OpenWorld Learning Encourages Students to Love to Learn

The ever increasing use of technology in the classroom means that digital literacy is a must for students who want to succeed. Non-profit organization OpenWorld Learning uses its programs to make sure students have the digital literacy they need in today's world.

By Jessica Lyons

OpenWorld Learning

OpenWorld Learning, also known as OWL, has seven Denver locations and two programs in Aurora public schools and serves 500-600 students each year. While using technology to create engaging and fun learning experiences for students, OWL also strives to 'ignite a love of learning.' OWL CEO Dean Abrams and Managing Director Lea Ann Reitzig recently spoke to about their work and the impact of digital learning. OpenWorld Learning uses digital learning to help students succeed in school. Why do you think digital learning is an important tool?

Dean Abrams: It's actually much more than just an important tool. Digital literacy has moved from nice-to-have to a must-have, regardless of professions or jobs. These days, and certainly well into the future, digital literacy is a necessary element of academic, professional and lifelong success. How is OpenWorld Learning using technology in classrooms?

DA: The technology platforms we use are all designed to engage the students so that in addition to learning, they're having fun. There's plenty of data out there to support the fact that we learn best if and when the learning is of interest and fun, regardless of age. And with the kind of process we use, the students can pick a variety of subject matters, and the learning still happens. So there's lots of flexibility on topics and areas of interest and the curriculum and programs delivered. (It's the) constructivist approach to education.

Constructivist learning is kind of based on students' active participation in problem solving and critical thinking regarding some learning activity that they find relevant and engaging. It's called constructivism because they're constructing their own knowledge by testing different ideas and approaches based on their prior knowledge and experience, applying these to a new situation, and then integrating the knowledge gained with pre-existing intellectual constructs that they've made. The real fundamental component of what we do is constructivism. There's the technology part of it, but how we deliver our curriculum is very, very much oriented so that the students construct their own learning. How do you develop your curriculum?

DA: The curriculum goes through a process of evolvement, and in the past, a lot of that was kind of anecdotal based on what we saw going on in our sites. But we've really shifted to an outcome-based process where we're measuring very important data points. And those data points are used to inform the curriculum so that we can tweak and continuously improve that curriculum and guide it more towards the outcomes we desire. How do you think that digital learning can transform a student's education experience?

DA: Part of OWL's current goal is to ignite a love of learning in the students we serve. Digital learning combined with our specific curriculum and the constructivist approach helps kids remember how much fun it is to learn, because we're not born not wanting to go to school. We are born and we start learning immediately and it's fun. And that, in a nutshell, provides them with a basis for all of their learning. That's how we believe digital learning transforms the education experience. But it's not just about the digital learning by itself, it has to do with the delivery mechanisms. When you put it all together the real goal for us around the transformation is not just games and digital literacy but also this re-ignition of a love to learn.

OpenWorld Learning OpenWorld Learning programs are available to students in as early as third grade. What is the impact of exposing them to your curriculum programs at such a young age?

DA: Formation happens much, much earlier - decisions and orientation to learning, decisions and orientation to self, decisions and orientation to 'Am I going to take ownership of my education or not?' So from our perspective, third grade is an ideal time to work with them. And the current curriculum requires that the students be able to read at roughly the third grade level to participate anyway, so it works out well. For your middle school programs, part of the goal is to expose students to potential career opportunities. Why do you think it's important to introduce these opportunities to sixth to eighth grade students?

DA: One of the reasons is the marketplace needs more qualified, interested students with a focus on STEM. But our focus is on the student. So the second reason, and I'd call it the primary reason, for the student exposure to STEM-related career opportunities is to allow them to put their learning in some kind of context relative to their potential professional goals. It brings a lot of their hopes and dreams that much closer to becoming reality, so it's kind of a win-win for the students as well as for the community. Some of OWL's programs use student leaders. How are peers able to become student leaders?

Lea Ann Reitzig: They apply; they write an essay. There's kind of an application process that they go through with our site leaders to see that they understand what that role means and to see that they can fulfill that once they are selected to be a student leader in the program. What qualities are you looking for in student leaders?

LR: They're expected to provide leadership for the other students. They act as a teacher within the classroom. When the students have questions, we use a cup system where if they have a question, they put up a green cup. And so the student leaders watch for those, and they actually receive additional training one Friday a month that helps them learn how to interact and how to ask the questions of the other students to help them solve their own problems. They don't just walk over to their computer and say, 'Oh, there's an error in your syntax, in your code right here.' They ask the right questions so that the other students are developing those critical thinking skills and learning problem-solving techniques. Can you give me an overview of the programs that OpenWorld Learning offers?

LR: We have the elementary program that we've talked about. The students are learning to program in MicroWorlds, and it's syntax-based coding. Then in our middle school program, we have multiple tracks, including graphic design, stop-motion animation and robotics. Then we offer summer camps, and the summer camps are generally themed weeks, and those might be around cartooning, game design, movie making, and those vary each year. What do you think the role of digital learning will be in the future of education?

DA: There's absolutely no question that educational institutions and stakeholders are already embracing and integrating digital-based learning. Look at models like blended learning that combine classroom instruction and guidance with online learning efforts.

It's important to note, though, that digital literacy is a prerequisite to using the digital mediums for learning. In other words, we focus on helping students acquire the digital literacy skills necessary so that they can fully participate in these emerging delivery methodology changes that require a certain amount of digital literacy competency.

There's the digital learning as a delivery mechanism and then there's the digital learning that has to do with digital literacy. We know if we're in the field of education that if students are failing in the area of reading, they're not going to have a successful educational experience; you have to know how to read. If you don't have digital literacy skills, what's going to happen to students who don't know how to navigate through that? How can our readers get involved and help support OpenWorld Learning?

LR: We have multiple ways they can help. For people who would be in the Denver area, there are opportunities to volunteer within our programs, within our offices. In the middle school program we do career explorations, where the students either take a trip to an IT site or we bring a panel of people from a company like HP or Time Warner Cable into the school to present their careers, and what they do and how they got there, to the students.

We solicit donations to help support our after school and our summer programs. And then, for in-kind, we're always looking for laptop donations. The students can earn a refurbished laptop through our program. Or we have a tech fair that we do annually called 'e-portfolio.' At that time the students win prizes, so we might be looking for things like donations of tablets or iPads that could be used there. has made a donation to support OpenWorld Learning. To find out how you can help them make a difference, visit their website or email

Another organization that is making digital learning accessible is CFY.

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