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SRI International focuses on digital learning in St. Petersburg

Officials from two nonprofit organizations with strong local ties are moving ahead with plans to turn St. Petersburg into a digital learning hub.

The Helios Education Foundation has awarded $1 million to the research institute SRI International to create a Center for Digital Learning. The center is to be housed at SRI, whose offices are at 450 Eighth Ave. SE in downtown St. Petersburg.

"We want to draw attention to the community and state by being a leader and developing best practices for digital learning," said Ian Smith, senior vice president and chief communications officer for Helios, which has offices in Tampa and Phoenix.

"There hasn't been a lot of proven methods in terms of what is going to work in the classroom from the teachers' standpoint and the kids' standpoint," Smith said. "This is going to pull all of that together."

The field of digital learning has grown in recent years as researchers have tried to improve education using technological advances. Online video lectures are one example. Another is the "flipped classroom," where homework and classroom time swap roles. Teachers introduce material through online lectures that students can digest at home. Later, in the classroom, the teacher acts more as a guide, helping students grasp the concepts they heard in the earlier lecture.

Digital learning involves "tools and techniques one uses to provide information to students around what you want to teach them in multiple and dynamic ways," said Dennis Beatrice, a senior adviser at SRI.

He said the new St. Petersburg center will build teaching models that use technology. The best, he said, are those that adequately train teachers, create content that complements the curriculum, and foster collaboration between students.

The Helios grant will allow SRI officials to hire staff and start their work. Long-term, the plan is to secure more funding from government and private grants.

"We're in the very early stages," Beatrice said. "We're starting to talk to partners and identify opportunities."

Among SRI's many specialty areas is an education division that spots trends, works to solve problems through research, and helps guide education policy and practice.

In 2009, Helios and SRI joined forces with Pinellas County Schools to pilot a technologically based program called SunBay Digital Mathematics in 10 middle schools. For two years, 30 teachers used the program to teach algebra to 2,500 students, employing computer programs and games that teach math concepts in real-world terms.

A study by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg reported that the students improved their math skills and understanding. The pilot has since ceased but supporters continue to fight for state funding and perhaps expand the program in Pinellas schools, Beatrice said.

He said the group also is exploring the possibility of doing "one or two more demonstration programs in Florida."