Introducing: Digital Teaching Platforms

by John Richards and Chris Dede


This description of the Time To Know Digital Teaching platform was excerpted from Chapter 10 of the forthcoming book Digital Teaching Platforms: Customizing Classroom Learning for Each Student, available in early April from Teachers College Press. Here the chapter authors describe some of the general features of the DTP and highlight 21st Century skills and mathematics examples.


The Instructional Design of Time To Know’s Teaching and Learning Environment

 by Dovi Weiss and Becky Bordelon


This chapter describes an innovative approach to leveraging 1:1 educational technology that embeds an interactive, comprehensive curriculum in a Digital Teaching Platform (DTP.)      




Time To Know integrates a Digital Teaching Platform (DTP) with other components to provide a comprehensive solution that changes the choreography in the classroom. The DTP creates a partnership between teacher and technology that takes advantage of the strengths of both.


Unique differentiation strategies are built into the lesson flow and permit students to offer their insights and perspectives during the learning process. The teacher functions as mediator and guide, leading the group toward creating a shared product or jointly solving a problem.


In mathematics, students are allowed to discover conceptual understandings through a series of activities focused at their individual learning levels. Differentiation also occurs through the use of open-ended questions that promote rigorous discussion and the opportunity to learn from peers as alternative approaches emerge. Students who are struggling are provided access to scaffolded hints that meticulously support them and become less frequent as students gain skills. All students have the opportunity to experience success and move to higher levels of achievement.


The curricular activities include a set of scaffolding tools containing contextual hints that systematically move students toward the solution of a problem. Reference materials, a set of discipline-focused applets, and links to web-based locations provide the student with a broader understanding of the activity and assist in problem solving. Each student is responsible for selecting tools, determining how to use them, and incorporating those tools into an activity. For example, while trying to solve mathematical multiplication equations, the student can choose to use the multiplication applet, which represents the equation in a visual way. As an alternative, other students may choose to use a spreadsheet that provides a visual, step-by-step algorithm for solving equation problems.


The Digital Teaching Platform is designed to present differentiated materials to different groups simultaneously and to support diverse learning levels for the same topic. Only the degree of difficulty among the levels is affected, not the context or the required standard that needs to be achieved.


The Time To Know platform supports an adapted learning pace for the students in numerous ways. First, the teacher can control the exposure rate of different learning activities during the lesson, and students can progress at their own pace through different questions and screens. This allows students to maintain their self-esteem while engaged in the program, and, as discussed in Chapter 4, all students are able to expand their challenge zones. In addition, advanced students who finish the assignment before their peers can easily access engaging, game-based activities.


When performing computerized assessment, the teacher can allocate extra time for students if needed. The curriculum is built to provide extra materials on various levels for different learning needs. For example, in mathematics, the curriculum includes enrichment materials, practice materials for each specific lesson, and intervention materials. The teacher can allocate those materials to different students according to their specific needs and learning pace.


Creating Meaningful Learning Experiences


The lesson flow is based on guided social constructivist pedagogy. Each teacher-guided lesson progresses through a cycle of engaging exploration, experimentation, and discussion. This promotes deeper understanding of the materials by the students and the learning of new concepts. The lesson cycle is demonstrated in Figure 10.1. Learning activities 1a through 1d compose the guided learning part of the lesson that the teacher facilitates. Students then move into independent learning activities that are differentiated and assigned based on their needs. The lesson also includes extras, where both remediation and acceleration activities are located.



 In mathematics, the teacher opens the lesson with an animation, which is used as a trigger for a specific learning topic, such as fractions. Next, a class discussion on the topic increases the curiosity of the students, who then explore the topic and perform guided experiments individually using the fraction applet. The students then submit their work to the class gallery where the teacher projects the work and engages the students in a discussion that leads learners to concept generalization.


Open-ended applets provide an explorative and discovery environment. The student can engage and manipulate applets and multiple representations for a deeper exploration of a given task or problem. One 5th grade teacher at Whitt Elementary School in Grand Prairie Independent School District (ISD) commented that, while she has always been able to teach skills in isolation, “I could never plan the integrated units that are available to me in the Time To Know curriculum” (Personal communication, April 2010). One example of this skill development through integrated units is a mathematics lesson that begins with a story about a theme park, including different railroad-based arcades. Students use the geoboard applet to plan a new railroad for the park according to specific geometric principles. This challenges the students and promotes curiosity and fantasy, thus making the work more fun and engaging, motivating the students, and promoting the application of a concept to real world problems.


