Connected Education Impacts Chicago Schools

Jennie Magiera is the Digital Learning Coordinator at the Academy for Urban School Leadership which manages a network of 29 Chicago Public Schools. We talk technology in the classroom and what can be gained through enhanced digital learning.


Chicago teacher Jennie Magiera was a tech skeptic, but has since successfully integrated technology into her classroom; image credit: ed.govRead an interview with Magiera below.

As the Digital Learning Coordinator for Urban School Leadership, what is your main goal?

I work with teachers, administrators, teachers-in-training and students. This aids in using technology to teach kids and create opportunities. On the back end, I work to create networking for teachers which gives them coaching for the technology they use in the classroom.

What does the term “connected education” mean?

It’s about connecting educators to each other so they can be better equipped to help their students. Connected educators are teachers who step outside of their classroom and touch base with each other to share strategy and tactics. This can be physical but also is through digital interaction. Connected education means education is moving beyond the classroom.

You wrote recently that teachers can become isolated in their classrooms and digital interaction is a way to break out of that. Please explain that novel concept.

A lot of times, it is easy to get lost in your own universe as a teacher. Your door closes and that is it. In some schools, they have common prep time. Teachers will plan and collaborate. But more often than not, the time you take to grade papers or do other tasks, you lose the connection to colleagues. The digital world erases the time and space barriers. You can send an email, have a Google Hangout, speak with teachers in Singapore. It is easy to become myopic, especially in Chicago where you have 600 schools; you begin to feel it all revolves around you. The digital world adds perspective.

Do you ever experience pushback for new technology or learning techniques?

Absolutely. With all new things come adoption challenges. It can stem from fear or misunderstanding. This is just another way to think critically. There are always going to be challenges.

What are some new methods you have instated?

We have a lot of 1:1 iPad implementations which support collaboration. Kids are actually creating podcasts and blogs and iBooks. They Skype and Facetime with kids around the world because it changes how our kids can be learners. Digital technology allows students to become active, not just passive learners. I learned this, now how will I apply it? It helps them become citizens of the world and apply lessons.

For instance, we have kindergarteners tweeting every Tuesday. They tweeted an author who wrote back and read to them via Skype, then taught them how to draw one of the characters so they had a lesson in that as well. And it was all because they tweeted him first. There are all these doors that can be opened. You just have to open the door and let kids lead the way.

Where is CPS now in terms of digital technology and coordination within the network?

We have made a lot of strides. We have increased our tech by well over 100 percent. We are definitely moving in the right direction. And we are being smart and not going too fast. Some think we should just go and move fast. But I think moderation is key.

I think it would be fabulous if every child could have technology but it needs to be done in an intelligent way. We need to give them knowledge and understanding as well. We can give someone a Rolls Royce, but without training and guidance, it can be very dangerous. Same thing with tech; we want to give them the tools to leverage it thoughtfully.

Understanding their digital footprint is crucial. With great power comes responsibility. We want them to be thoughtful about what they put out there and to be safe. It’s not just for playing. Some worry they will just play Angry Birds. There is that, but we are also being mindful that we want to prepare students, teachers and families to leverage these tools effectively and efficiently.

There is also funding. We need funding for the machines, IT and maintenance, money for apps, etc.

Chicago schools do not exactly have a reputation for excellence. How does the digital aspect help students learn?

It’s a lot of things. The thing people like to say tech does is increase engagement. It addresses the symptom, not the cause. It addresses the efficacy of the educational experience. I was a teacher with 33 kids; fourth and fifth graders in one class period every single day and it was impossible.

Then I got 1:1 iPads where the kids who were ahead could learn things. I also had to read tests to seven kids every time we had one. With the devices, I made the video of me reading the test, so they could use that and pause when they needed to in order to get through the test.

Kids were able to use hand-on apps and better understand how fractions work together. Things like that create better differentiated opportunities to better meet their needs. It is hard to empower kids without field trips or having professionals or experts come to visit. With the iPads, we could go on virtual trips and bring professionals into the classroom. I couldn’t do this before. They were now collaborating and differentiating experience-enhanced education to create more engagement.

What are you doing to bring the system into a new age?

I think there are different goals based on the different schools. For some, we are still trying to upgrade their access to work with more tools and basically have the devices. We don’t have all that we need in all our buildings. In our more advanced schools, we are looking at things like how environment affects learning. As the kids are in different activities, they can change the layout of the classroom. We have third graders teaching kindergarteners how to code. There is also adult learning – trying to teach them best practices, curriculum and a virtual hub for all teachers to share and engage.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

We bought robots that connect to iPads, and you use coding to have the robots interact and complete tasks. We haven’t got them yet but they should be here in the spring and we will test them with third and fourth graders. I have shown the kids the videos and they are so excited.

Interview has been condensed and edited.