Crash Course Q&A: Dr. Lisa Dawley

Dr. Lisa Dawley breaks down the intersection between innovation and online learning.

By Corey Whaley Last Updated: August 04, 2020

While many parents and teachers are experiencing remote learning for the first time, Dr. Lisa Dawley has been studying ed tech, innovation, and online teaching for over 20 years. Author of the bestselling book The Tools for Successful Online Teaching, Dawley is the Executive Director of the University of San Diego’s Jacobs Institute for Innovation in Education and co-founder of Pactful, a social good innovation app for teenagers. At the Jacobs Institute, Dawley’s team doesn’t just investigate ed tech; they analyze how to grow innovative schools.

We sat down with Dawley to learn more about the imminent change in education coming as a result of COVID-19—and how school leaders can innovate in the midst of the upheaval.

What does it mean to have an innovator mindset?

George Couros’s The Innovator’s Mindset lists eight principles common to innovators like risk-taking, persistence, grit, etc. But for me, at the most basic level, having an innovator’s mindset is about identifying and understanding educational problems that can be solved. The role, then, of an innovative educational leader becomes, How do we create solutions for the problems that we’re encountering, and how do we build a culture where we design those solutions?

What skills do innovators need?

Over the last two years, we’ve developed a curriculum and a software platform called Pactful that actually teaches innovation skills to teenagers and their teachers. We use the process of design thinking: What is the problem? Okay, let’s thoroughly research the problem, everything that we can learn about it. That involves empathizing with the people experiencing the problem—interviewing them, talking with them, collecting data—and then brainstorming, prototyping solutions, implementing those solutions, collecting and analyzing more data. How did it work? Okay, let’s make these changes. There’s a design iteration cycle ever-refining the solution. It’s so powerful to see kids and educators innovating to meet their own community needs.

Why is empathy so key to innovation?

Education has a history of top-down solutions, right? And we know that those rarely work in the long run. Digital Promise recently came out with a report on community-based innovation called “Designing a Process for Inclusive Innovation,” and it’s really about empowering from within. If you want truly sustainable, long-lasting change, it has to be owned by the people who are experiencing the problem. It’s their problem; it has to be their solution.

With that approach, not only do you get better solutions, but those solutions become more sustainable because people are bought in for the long term. Instead of serving as a savior, you become a long-term partner in solution-building.

What are some strategies for implementing community-based innovation?

It all begins with real relationships and partnerships—getting out and talking to the members of the community you’re serving, trying to understand what their needs are and what potential roles you could play in a partnership. I have a lot of meetings every week just talking with people, exploring how we could potentially serve.

Schools and districts are at different phases in their approach to innovation. Some are ready to engage in partnerships, and for some, it’s not the right time. Ultimately it’s about relationships—being there, listening, thinking through how you can support, and identifying resources to make it happen.

What are some ways you've seen school leaders sustain innovation?

Sustaining innovation is such a huge challenge. There are financial implications, right? Where are the resources coming from? Is the school board bought in? Are parents bought in? The average American superintendent only lasts a few years in any given school district. When leadership changes, initiatives often die.

So there are some very major challenges. Sometimes those challenges can be overcome with community buy-in. If the community’s bought in at multiple levels—the parents are bought in, the kids are bought in, the teachers and staff are bought in, the board’s bought in—you can sustain those initiatives even if you lose a superintendent or a staff member. That’s another big reason why buy-in is so important.

What do you think has been successful about the switch to online learning?

There’s some debate about: Is it really online learning, or is it emergency remote teaching? The question you asked is tough, because some great things have come out of the recent transition of public schools to online learning. Affordances of online learning include things like student flexibility—it caters to needs better, you’re able to personalize learning better. We have the ability to leverage digital information—digital assets, digital curriculum, videos, game-based learning—in ways that maybe the student couldn’t in the live classroom experience.

Another really positive thing is a lot of teachers who weren’t exposed to digital learning got exposed—for better or worse, right? And many started to see the affordances of it. I think that was eye-opening. It was also a wake up call at the leadership level for districts who weren’t prepared—not knowing if their students had broadband access or mobile access, and not having 1-to-1 initiatives or access to digital curriculum. Even though these were painful events, I believe they’ll be positive for students and teachers in the long run.

We saw that responsive districts generally had 1-to-1 initiatives; they were already working in the cloud or had learning solutions like Google classroom or Office 365 set up. Those schools and districts fared a lot better than those who didn’t have a digital strategy, and I don’t think that’s a surprise. Many schools in impoverished areas were hit very hard as kids often don’t have devices or broadband access. Students literally disappeared from learning. The huge equity gaps became visible very quickly.

Where can schools grow?

When I work with people, there’s usually a lot of training involved at the teacher level. How do we teach online? What are successful online teaching strategies? For teachers, we found that what was missing was access to digital curriculum. Sometimes we found that districts were totally unaware that digital curriculum is different from virtual teaching­—they’re two totally different things. Designing an online curriculum versus developing online teaching strategies are two separate skill sets. Districts that were able to make digital curriculum available for their teachers—either through providing weekly playlists, purchasing a curriculum inside a learning management system, or using digital texts, for example—are having better success than those requiring teachers to become instructional designers, developing their curriculum from scratch. Having that curricular list provided by leadership allows teachers to focus on facilitating learning and supporting their kids.

Another area of support is tracking attendance. Online schools typically have dedicated personnel to track attendance and follow up with families; this strategy could alleviate some new burdens being faced by fully virtual teachers.

Is there an advantage for districts that create their own curricula?

Absolutely! Imagine a spectrum. On one end, schools have a prescribed digital curriculum, and it is totally locked down. Teachers can’t modify or supplement it. The other end is, Teachers, go create everything.

Hopefully somewhere in the middle, you have a scenario just like a regular classroom. Leadership provides curriculum packages, science kits, math kits, etc., but then the teacher is able to do their art. They can adjust the scheduling or supplement activities with their own creative projects personalized to their students.

The same thing can happen online, and that’s what you’re looking for. Given enough support, teachers can be empowered to customize their classroom to meet their students’ needs. Without the pressure of starting from scratch, they’re able to create a truly personalized classroom.


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