and districts assess the quality and availability of network infrastructure and devices in their school?  What are the best ways to align a technology department's goals with the teaching and learning goals of each school/district?

Budget and Resources

How are teachers and school leaders evaluating the academic return on investment of digital learning resources?  Which stakeholders should be part of the edtech piloting and review process?  How should this review be conducted?

Data & Privacy

How can all educators become aware of legal and ethical responsibilities to ensure security, accuracy and privacy of student data?  What processes should be put in place to protect student data without stifling educator innovation?

Community Partnerships

In what ways can digital learning tools be leveraged to facilitate meaningful partnerships with parents, businesses, and educational organizations?

Use of Space and Time

How can technology be used to explore new designs for personalized learning where the use of time is adaptable and flexible?

Collaborative Leadership

How can we establish a school culture that encourages innovation and builds capacity of digital learning leaders?


I encourage you to ask questions, share stories, and join my PLN so that we can explore questions like these together!  Please use the comments section below or reach out to me directly on Twitter @Mr_Driscoll or thdriscoll@gmail.com.