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Rumble of Thunder—July 24, 2015

July 24, 2015

Well it’s been almost a month since my last blog post. I’ve had so many thoughts and ideas running through my head, but finally caught a second to write a few reflections down.  I type this while sitting in the Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix where I attended my doctoral graduation from Northcentral University.  It was well worth the trip and expense to meet learners from all 50 states and over 19 countries, all there to celebrate a multi-year journey and job well done with family and friends.

When I first decided to pursue a terminal degree, my first decision was which school to attend, knowing any program is a multi-year commitment. I researched local institutions of higher learning, but was concerned that if I moved out of the area, I would be unable to complete my studies. This issue led me to explore online options. As I had never pursued an online degree, or even taken a single online course, I assumed online might be too easy and wouldn’t be taken seriously. Boy, was I wrong. I can attest that the level of rigor and self-determination needed to complete coursework on time was high. I would rate the online experience as the toughest of any degree or training I have ever taken. In an online setting, no one is there to compare work. You have to rely on your professor’s feedback and your own level of expectation. There isn’t anyone there to push you to meet deadlines either.  The only person you compete with or compare yourself to is your own work. This created a never-ending loop of reflection. As they say, the best dissertation is a done dissertation. After what seemed to be never-ending research and rewrite of concept papers and the dissertation manuscript in a digital environment, I can truly say that is was unbelievably difficult, but worth the effort.

Online learning or blended learning, a combination of traditional learning mixed with a digital and self-directed format, can offer our students opportunities for learning that has never been available before. When I say students, that goes equally for those in K-12, college or adult classrooms whether they exist physically or in the digital world. Blended/online learning allows students to progress at their own pace instead of waiting for the teacher to deliver the content. Students who want to move faster, can as they master the learning while those that need to move slower can as well.  The teacher then is no longer the sage on a stage, but becomes the guide to help students take control and responsibility for their own learning. The teacher can then spend more time helping the students when they need it most.

Blended/online learning also opens a world of possibilities to students as they can be anywhere at any time to engage in learning, even if their community or school does not offer a course they are interested in. Learning is no longer limited as long as our students have access to technology to make it happen. The entire world can be explored whether through virtual field trips or learning a new language via videoconferencing/Skype/Google Hangout. Learning is no longer limited, but can now be on demand just as Netflix and DVR has changed how we experience TV.

These ideas were further reinforced during my attendance at the annual ISTE conference held in Philadelphia. ISTE stands for the International Society for Technology in Education and its mission to support and improve student learning through technology integration. Over 23,000 people from every state and 53 countries were in attendance. The power of all the energy and ideas coming from the diverse attendees was powerful. One of my core goals and the mission of our school board is to make sure each and every child has the opportunity to be successful. This belief was reinforced at ISTE. During the opening keynote, CNN correspondent Soledad O’Brien discussed the power that technology has to transform education for every student regardless of race, gender, or economic background. She showed examples of learning being unlocked for students from some of our country’s poorest neighborhoods. Then she made a statement that will forever affect me. Soledad said, “Do not give up on the students that need you. Technology is a tool that can change the world for our students. Access to technology is the next equality issue of our time.  Technology can unlock the world to students that wouldn’t otherwise have a voice. Help them find their voice.”  That is our role as educators, to not only help them be successful, but to unlock the world to them.

In the beginning of this post, I mentioned the diverse attendees at the recent NCU graduation. I was fortunate to spend a few hours pre, during and post ceremony with a teacher from New Brunswick, New Jersey. As we got to know each other after never conversing or meeting prior, I found out he was a high school special education teacher. His wife, young son and family joined him to celebrate his achievement. Some of his family traveled from as far as his native Nigeria to attend the graduation.  Talking to him, it was easy to see and feel the passion he has for his career and also what drove him to pursue a terminal degree. I was appreciative to have been able to share such a special time with someone who was a total stranger prior to that day, but felt like a kindred spirit. That is the power of digital learning…the ability to remove barriers to provide students with meaningful individualized learning, to become successful lifelong learners no matter the state, country or even continent. With the completion of my doctorate, I thought my learning was mostly over, but now I realize the real journey is just beginning. The real work is to find ways to provide supports and structures to our teachers, staff, administrators and communities so that all students have access to the progressive individualized education they need despite any barriers that might exist. I enjoyed my brief time away but I can’t wait to get back to work to make an individualized education happen for our Thunder with all the great people we have in the valley!

Dr. Hughes