Technology for Change: Heather Chirtea, Digital Wish

Heather Digitalwish PhotoSinglebrook talks with Heather Chirtea, founder of non-profit, Digital Wish about her mission to help bring and integrate technology into classrooms across the country.

Singlebrook: Could you tell us a little about how you got the idea for Digital Wish and how it’s evolved into the non-profit it is today?

Heather Chirtea: I got the idea when I had just moved to a new area. My kids were enrolled in the local elementary school, and it was going through a school closure and consolidation process. Almost all the parents wanted to keep the school open, and I personally loved the idea of my kids going to a small school, so we started a fundraising project to renovate the school and fix it up instead of closing it. The kids went on a letter writing campaign to let the community know what we needed: to get the school repainted, to get a new playground, and to do all the necessary renovations. Between 62 kids writing letters and some grants I wrote, we were able to successfully renovate the school and keep it open. We had over 130 community members out of an 800 person community show up to volunteer. It was exciting to see the school go from a kind run-down, shabby place to a vibrant community center with a new playground and baseball field. The renovation was also a big lesson because so many of the community members said they knew the school was going to close and really wanted to help but just didn’t know how.

At the time, I was working with Olympus and told them the story. Together we decided to build a website that would empower teachers to express their technology needs and reach out to their communities. Through student letter writing campaigns and with online inquiries, community members can make those wishes come true. That was the birth of Digital Wish! Olympus gave us seed capital to build the website, and a year later in August 2008, we received our non-profit status. In 2009 we launched the website, and it just took off.

SB: What made you want to focus specifically on technology?

HC: The school renovation we did was very facilities-based with little element of technology. But before my work with Digital Wish, I ran a publishing company and was in the tech industry, so when I went to apply the idea of connecting communities to their schools, technology was my area of expertise and seemed like a natural fit. In fact, in my own work I was a teacher trainer and teaching technology across the country. I found a huge need for technology, especially because when school funding is scarce and schools face budget cuts, one of the first places they reduce costs is in the technology budget.

SB: How did you go about growing the Digital Wish idea?

HC: Well, the online network just sort of grew itself. In our first month, we had over 1000 teachers, and now we have over 62,000 teachers in our educator network. It’s all been viral. It just takes one teacher who tells another teacher, who tells another teacher, and so on, and it just grows on its own. Moreover, we don’t really have a particular concentration of teachers in any one state, beyond the expected population distribution. Our website was built to scale very easily, so that part has been simple. On the logistics side though, as we’ve had to start processing more orders and donations, we’ve had to expand our staffing, which has been quite thrilling to see.

SB: What has been your biggest challenge so far in working with the Digital Wish mission?

HC: We had a very exciting time between 2009 and 2011 running Cisco’s educational giving program for their flip camcorders. The way it worked was that if a teacher bought one Flip camcorder, we’d send them a second Flip camcorder for free. During the 20 months we ran the program, we were able to equip over 25,000 classrooms with new technology. So, while that was a very exciting growth period for us, it was challenging to handle the various growth issues.

SB: What has been the most exciting part of working with Digital Wish so far, and what are you most looking forward to in the future?

HC: I would say managing growth has been the most exciting aspect of working with Digital Wish so far. In looking forward to the future, I’m just excited to really help educators bring all sorts of new learning activities and mobile computing to the classroom! We did a research study on one to one-computer-per-child in the classroom and were able to substantially raise student engagement in learning. This is probably our most exciting data point because it really shows the opportunity to help give kids a chance to do more with their education.

SB: Would you mind telling us a little more about your research on one to one computing in the classroom?

HC: When we implemented the program, after delivering the computers, we worked with teachers once a week to teach a class. We tested quite a lot of different models. The best method for teacher training is actually a peer coaching model, where we train teachers and students together. In this method, teachers and students will learn a new application of the technology in a single class period, and then we’ll leave for a week. In the interim, the teachers and students work together to build other projects using that technology. So, for example, we might come in to teach PowerPoint on a Monday and then come back the following Monday and the class will have created a host of PowerPoint projects on all sorts of topics. When we teach in tandem we embed the skill set in the teacher and student body at the same time - so they retain more of the information across all participants. Then a culture of peer-mentoring forms across the classroom.

In some of the schools where we had the most impact, we were able to actually change the culture of the school from a textbook culture to one of technology and integrated learning with computer technology. We also measured that in the beginning over 80% of the teachers weren’t comfortable with a lot of the basics of computer integration and responsible usage. Generally, if teachers aren’t comfortable with these things it means they aren’t being taught. So a big part of what we do is getting the teachers to up their comfort level so they can in turn impart the knowledge on to their students. Across all the schools we visited, we were able to raise the comfort level with digital citizenship in schools by over 50%.

SB: Your new project is the eBuilder that’s currently in its alpha testing phase. Can you tell us about how you got the idea for it and a little more about how it’s developing?

HC: It started back when we won the Federal stimulus grant to put one-computer-per-child programs across the state of Vermont. We have about 30 sites now with one-to-one computing, and as we were putting the computers in, we started realizing that mobile technology is a huge force in the classroom. Many of the kids have mobile devices in their backpacks, and teachers are starting to have kids pull their devices out to get online, because a lot of time in the classrooms, their devices are the only way to access the internet. We started to see that mobile computing was beginning to take a hidden role in the classroom. We also saw teachers struggling first-hand with the ability to deliver their lessons to those mobile devices. So we created the eBuilder to empower teachers to deliver all different kinds of content to any device. This allows students to utilize their own devices for learning and serves the dual role of combatting the issue of lack of technology in the classroom.

We literally just started testing the eBuilder with a select group of students and teachers, and it’s going really well! All they have to do is see it once and they’re able to learn and implement the tool and actually build something compelling within a single class period. They can create ebooks, activities, and a collections of links. Just about anything you can see with an internet web browser can be put in this eBuilder tool. It’s very exciting to see this tool being so easily adopted because it gives students and teachers the power to create mobile apps right in the classroom - and then play them on their tablets and smartphones.

Often little kids will build picture books. They’ll just browse for a picture or bring in pictures and write captions. Older students will often put in weblinks to simulations and write up whole reports. Teachers are actually building their lesson plans and curriculums using the eBuilder, so there’s quite a wide variety of uses. Currently, the eBuilder is only open to a small audience, but we hope to make it available publicly in a few weeks!

SB: Do you have any advice for community members looking to get more involved in their local schools?

HC: Definitely! I would say, first of all, teachers should register on Digital Wish to get access to a ton of free resources and a wealth of articles. Community members can go to Digital Wish and support a fundraiser or grant wishes. There’s even a volunteer section where people can sign up to help with classroom projects or use Skype to video conference a classroom for an informational session. They can look for their local school or classroom and make a donation, all of which is guaranteed to go toward bringing technology to the classroom.

Learn more about Digital Wish and get involved with your local school at digitalwish.com

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