The gallery functions as a public sharing space where students post and review their work. The teacher projects the gallery on the class board to compare and contrast activities and encourage modeling and learning from peers. The students can use the gallery commenting tools to provide peer comments and reviews that contribute to others’ ideas and promote social learning. This type of public display and common discourse is a significant tool for improving student achievement (see Chapter 5).


The multi-user activity items are designed to promote collaboration in pairs or groups. The students gather as a team, register their names within the activity item, and perform a group collaborative activity. With the teacher guiding the students to ensure effective collaboration, they work together, share knowledge, and construct a mutual product. Collaborative products are then sent to the gallery by each team for class discussion and review. Teacher and student folders provide a storage tool for external curricular materials, such as web pages and multimedia files. This feature allows the teacher and students to gather authentic and relevant materials, store them in their private space, and later share them with the entire class using the class folder. This functions as an infrastructure for storing research materials and provides additional authenticity to the learning.


Students can store materials and collaborate with each other using web 2.0-based tools, which creates a mutual knowledge base on different topics. For example, the students can use the Time To Know wiki feature to create a shared class glossary. As shown by Parker and Chao (2007), wikis promote flexible collaboration. Flexibility for teachers to personalize the program ensures that best practice initiatives that have been honed over their careers can be included in their daily work.


Integrating Assessment into Teaching and Learning


Several features of the Time To Know DTP offer meaningful feedback to students.


The automatic feedback is instructionally designed to be content and context specific. This feedback is sensitive to possible misconceptions and provides each student with unique assistance based on their inputs; it challenges students and supports them in reaching conclusions. All feedback is provided in a multimodal method, involving auditory, textual, and visual channels, thus ensuring the message is consistent and reaches all students regardless of their learning style. Azevedo and Hadwin (2005) showed that adaptive scaffolding is effective for moving students toward more sophisticated mental models, for increasing declarative knowledge, and for promoting self-regulated learning strategies.


The Time To Know Digital Teaching Platform provides both formative (ongoing) and summative assessment to the teacher. The curriculum includes long-term assignments and projects for which ongoing assessments are provided as a means of continuous evaluation during different phases of an assignment.


The Time To Know Digital Teaching Platform functions as a holistic environment where the student can retrieve data and information (using curricular activities, references, and web tools), process the data (using word processing capabilities, spreadsheets, unique applets, etc.), store the data (using the student’s folder), publish the data, receive feedback, and be evaluated by the teacher and peers. Sadler (1989) showed that improvement of performance relies on students’ ability to know how they are progressing. Information should be provided not only by the teacher, but also by the students themselves, allowing the students to acquire evaluative expertise.


Real-time classroom monitoring provides the teacher with an instant snapshot of ongoing class performance. The monitor presents the teacher with a view of class progress and allows the teacher to drill down and explore the specific progress of each student. The monitor alerts the teacher when a student is making multiple mistakes or is not keeping up with the rest of the class. This dashboard, as pictured in Figure 10.2, can also indicate when a student is progressing well and is ahead of his or her peers. The monitor emphasizes when a specific activity is not understood by the majority of the class, thus allowing the teacher to automatically stop the lesson and provide additional explanation for the group. The teacher is able to assess and understand the status of each student in real time and, as a result, can provide assistance, intervention, or additional materials throughout the ongoing flow of the lesson. Studies have shown that frequent feedback to students about their learning produces learning gains (Black & Wiliam, 1998).





Twenty-first-century skills—critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation—are integrated into the curriculum. The curriculum includes a wide range of idea creation techniques (e.g., open-ended questions and problems), which promote brainstorming and present many possible solutions. The Time to Know Digital Teaching Platform creates a social atmosphere in which learners feel secure enough to play with ideas.


The project environment is an infrastructure for creative, team-based assignments focused on problem solving in the context of real and relevant subject matters. Tools, such as the graphic organizer and performance tasks, are specifically designed to facilitate creative thinking processes, development of ideas, and development of creative products.


Critical Thinking and Problem Solving


Games incorporated in the curricular materials promote inductive and deductive reasoning. For example, in the Knight game, the student is asked to assist the knight to cross the bridges on the way to his castle. On each bridge, the student is provided with a rule and is required to fill the bridge with objects that comply with the given rule. As another illustration, in the Science Lab game, the student meets a scientist who asks the student to eliminate objects that comply with specific changing criteria until discovering the rule behind the combination of all the given criteria.



 Open-ended applet tools, such as the place value applet shown in Figure 10.3, provide additional support and scaffolding in solving non-familiar problems in both conventional and innovative ways. For example, the student can solve mathematical equations by using the calculator tool or can use the multiplication applet in order to represent the equation in a graphical fashion.


