From Media Specialists to Digital Literacy Leaders

Mobile County, Ala., begins a districtwide transformation to support classrooms in effective technology use

By Debbie T. Turner and Michele D. White/School Administrator, May 2015

The school media center is no longer a place where students go only to check out a book, hear a story or do a little research. Today’s school media center is the heart of the school, the hub of learning and the center of new and emerging technologies. It is a source of tools, resources, information and support for students and educators alike.

Michele White (left), instructional technology coordinator, and Debbie Turner, library media supervisor, oversee a project that is transforming the role of the school librarian in Mobile County, Ala.

    Today’s school library media specialist is not the one so many adults remember in their school libraries, sitting behind the circulation desk or reading a story to a class of primary-grade pupils and then sending them on their way. Today’s school library media specialist must be a leader in the school, an expert in the curriculum and the resources to support it, a co-teacher for students and a model and mentor for teachers.

    Recognizing the importance of school media centers and school-based library media specialists to the success of students today, the Mobile County, Ala., Public Schools launched a project last fall to transform the school system’s library media specialists into digital leaders, coaches and collaborative partners who work with students, teachers and school leaders to ensure appropriate technology is woven throughout the curriculum.

    With the support of Superintendent Martha Peek, Chief Academic Officer Karen Mohr and Federal Programs Executive Director Belinda Roberts, district administrators planned a program of intense professional development to prepare the district’s library staff to fulfill their role as true 21st-century media specialists. As these library media specialists were taking on a new role, the school district gave the transformed position a new title: digital literacy media specialist.

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Building Capacity

We identified three key goals for the project:

  • Build the digital literacy media specialists’ capacity to lead the digital transformation as coaches, mentors and critical friends to teachers as they work side by side to create a student-centered learning environment that leverages the appropriate and regular use of technology.
  • Build teachers’ capacity to use digital media in concert with proven instructional strategies at a deeper level to deliver relevant, real-world learning experiences, while regularly incorporating meaningful instructional practices that directly support Alabama College and Career-Ready Standards for teaching, learning and assessing for understanding.
  • Create a rigorous student-centered classroom environment that seamlessly blends reading, literacy and available instructional technologies to maximize the learning experience for each student.

    Mobile County encompasses 89 schools and 59,100 students, supported by 97 media specialists and 3,500 classroom teachers. Launching a digital transformation in such a large school system would be challenging for sure. The district decided to implement the transformation over three years.

White 2
Michele White (rear) is instructional technology coordinator in the Mobile County, Ala., Public Schools, where 16 pilot schools now employ digital media literacy specialists.
Starting With Pilots

The district leadership team built on an existing partnership with Discovery Education to include customized professional development for digital literacy media specialists, teachers and administrators, as well as opportunities for community and stakeholder engagement. The partnership with Discovery Education also provides access to their extensive library of digital resources to enhance the curriculum, including a digital library of more than 150,000 learning objectives aligned to the state and national standards.

    Sixteen schools were invited to participate in the first year of the three-year implementation. A team of five educators at each of the 16 schools — one administrator, one digital literacy media specialist and three teachers — committed to participate fully in the professional development activities surrounding the digital media project and share the information with the rest of their school staff.

    The focus of the professional development plan was on integrating technology to support teaching and learning at each of the 16 schools. The district would accomplish this by building the foundational knowledge of teachers and principals in effectively integrating technology to support teaching and learning and best teaching practices across the curriculum.

    Our plan included five full-day sessions for each school team and five preview half-day sessions specifically for administrators. The latter were encouraged to attend all sessions with their teams. If that was not possible, the half-day administrator sessions provided insight into what their digital literacy classrooms should look like.

    Topics of the training sessions included Exploring the Core Curriculum, Centers-Based Teaching and Learning, Maximizing Student Engagement, Assessing Progress and Authentic Learning.

Defining Roles

Support from the district is critical to the success of a project of this magnitude. Central-office leaders provide customized professional development as well as continuous online and site-based support; assist with data collection and communicate with parents and stakeholders about the project and provide opportunities for community engagement.

    At the school level, team members work together to ensure time is available for the digital literacy media specialist to collaborate with, mentor and co-teach with participating teachers. Ideally, the media specialists need at least 15 hours per week to devote to collaborating with teachers. In addition to assisting students and teachers in the media center, the media specialists now go into the classrooms to help teachers incorporate new tools and strategies into their instruction, often co-teaching lessons and modeling digital technology use.

    Teachers and the digital literacy media specialists also partner to plan and implement at least one digital project in each participating classroom. This year, teachers and students created paper slide videos, padlets and digital learning boards. Teachers began using Discovery Education’s Board Builder tool as their delivery method for instruction.

    In other places, teachers flipped their classrooms and had students present their student-created learning boards to provide daily instruction. Student projects are created online and paperless — no more project boards! Kindergarteners are creating their own online projects with teacher assistance.

    Digital literacy media specialists provide coaching and mentoring in these classrooms, helping teachers implement activities and assisting students with project creation.

In addition to participating in the professional development plan, the team members in the 16 pilot schools also committed to working together to collect data to monitor progress, provide feedback about the program when requested and communicate with parents and stakeholders regarding the digital literacy project. 

Looking Ahead
Although we have not compiled and analyzed the end-of-year data, we are confident that the project is building the capacity of our teachers and digital literacy media specialists to promote student achievement and prepare our students for success in college and career.

    We are excited about the year ahead and the adjustments we will make. The district leaders are planning an additional session with the 16 digital literacy schools to debrief and reflect on their challenges and concerns. For example, time management has been a concern. During the debriefing session, time will be devoted to giving schools an opportunity to share the time-management solutions that have worked for them. Some schools have found creative ways to carve out time for the media specialist to come into the classrooms and model lessons or provide support. Taking time to reflect and discuss the project will help us improve next year.

    We are excited about the coming year when 25 new schools will be added to the project and the 16 current schools will enter Year 2. In addition to serving as mentors to the new schools, team members and administrators at the 16 pilot schools will receive additional professional development. The pilot schools will focus on ramping up coaching, mentoring and collaboration between the digital literacy media specialist and classroom teachers, and spreading digital integration throughout the school building. This sharing is integral to the systemic digital transformation we envision for Mobile County Public Schools.


Debbie Turner is library media supervisor for Mobile County Public Schools in Mobile, Ala. E-mail: Twitter: @debturner56. Michele White is instructional technology coordinator for Mobile County Public Schools.

Additional Resources 

Other resources about digital media literacy suggested by the article’s co-authors: