Skip Navigation

Home Blogs A partner in continuous improvement: Central Rivers Area Education Agency

A partner in continuous improvement: Central Rivers Area Education Agency

Midwest | September 12, 2017
A partner in continuous improvement: Central Rivers Area Education Agency

In the small towns and farm country of Iowa, technology serves as a key support for students and educators. To strengthen this support, the state's districts are working to harness the full power of technology to enhance teaching and learning and to expand students' opportunities and career horizons.

Kay Schmalen, science/technology consultant for the Central Rivers Area Education Agency (AEA) in north-central Iowa, is helping to lead this charge. Schmalen and the other members of the Central Rivers technology integration team serve 71 districts across a 9,000-square-mile region, assisting them in planning, implementing, and evaluating their use of technology to improve teaching and learning. “We really focus on how teachers can use technology to provide instruction that is going to enhance students' understanding of content,” says Schmalen, “whether it be science, math, literacy, or other content areas such as industrial technology or foreign languages.”

Incorporating educational technology in ways that deepen and enhance learning can pose a challenge, however, especially for smaller rural districts. To help districts test new technology approaches and learn from one another, the Central Rivers AEA has joined with Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest to form the Iowa Learning and Technology Networked Improvement Community (Iowa NIC). This partnership brings together five rural districts in the Central Rivers region (see map) with the goal of identifying effective ways of integrating technology into instructional practice and teacher professional development. With REL Midwest serving as the research hub, the Iowa NIC will collaborate and conduct fast turnaround research activities to develop, implement, test, and refine technology solutions in a continuous cycle of improvement.

Central Rivers AEA and Iowa NIC Members

Central Rivers AEA and Iowa NIC Members

Source: Reproduced and adapted with permission from Iowa’s Area Education Agencies.

Central Rivers, as one of Iowa's nine regional area education agencies, is well positioned to support the NIC's work and the districts' participation. Iowa's AEAs are charged with ensuring the provision of equitable and high-quality education services across the state. AEA consultants and content experts provide professional learning, consultation, and curriculum, instruction, and assessment development in the areas of special education and school improvement, with assistance ranging from one-on-one coaching and walk-throughs to online classes, site-based workshops, systemwide efforts, and conferences. “It's really up to [each district] what we do,” says Schmalen.

With Central Rivers' expert support, the districts in its region have made a strong start in boosting their use of educational technology. Almost every district has a technology plan in place and provides at least one computer per student. But many districts have struggled to integrate technology beyond a basic level.

To measure the extent to which administrators and teachers are incorporating technology, Central Rivers uses the Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition (SAMR) model. This framework, developed by educator Ruben Puentedura, Ph.D., describes four levels of technology integration to help assess instructional practice. These levels range from simple substitution, such as using a computer instead of pen and paper, to using technology to create entirely new tasks or processes that redefine teaching and learning, such as using student data and real-time responses to target questions in an online course as a way to differentiate instruction and meet individual student needs.

The SAMR Model

Source: Figure reprinted under the Wikimedia Commons Licensing Policy from “Instructional design/SAMR Model/What is the SAMR Model?,” Wikiversity.

“What we found,” Schmalen explains, “was that the districts we chose [for the NIC], especially in the high schools, were stuck using a computer for word processing only or a whiteboard only as a chalkboard. They weren't moving up that ladder. They want to; they just don't know how… So that's where the NIC is going to come in and give them some conversations with other districts to collaboratively work on it together and solve the problem.”

To help explore the hurdles holding districts back, the NIC completed a root-cause analysis in April 2017 and will be continuing that conversation when district and school teams return this fall to develop theories of practice to test as an improvement community. A member of the Central Rivers AEA technology integration team is assigned to each district to serve as “a close, critical friend in this process,” says Schmalen.

Leading a NIC in partnership with another agency is a new role for the Central Rivers AEA, and Schmalen is excited and hopeful about the prospects. “We've always hosted an instructional technology network where [districts] come and learn from each other, but it's not formal,” she said. “Instructional coaches or their instructional technology person came alone to these networking opportunities. The NIC will be different because each district brings a team, so we now have three or four people from a district and an administrator that can help the team make decisions. And REL Midwest brings their research expertise to the table. Because of the formality and REL Midwest's leadership, the NIC has a different feeling than what we've done in the past. There is the expectation that you will work together as a community with other districts to solve problems within your own district.”

Schmalen hopes that the NIC will find solutions that will help districts jump-start their use of technology. And then she wants to scale up the process. “We've got a number of our districts that are in that same situation, and we'd love to replicate what we learn here down the road.”


Joni Wackwitz

Joni Wackwitz

Connect with REL Midwest