Supporting Student Learning with Digital Tools for Communication

In Eric Sheninger’s article titled “Transforming Your School with Digital Communication” he states that the most important transformation occurs when leaders use digital formats for communicating information to stakeholders.  He states, “Just as teachers differentiate instruction for a variety of learning styles in the classroom, school leaders should differentiate our communication efforts if we want true partnerships between home and school. As leaders, we have the power to shape the culture of our schools. Using social media and digital tools as a lever, we can open the door to new ways of learning, thinking, and communicating for all members of our community.” 

At Mill Plain Elementary, Claire Baylor took an opportunity to branch her communication efforts through digital formats.  As she was preparing for the school year, Claire was configuring the best ways to keep staff members informed of student needs.  Handing paraeducators stacks of IEPs has not been a good use of time in the past.  Claire still wanted to ensure that paraeducators had information to work with students.  Born from this need, Claire jumped at the opportunity to use digital binders.   

Digital binders is a folder system, mainly used through Google Drive, that Evergreen High School has used for the past four school years in order to connect information from classes throughout the building to students who attend those classes and staff members who support students in those classes.  It also provides information on students so staff members can work with students; applying accommodations, supporting independence and advocacy, and building on strengths and confidence in order to increase overall achievement.  In seeing the success that Evergreen High School had in using digital binders, Claire saw an alignment between use of digital binders and her vision for supporting student learning.

Claire began with creating schedules of students and support staff with Google Docs.  Using an online system allowed for staff members to see where Claire would be supporting students throughout the day, where students with IEPs would be located throughout the day, and where support staff would be utilized to support student learning.   

Having a starting place that displayed overall schedules for the school day, Claire was able to make minor adjustments to the schedule throughout the school year.  She scheduled a daily time to check in with students and paras; often times overlapping her lunch with the paras in order to receive information from paras.  This supported the work and provided Claire feedback on the access students and staff members were receiving as a result of moving to digital binders.   

At first, the buy in was not easy.  People get used to taking notes and data by writing the information down.  Once paras saw the benefits of using digital binders, the transition became easy.  Digital binders provided more than just schedules: 

  • Reminders of work being done in previous days for specific students through notes 
  • Access to teacher unit plans to track upcoming events and activities 
  • Access to assignments and/or tools for classroom activities (i.e. graphic organizers, etc.) 
  • Sub notes so in the absence of a staff members, others could pick up where they left off 
  • A map of the school to find locations with ease 
  • Personalized Learning Profiles of students 

With the Personalized Learning Profiles (PLPs), staff members were able to access current IEP goals for students, student interests and motivators, a list of accommodations to support access, and other pertinent information for each student.  Those who needed access had the access through sharing of files and folders in the digital binders.  In working with subs, Claire found a need to include pictures of students in their profiles so the support staff could find the students they needed to support with ease.  These PLPs met Claire’s initial need for providing access to student information to others by organizing important information in a short, concise manner.  

Once the support staff was able to accept online note taking as part of their responsibilities, both Claire and other teachers were able to access up to date information on students in the digital binders.  Paras put a link to in their lesson planning that provided what they did that day and what the plan was for the next day.  Taking ownership in what they were doing and making the system work for them was key in allowing Claire to be informed of the work, and make minor adjustments.  Having a clear goal with ease of access to pertinent information made the daily work seamless in providing support to students in hopes of closing the achievement gap.  

Claire, teachers, and support staff also used Google Forms to collect behavior data.  Google Forms provided immediate access to information and displayed multiple snapshots throughout the day of a student’s behavior.  The information was shared with necessary parties.  This allowed Claire the ability to connect with parents regarding the data that was current.  By tracking the data through Google Forms, Claire was able to work with IEP teams to create meaningful social/emotional goals for students.  With the access to more information that was in the moment and objective, Claire was able to target frequency, duration, intensity, location, and time of day for student behaviors.  Analyzing data and teaching focused social and behavioral skills aligned with the idea of supporting the whole student. 

In one case, having immediate behavior data was powerful for one of the 3rd graders in order to keep the student accountable because the staff was all on the same page.  Allowing for follow through of the student’s plan across settings and people made the student’s plan successful.  Claire left one question on the data collection form open-ended.  The form focused on whether the student used a problem-solving strategy, and what problem-solving strategy was used. The student needed to hear the same message.  A sub could use the strategies that worked to provide student with a clear and consistent message; removing the power struggle. Having success with the plan for this student showed the power of digital communication. 

