Empowering Students in a Digitally-Enhanced Learning Environment

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Technology in schools is not new but how schools utilize technology with their students can make a big difference in how they learn. Today, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro takes a look at the successes Valley New School in Appleton Wisconsin has had by empowering their students to help embed technology in their learning environment.

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


Empowering Students in a Digitally-Enhanced Learning Environment

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro


It is hard to imagine personalizing learning without the use of digital tools and resources.  Technology is the one tool we have that changes everything. But there are challenges.  Amidst the rapid rate of innovation, it’s not easy to keep inventory stocked with new devices loaded with the latest in apps and software.  It is also difficult to keep expanding staff and student expertise at a pace commensurate with how quickly things evolve.  

But Valley New School in Appleton, Wisconsin has found a way to stay at the leading edge.  In this digitally-enhanced school environment, they’ve turned to students to help them embed technology into the learning program, all the way from procurement to support for the end user.

Today’s students have never lived in a world without handheld devices, computers, and all the other digital gadgetry that permeates our times. For them, the use of these tools is almost second nature; they are curious and will explore their use without fear.  And they are eager to share what they know with others. Valley New School decided to enlist their students’ natural curiosities to achieve an academic outcome.

The school opened its doors as a charter in the Appleton School District 15 years ago.  Unlike a traditional school setting, it looks like a modern-day office environment filled with individual workstations.  There are no walls. Instead, the school atmosphere is casual and inviting.  Throughout the day, students meet in large and small groups, but they spend most of their time working independently on projects of their own design.  Teachers serve as advisors who’ve shifted the balance of power from the teacher to the student.  Deep relationships are formed as students and staff spend their entire school day together.  

Functioning as a true lab school, they have had strong support from the Appleton District.  By design, they exist to try new things, so the school district has given them wide latitude and the freedom to experiment.  Between them they work to find a bridge between what is done in the lab school and what the district might take to scale in the larger system.  

According to Nicole Luedtke, a co-founder, advisor, and co-administrator at Valley New School, personalizing learning in a student-centered environment has been a priority since inception.  But personalization, she says, has evolved over time. The adults have had to change to keep up with students.  “But it’s been worth it. The culture has transformed itself.  We cut out the ‘middleman’ that we used to know of as the teacher.  Now, I synergize people.”

Valley New School infused technology into the program from the start.  They wanted students to be creators rather than consumers of technology, with the primary focus on learning, not the technology itself.  They began by defining technology broadly.  According to Luedtke, “It’s all the evolving tools students use to learn and the school uses to support learning.”  Students are free to use whatever is available to help them accomplish their learning goals.  

Even more exciting, learning goals are driven by student interest.  As a result, what they produce varies widely. Luedtke states they do all the things adults do in the real world.  They code, they write, they research, they design; they even publish material from their personalized projects, all while pursuing what is important to them as an individual.  

The level of student voice and choice at Valley New School is a key reason students are so highly motivated.  This is a point worth noting.  It is one thing for students to use technology as a tool to complete an assignment from a teacher, as you would typically see in a traditional school setting.  It’s quite another when students use technology to explore their passions.  This radical reversal between what students “have” to do for an assignment versus tapping into what students “want” to do to explore and discover an area of keen interest is where the magic happens.  At a time in students’ lives when they are seeking autonomy and independence, this not-so-subtle shift can make a difference between students viewing school as meaningful rather than boring and without purpose.

Over time, Valley New School has seen an increase in rigor and adventure in student projects.  You might find students working on wind technology with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or you might find Luedtke and her colleagues arranging an international call so a student can connect with a project resource in London.  The possibilities have proved to be without limit.

Another part of their success in keeping students engaged in meaningful work is the access to new technology provided by the Appleton District.  But Valley New School went a step further than supplying students with a select set of tools and gave them a seat at the table where lasting decisions regarding technology are made.  According to Luedtke, the involvement of students is not symbolic; students have a real say.  

Staff learned students are often well ahead of them in seeing what’s on the tech horizon. They saw their kids were always testing new waters, so they decided to capture what students were learning and put it to use in short and long-term planning decisions.  The result has been a boon for innovation. The school’s organic use of what students bring naturally to school every day has opened up new territory that stretches them all.

Even when it comes to dealing with some of the more thorny questions that present themselves in a digitally-enhanced environment, students have risen to the challenge.  For example, Valley New School does not restrict resources. As learners, students don’t always make the best choices, so the school has had to grapple with issues surrounding acceptable use.  But because students have had an active voice in the entire process, they’ve been willing to join staff in solving the problem around what students should and should not do with the technology issued and the freedoms afforded them.  Without students at the table, it would leave the dilemma to staff to solve, with the likely outcome being a solution geared towards compliance enforced by the adults. Instead, students help drive a solution. In the process, they learn to think critically, collaborate, and communicate on multiple levels.      

In addition, empowering students has deepened the pool of onsite expertise.  They have shown they can acquire in-depth proficiency in various tools and programs that can also benefit others.  While staff advise and support students, students advise and support staff and each other.  In fact, students helping other students is a pillar of Valley New School’s personalized learning model.  Their mantra to students, Luedtke says, is, “Find an expert to show you what you want to know.”

Recently the school hired their newest advisor, one with advanced tech expertise, to further augment their in-house capacity.  Luedtke states the investment has accelerated everyone’s capabilities and eased some of the obstacles they were facing around keeping up with the latest trends.  Still, even with an in-house expert, it can be hard to synchronize tools and ensure everyone has immediate availability to personalized support.  For example, if a student wants to use a 3D printer, he or she may need access to someone to show how to use the printer or troubleshoot on the spot.  

What makes Valley New School’s approach work? One reason may be that the school has kept their program small.  Only about 70 students enroll annually.  Instead of expanding in size, the school has made it a priority to reinvest time, energy, and resources in quality and innovation.  A second reason may be low staff turnover. In 15 years, only six different advisors have been on staff.  With a total staff of five advisors at any given time, three of the four original founders are still at the school.  Longevity seems to have enabled the school to stay true to its original mission. Third, Valley New School is a teacher-powered school.  Staff govern themselves and make critical decisions surrounding the daily operation of the school, plan strategically, and manage their resources.  Students assist via a student governance structure called the ASA, which stands for Active input in School Affairs.  Here again, students have a real say in how their school functions. This highly localized governance structure that blends staff and student voice allows decisions to be made closest to the students.  The outcome has been a high degree of ownership and commitment across the board.        

In the evolution of the culture, and in the student body itself, you can see the original DNA of the program,” Luedtke notes with pride as she reflects on the 15 years Valley New School has been operating.  “We have a strong alumni following.  Many siblings of previous students attend, and we expect to see children of our first graduates soon.”  When asked what advice she’d give to others who want to inspire learning using a digitally-enhanced approach, Luedtke offers this advice:  “We use technology to help us and our school to be ever-growing and changing in order to be the best – no more, no less.  We have to be careful about when and what we prioritize.  It’s not about the next gadget or the next piece of software. These should not be the focus.  It should instead be on teaching students to express themselves thoughtfully through technology.”

Looking ahead, Valley New School recently established an endowment to help sustain operational costs and make investments in the facility so they can continue to support the school’s vision.  This tells me Valley New School intends to be around for generations. Without a doubt, students will play a big part in what that future looks like.

If you’d like to learn more about Valley New School, go to ValleyNewSchool.com  

¹For more information on autonomous school governance, see EdVision’s July 2018 blog post.