Debbie Karcher has worked in IT with the Miami-Dade County Public Schools for 27 years. After seventeen years with the district, she worked in the private sector for Amadeus and Motorola, returning in 2001 as CIO. She manages 500 people; 250 technicians are assigned to schools to support students and staff, and the rest are in development, training and security. District Administration often references M-DCPS, one of the nation’s largest districts. We felt it was time to talk with the CIO.
How closely do you work with Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, and how involved is he in making technology decisions?
Karcher: Mr. Carvalho drives major innovations; however we work closely together on technology decisions. The areas I support include Computer & Facility Operations, Assessment & Data Analysis, Data Security, Program Management, Systems & Programming, Network & Infrastructure, Field Support & Telecommunications, Accountability & Research Services, and Federal & State Compliance. We branch out into all areas and work with the superintendent as well as his curriculum group and IT curriculum group. So in that sense, we all march together in technology.
What do you see as the most important tech trends for education over the next few years?
Karcher: I think first and foremost is the capacity of school districts to be able to manage the content, testing and virtual initiatives that are taking place. Currently for every 1,000 students, you need 10 MB of bandwidth. And by 2014 or 2015, it will have increased tremendously. We have to figure out how we’re going to do that and how we will pay for these increases. That’s number one. The next most important tech trend is having devices for all our students. If we’re moving to digital content and away from textbooks, how are we going to manage that, especially in large urban districts? When they implement textbook replacements in a district that has 10 schools, it’s a lot easier than trying to do it in a district that has 360 schools. There are a lot of the same issues, but it doesn’t scale quite the same way.
To what degree is M-DCPS currently involved with online learning, and preparing for the 2014 Online Common Core assessments? How will this change in the next three to five years?
Karcher: We are totally immersed. As we enter the fall, we have an initiative that all students who are entering 9th grade take at least one course as an online virtual course that meets state graduation requirements. This was our way of harnessing virtual learning. In the district’s model, there are facilitators in the class who actually help the students as they progress through the course—if they have machine problems or even questions about the course itself—although they have their virtual teacher available. As for computer-based testing, by next year we’ll have more computer-based testing than paper testing. In M-DCPS right now, most of our textbooks are available through the student portal. We intend for that to grow even more. Students can enroll in virtual classes through Florida Virtual School, and they can take classes outside the normal school day. They just have to get approval from their guidance counselor. M-DCPS also has its own virtual classes, which students can take full-time or part-time.
What was the latest tech innovation you implemented?
Karcher: I don’t really get excited about products because we see so many of them, but one particular product, GuideK12, is now giving us a geo-dimension to student data. It presents our data in ways that we’ve never been able to look at it before.
What does it enable you to do that you weren’t able to do before?
Karcher: Each year we redraw our boundaries based on demographics, the number of students in the schools, and how the community population shifts. This product allows us to do that much quicker. It also allows us to see—when we change a boundary—which we’re changing in terms of reading levels, ESE, ESL children, and how we could impact a school and its diversity.
Our district is comprised of regions, and representatives from each region present their own boundary recommendations for the year. With this product, they can do many simulations. It also allows us to see where our students are. If we pull a boundary for a specific school, we can see just by little dots on the map all the children that live in the boundary of that school. We can see whether they are actually attending that school or other schools in the area, which may be choice programs and magnet schools. It allows us to track student-learning gains, see what’s working or what’s not working to provide a more individualized curriculum geared to a student area of interest or needs at the home school.
We implement a lot of things people don’t want, trust me. This was one of the ones where we didn’t say, “You have to use it. You have to draw your maps this way.” It wasn’t even a sell.
How much does Miami-Dade embrace one-to-one? Do you see the whole district going one-to-one soon?
Karcher: One-to-one for our district, which has about 340,000 students, is a little daunting. And it’s really not going to happen without a BYOD technology model. We are going forward with trying to provide wireless in all our schools. This provides capacity for students to bring their own devices if they choose. One-to-one is not sustainable in this district without some type of BYOD initiative. Last March we surveyed our students to try to figure out who has devices and if they would bring them to school. Our response rate was about 27 percent, so we will be repeating the survey, but 80 percent said they had their own device, and about 67 percent said that they would be willing to bring it to school, which leaves less of a group to try to give devices to. We are very excited about this. The School Board just approved a new revised acceptable-use policy that incorporates bringing your own device. We want children to use their technology, and we’re excited about it. So we do embrace it. We just can’t afford it in the way that maybe other districts have been able to do.
I’ve been reading that you’re trying to expand the iPrep Academy, which is the M-DCPS technology-rich environment that combines online and face-to-face classes encouraging inquiry and creativity. How hard will it be to turn the ship around?
Karcher: If it’s not called iPrep it will be called something else. But it’s going to take some time. The demand for iPrep models is pretty high. But with BYOD, with teachers starting to move into that flipped classroom model, I think you are going to see shades of iPrep happening in different ways or in different clusters in our school district.
In five years, could all schools in Miami-Dade be using some form of the iPrep model?
Karcher: I think five years is a little bit aggressive. I would say five to 10, because from what I’ve seen from technology and new things, it generally takes three to five years just to really institutionalize technology. This is even bigger than that. This is a whole change in instruction and how we deal with our students.
What’s one thing you wish Miami-Dade had that it doesn’t have?
Karcher: They say money’s not everything, but for us it is. We implement very well, and we are ready for wireless and for one-to-one. But a lot of our schools don’t have the wireless capacity and the number of devices we need to do that. It just comes down to a money issue.
Of all the technology you have implemented, what’s one thing that you would never give up?
Karcher: I would never give up our portal and our model for our portal. It allowed us to do a lot of things I don’t think other districts can do as easily. We did it piecemeal. This wasn’t something that was built in a couple years; it’s been built over 10 years. The superintendent embraced it and used it to do his Links to Learning initative. Links to Learning provides supplemental online curriculum content to support student learning with individualized student learning paths beyond the school day, enabling anytime learning. It is accessible to students via their portal and provides links to the appropriate software through single sign on. The portal is role based. It is specifically tailored for the teacher and their students, and it provides student academic information for multiple years and individual students’ achievement scores. It also flags individual students into categories that are color coded—red (needs major assistance), yellow (may require additional assistance) green (student is progressing). This model allows for a more personalized instructional program for our students. The parent portal provides our parents a way to communicate and see how their children are doing. It has allowed us to present our data on any device. That’s the key to one-to-one.
Judy Faust Hartnett is editor of District Administration.