Communication and Collaboration


The curriculum includes activities in which different students are provided with assignments that have differing contexts but cover the same content.


One student is required to build a graph representing information from an animation. Another student builds a graph based on a different set of information. The students exchange their products using the gallery, review each other’s work, and assist each other when necessary. Multi-user activity items and the teacher’s ability to divide the students into groups quickly and easily promote working in diverse teams and sharing responsibility for the collaborative products.


Student folders allow students to bring different media files into the class (photos, audio, video, animations, and web pages), which can be shared and reviewed by their peers and the teacher. The students can learn how to assess the impact and the effectiveness of different media channels.


The project environment allows the teacher to easily guide different groups to perform explorative research projects. The teacher and the team members are able to value and assess the individual contribution of each member to the project, along with the evaluation of the group work as a whole.


Information Media and Technology Skills


Students work in a fully computerized environment with access to local and web-based tools and materials, which supports the development of information and technology literacy. Students have access to various sources of information during the learning process, including reference materials in the tools area, the Internet, and extra materials provided in the lesson flow.


Students learn the rules of proper usage of the gallery feedback mechanism.


Individual learning leads to class discussion on the topic of proper and ethical behavior in information technologies. The performance task is designed and focused to promote easy creation of media products, which can later be presented and evaluated by the teacher and the class.


Life and Career Skills


The additional materials located in the curriculum promote efficient utilization of time and workload by teaching students how to manage their time as well as by increasing students’ awareness of the capabilities provided by a technology-rich environment. The project environment promotes productivity and accountability by teaching the student to set goals, manage priorities, and perform planning sessions in order to achieve desired results.


Students are required to be flexible and adapt to changes. They play different roles during a lesson, such as switching between being an active participant and a listener in a discussion, or by working as an individual, with a partner, and in a collaborative learning group. Students learn to incorporate feedback by receiving constructive feedback both from teacher and from peers throughout the lesson.




The 21st-century student is not afraid to “jump in the deep end” and try new technologies; teachers must be willing to do the same.


Implementing Pedagogical Change


The most significant implementation change is a shift in focus from teacher-run classrooms to environments where students are encouraged to construct their own learning. Teachers continue to play a critical role as guides and facilitators, but the emphasis is on creating a learning environment where students grow as independent thinkers. In order to foster this atmosphere, both district and campus leadership roles must focus on a student-centered vision.


District leadership must examine priorities in order to direct resources. Teachers must be afforded the time to learn new practices and plan student-centered instruction. District leaders must rethink how technology resources are allocated. There must be a transition from thinking about technology as a “subject,” such as word processing, to conceptualizing a platform and tools that foster multiple forms of learning. Students need access to up-to-date technology at all times, so teachers must transition in and out of the platform resources required of a blended learning approach.


Teacher Advantages


Increased teacher effectiveness is another significant advantage of the DTP. Once teachers are prepared to use the platform, they are exposed to consistently rigorous curriculum content and have many additional resources instantly available. The sustained professional learning provided to the teachers by the coaches ensures that all teachers, regardless of their current skill level, are able to effectively utilize the platform and master the content. A diligent focus on instruction has been shown to have a positive impact on both teacher effectiveness and student learning.


Teachers who champion the shift toward the Time To Know Digital Teaching Platform are rewarded with access to the support and tools afforded to many other professions that have already embraced 21st-century technology.


Teachers are no longer required to spend countless hours creating their own teaching materials or chasing down resources. Today’s teacher can conveniently retrieve materials and resources, as well as have access to the thoughts, ideas, and best practices of their colleagues. Not only do teachers have up-to-the minute tools at their command, but they learn to be first-rate mentors for 21st-century skills.




To discover why it is critical that we adopt Digital Teaching Platforms, take a look at how children live their lives right now. They are not waiting to become digital—they are digital. Today’s children are creating a narrative for their lives that is connected to the global reality of life. Today’s children construct learning—they do not just memorize facts.


Today’s teacher must be willing and able to use the power of technology to transform knowledge and instruction into products, solutions, and new information. It is indeed an exciting time for learning. We must create the learning environment that we want our own children to have. If we know that students need to be able to think, create, analyze, and evaluate, we must start by ensuring that our teachers have the tools to do the same. This is the vision and mission of Time To Know.




Chris Dede is Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard Graduate School of Education. John Richards is founder and president of Consulting Services for Education, Inc., (CS4Ed) and adjunct professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education.





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