When Carla Jefferson became the edtech coordinator for Darlington County Schools in South Carolina in 2015, she was posed a challenge: How can the district get teachers where they need to be with technology?
It came at a time when Darlington schools were well on their way to providing devices for all their students. It also came on the heels of the nation’s recovery from the Great Recession, when school budgets tightened and professional development funds dried up.
“Unless you were paying out of your own pocket for technology (training), you weren’t getting those kinds of experiences,” she says. “The question was how can we bring those experiences to our district?”
Jefferson’s answer was to create a professional development event modeled on the ISTE conference. In 2015, the Darlington County Digital Transformation Conference was born.
Jefferson likens the conference to smaller events put on by ISTE state affiliates. There are sessions led by teachers, edtech experts and vendor representatives. There’s a playground where participants can try out devices and software, and a blogger’s café where participants can practice new skills with informal help.
The conference occurs one day a year before school starts in the fall and attracts more than 600 educators. And it meets the state’s requirement for teacher tech training.
Teachers are also asked to submit a portfolio with their best digital lesson that implements the 4C’s – collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity. From those portfolios, teachers are encouraged to be presenters at the conference.
Bringing edtech to K-12 classrooms
The conference is the centerpiece of the district’s tech integration efforts. But Jefferson and two colleagues work year-round to bring edtech to classrooms.
Darlington County Schools is a rural district with 23 schools, 10,500 students and 1,000 staff members; 87% of students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches. This year, the district rolled out a 1:1 program, a goal the district has had in its sights since 2012.
For Jefferson, it’s not just about the technology.
“For me, it’s all about improving the lives of children,” she says. “The way I do that now is through improving the skill sets of teachers and helping them better understand the power of technology.”
In addition to the conference, Jefferson started the Digital Transformation Academy where she and her colleagues work with a core of teachers at each school to build capacity for using edtech.
“For me, it’s all about improving the lives of children.”
Podcast highlights digital innovation
She also teams up with a colleague to produce a podcast that focuses on edtech and highlights what teachers are doing. The podcast, which started after the first district transformation conference in 2015, had 136 episodes as of last spring.
Working with hundreds of teachers to integrate technology poses challenges. Teachers have varying degrees of openness to technology and computer literacy.
“There’s that bell curve that you’re going to have no matter what,” she says. “Some teachers take it and run with it and do some phenomenal things.
“For those who are struggling, we kind of help bring them along. If you’re passionate and you’re strong, go push the boundaries. But if you’re struggling, we say, ‘Here are some things that we can just get started with. Let’s do one thing and learn how to do it really well. Let’s talk about how we can provide feedback or use Google Slides to present and share learning.’ If they do that, then the next year we add one more thing and we’re continuing to grow.”
Jefferson sees it as the schools’ obligation to prepare students for a digital world. At the same time, there has to be balance between digital and analog.
“No one is expecting for kids to be on a device all day, all the time,” she says. “It’s a tool that is used when appropriate. We’re not saying that kids shouldn’t write anymore with a pencil or draw or cut with scissors. But we’re also saying that it’s not fair if that’s the only medium that they’re using, because we know that they’re growing up into this technology-rich world.”
A voice for digital equity
Her belief that Darlington students should be fully prepared for a digital world also fuels another of her passions: equity, especially digital equity. Jefferson has co-hosted webinars, like the ISTE Expert Webinar “Why Equity Matters!” and she's been involved with helping to revitalize ISTE’s Digital Equity Network.
Working in a rural district with a high level of poverty makes equity a real issue. A colleague’s words about equity have stuck with her: “Why not us? Why not Darlington? Why not our children?”
“Why can’t we provide our children with the same options that other places do?” she asks. “It’s always been a passion of mine to ensure that our students, from a very small rural area where farming is the primary source of income, are prepared to compete with children from all over.”
When it comes to edtech, Jefferson says, research shows that in poorer areas, digital devices are used primarily for test preparation. With that in mind, she works to give Darlington students a chance to do coding and use tech to create as more affluent areas are able to do.
“How do we provide the opportunities for students to engage in those types of activities on a regular basis? I’m not saying that those test prep programs don’t have a place, but that shouldn’t be the only thing that technology is used for.”
Jerry Fingal is a freelance writer and editor specializing in education, business and finance. This is an updated version of an article that originally published on June 25,2020.