Posted by Joshua Koen, Special Assistant for Technology, Newark Public Schools

(Cross-posted on the Google for Work Blog.)

Editor's note: Today’s guest author is Joshua Koen, Special Assistant for Technology at Newark Public Schools, which serves over 35,000 students across 66 schools. Thanks to his diverse background, Koen focuses on bringing together instruction and technology. Here he shares his reflections from this past school year and his continued focus to ensure IT always serves learning. He’s also sharing the great news that Newark is now using Google Apps for Education district-wide.

Some people worry about giving kids too much access to technology, but I’m worried we might not be providing enough. We know students today can use the Internet pretty much anywhere and anytime. So as educators, it’s our job to model effective use. At the Newark Public Schools, infusing technology in our instruction is helping us reach our goal of preparing all students for the college or career of their choice. When it comes to technology, we try to keep it simple by focusing on three very specific objectives that support our district goals: helping teachers check for understanding for all students in real-time, infusing digital learning experiences into the curriculum and helping students develop digital fluency (which is measured through assessments like PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers).

When I arrived at Newark a year and a half ago, I was pleased to see that the district had already invested in high-speed wireless access. To further this work, last year I organized a steering committee of students, teachers and administrators to help guide our new learning environment. As part of this work, we developed a digital learning initiative and introduced Google Apps for Education district-wide. Google Apps has since become our educational backbone, facilitating collaboration at the classroom-level, school level and district level.

For example, students at Benjamin Franklin School led by teacher coaches Tracy Blazquez and Amy Panitch implemented a Problem Based Learning unit aligned to our curriculum to explore how the toy industry shapes what careers students enter when they grow up. Students conducted a class and school survey identifying preferences using Forms, analyzed the results in real-time as they were being collected in Sheets, collaborated together to describe their ideas in Docs, and presented their findings via a Hangout on Air.
Students from Franklin Elementary school participate in a Hangout on Air. Watch the video.

In another school, Speedway Academies, a 5th grade class donned their press badges, put on their adventure gear and became journalists chronicling natural disasters across the world. Their teacher, Audra Chisolm (who had never used Google Apps before) and coach Damion Frye, used Google Classroom to facilitate students researching, editing and writing editorials and newspaper articles in Docs. They created an online student newspaper with their final product using Google Sites. During the entire eight-week unit, the students only used one piece of paper and practiced PARCC readiness by cutting and pasting, highlighting and editing each other's work.
Students collaborate on a problem based learning unit.
As a district team we've taken many steps to enable more digital learning. First and foremost, we focus on learning rather than IT. As IT teams, we need to be knowledgeable about the curriculum and needs of teachers if we're going to be able to help them. We also model the use of new tools. For example, at a recent principals’ leadership institute, we shared the agenda and activities through a Google Site with our attendees who could contribute to brainstorms using Google Docs. To help teachers infuse technology into daily practice we utilize the technological, pedagogical and content knowledge (TPACK) framework to guide us in this. We find this to be a helpful framework. Finally, we’ve also introduced tech instructional leads in each school for on-the-job support.

In the next year, we plan to roll out more devices to give students even more access to learning. How will I know we're having success with digital learning? I’ll know when we spend less time talking about IT and gadgets and more time talking about learning.