Of course, there are barriers in using digital communication tools.  Having a feedback loop, such as ongoing meetings and check ins that Claire has established in her schedule is important for taking the system to the next level and build off what has been accomplished.  Behavior data has been great; now Claire wants to focus on collection of academic data.  That includes having a vision and finding the right assessment and tool for collecting information.  Allowing for trial and error to put something out there try it out and see what works and what falls apart has been crucial to this journey so far.  The system can be endless so information has to be structured/organized, and there has to be a vision for what needs to be accomplished right now.  Claire kept asking questions, “Why do I need this information?  Why am I asking them to do it?”  Catherine, one of the paraeducators, started creating weekly lesson plans because that worked for her.  Creating flexibility and tuning into strengths of the person allowed for growth in using the system.  In collaboration with the para, Claire found a common ground to make the system work for all stakeholders.  The biggest barrier in using digital tools for communication is making the system work for each person. 

Receiving feedback from others allowed Claire to bridge the gap between what was being presented and how it was interpreted by staff members looking at it.  She noticed the more opportunities that everyone uses technology the more it models the use technology as a tool for learning.  For instance, looking up “tan bat” in a story in order to show the student the context as it relates to the story.  By creating a system for access to information, Claire opened the door to collaboration.  In doing so, she used digital tools to foster communication across stakeholders with ease of access. Students were able to take ownership in their learning, and will continue to do so as Claire and staff members at Mill Plain Elementary continue their work in closing the achievement gap for all students. 

To see more of Claire’s current system, go to this link: 


The End of Average, part 3

This is the final post on the The End of Average by Todd Rose. Check out part 1 and part 2 to see the whole series.

This post will focus on two ideas that come out of the second half of the book that have great relevance to our work as K-12 educators: if-then signatures and competency-based learning.

If-then signatures for personal learning profiles

Rose shares his experience receiving guidance from his academic adviser at Weber State that sounded personalized, but turned out to be identical to the advice given to a student with a very different academic background. How often do we give advice or feedback to students that is meaningfully different from the advice that we provide to others? If everything is pretty much the same, is it really personalizedContinue reading “The End of Average, part 3”

The End of Average, part 2

This post continues the conversation about The End of Average by Todd Rose.

There are plenty of times where considering the average of a group makes sense. It’s a way to improve predictions or estimations about large sets. Weather forecasts, experimental data, political polling, insurance pricing, and medical predictions are all improved through measures of central tendency. Averaging data makes a great deal of sense intuitively and adds value to many processes.

The problems with averaging, especially in education, arrive when we make what Peter Molenaar calls “the ergodic switch” – replacing information about an individual with information taken from an average. Knowing an average about a group might improve a prediction or estimation, but it doesn’t tell you much with certainty about an individual. Continue reading “The End of Average, part 2”

The End of Average, part 1

Recently I finished reading The End of Average by Todd Rose. It was a remarkable read that has me thinking about personalized learning, accounting for differences in students, and how we will continue to shift our practices as educators. It’s not very often that a book feels simultaneously familiar and challenging. It’s well worth a read by any educator and does a great job of identifying why education needs to be personalized. Continue reading “The End of Average, part 1”

Measuring Culture

Reading an article on cultural differences from BBC recently, I was thinking about the importance of culture with respect to personal learning profiles (PLP). In particular, the ways that student’s actual culture matters to learning more than our perceptions or assumptions about what the student’s culture might be. Culture affects learning and behavior in a variety of ways. We can either make instructional shifts to make intentional use of culture, or culture can dictate learning and behavior in ways we might not intend.

How might we measure students’ culture to build some of the information that we need in a PLP? The folks behind STEM Teaching Tools have shared resources to help teachers in all content areas gain the information needed to build an understanding of students’ culture – a necessary step toward a PLP.

Tool 31 – How to launch STEM investigations that build on student and community interests and expertise – describes a powerful use of self-documentation that encourages students to connect topics they are studying in school to their outside experiences and to share those connections with teachers and classmates. Self-documentation could be used in any content area to help students connect ideas and to provide teachers with actionable information about student interests and experiences.

The group also provides a link to a research synthesis on formative assessment, which includes this quote:

We see the most promise in sociocognitive and sociocultural assessment interventions, because these types of interventions rely on theories of learning that attend carefully to differences in how student proficiency develops across different disciplines. We acknowledge that in today’s educational systems, however, there are many challenges to implementing these types of interventions. Most standards-based accountability systems prize mastery of discrete facts over understanding and that provide little room for students to select learning goals. Educational leaders and teachers will need to work collaboratively with students, parents, and external stakeholders to rethink and redesign these systems, before sociocognitive and sociocultural interventions can be widely implemented.

The focus on collaboration with students, parents, and external stakeholders links the work to making greater instructional use of community and cultural resources. It highlights the need to assess culture not just for the direct impacts on learning but also to make better use of the available resources in the community. After all, it’s a challenge to make use of resources that you don’t know about.

As we move forward with creating personalized learning experiences, we’ll need a variety of tools to build both PLPs and cultural awareness. If you come across other interesting ideas or have tried things in your classroom, please let us know in the comments!