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Keeping Pace with Technology Innovation

Learn valuable tips, shortcuts and resources to help your district stay on the upside of the digital divide.
Classrooms, libraries, and labs used to be the only spaces where students spent their time. Wireless connections, laptops and project learning have changed that, and VMDO Architects has explored opportunities in buildings and in the landscape. Above, students at John Handley High School in Winchester (Va.) Public Schools gather in the newly renovated math/science wing.
Classrooms, libraries, and labs used to be the only spaces where students spent their time. Wireless connections, laptops and project learning have changed that, and VMDO Architects has explored opportunities in buildings and in the landscape. Above, students at John Handley High School in Winchester (Va.) Public Schools gather in the newly renovated math/science wing.

Staying apace of rapidly evolving technologies and the innovative practices they enable remains a major challenge for school and district leaders concerned with keeping students on the upside of an expanding digital divide. As digital innovations emerge that require continuous upgrading of technological infrastructure, hardware and software, as well as training school personnel, district administrators are being called on to be more creative and strategic than ever.

Recent reports from industry associations are aiding districts in planning ahead by forecasting technology trends for the near future and by identifying and offering guidance in developing the primary areas of innovation that education leaders should be focusing on.  

The 2012 K12 edition of the New Media Consortium’s “NMC Horizon Report” identifies apps, mobile devices and tablet computing as technologies expected to enter the mainstream in schools within a year or less, with game-based learning and personal learning environments two to three years down the road, and augmented-reality and natural-user interfaces, which require body movements like finger swipes and taps, four to five years out.  

In partnership with NMC, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) has crafted a free collection of resources to help districts stay abreast of emerging technologies. The Horizon Report: K-12 Edition Toolkit provides discussion guides and best practices to assist school leaders in establishing systematic processes for decision making.

“One of the most valuable things about the toolkit is that it helps local stakeholders work together to investigate emerging technologies and not just hear the message from the ‘technology person,’” says CoSN CEO Keith Krueger. (Both the report and the toolkit are available at

Another recent study, the State Educational Technology Directors Association’s (SETDA) ninth annual National Educational Technology Trends Report, “2012 State Leadership Empowers Educators, Transforms Teaching and Learning,” also assists district leaders by offering successful case studies of technology programs while challenging them to focus on innovation in four key areas that will greatly impact student achievement: educator effectiveness, adequate technology infrastructure, innovative learning models, and college and career preparation for students. (The report is available at

With a common mission to ensure that schools are prepared to take advantage of the rapid evolution of technology, SEDTA, CoSN and NMC all emphasize the importance of leadership, having a vision and clear goals, and focusing on training district leaders to spearhead effective efforts.

Here, industry experts and experienced district leaders weigh in with their tips, shortcuts, systems and resources to help districts keep up with emerging technologies and innovative practices.

Mobile Devices and Apps

Leslie Conery, deputy CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), says that the proliferation of smartphones among students is making bring-your-own-device initiatives an option that districts are taking more seriously than ever. Despite concerns around issues such as complying with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and schools’ acceptable use policies, the tremendous savings realized when schools need to purchase just a few devices per classroom versus a device for every student can be the difference between keeping up with innovation and falling behind. Conery says that schools should reconsider “lockdown” policies, such as forcing students to turn off their phones, when it comes to setting students loose with mobile devices for completing schoolwork. Instead, schools should favor systems that track activity once students are logged in to the district site and should reinforce responsible online behavior. For districts looking for guidance in establishing BYOD programs, Conery points to ISTE’s National Education Technology Standards (NETS), which focus on teaching students life skills, including good digital citizenship.

Chuck Dinsfriend, ISTE’s director of information technology services, says that the ability of iTunes to rapidly deploy a full database of content, including software, ebooks, PDFs, pictures, videos and web links, constitutes a sea change when it comes to delivering timely materials to classrooms. Dinsfriend, a former IT director in Oregon and California schools, explains that a teacher can plan a lesson on weather; use a PDF on cloud formation, a video on the rain cycle, pictures of various clouds, and a science app about modeling weather; and sync them to all classroom iPads in seconds. “Prior to the iOS (Apple’s mobile operating system) revolution,” says Dinsfriend, “it could take weeks for IT to respond to this one teacher’s needs.”

The rise of mobile technologies and apps has also spurred more flexible purchasing models that can better meet instructional needs while saving districts time and energy. At Woodburn (Ore.) School District, Dinsfriend recalls when teachers were each provided with a $50 iTunes card that enabled them to download and test apps that were not free, while allowing IT to maintain a reasonable cap on unmanaged purchases. If a teacher decided that an app was good, the teacher would run it by the district’s teaching and learning department. If it was approved, the IT department would arrange to buy a volume license through Apple’s Volume Purchasing Program. “This would preserve the teacher’s iTunes card for further research and experimentation,” says Dinsfriend, who also notes that the total cost for a classroom was usually less than $33.  

With broadband access still a problem for many economically disadvantaged districts that could otherwise take advantage of mobile technologies, Conery reminds district leaders that using the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, commonly known as the E-rate, for telecommunications discounts to schools can be a solution to equity of access. “Districts can never have enough bandwidth,” she says.

Conery says that additional good news for broadband equity has come from telecommunications companies such as Qualcomm and from the nonprofit national educational broadcast service provider MobileBeacon, who have initiatives that address accessibility for low-income communities and schools. Qualcomm is working to expand service and cut costs for broadband access through its Mobile Data Modem program, and MobileBeacon is offering technology assistance grants to districts and other nonprofits for high-speed Internet access.

Another angle on supporting the use of mobile technologies in schools concerns infrastructure and interior design. Bob Moje, president of VMDO Architects and a designer of schools for 36 years, says that new portability in technology is changing the way his firm builds schools. Because mobile technology devices such as smartphones and iPads effectively extend learning beyond classroom walls, wireless access points and strong signals that reach into the library, cafeteria and hallways are key. “There is no such thing as a ‘nonlearning’ space anymore,” he says.

Moje also says that his firm has changed its approach to setting up classroom learning spaces to accommodate personal technologies. In a school the firm recently designed, classrooms were furnished with beanbag chairs so that kids could plop down in corners and get comfortable with their tablets or smartphones.

Biggest Expenses

Hardware, software and infrastructure have traditionally been the biggest expenses schools have faced when supporting technology. Today, districts are realizing that efficient decision making, relationships with vendors, comparison shopping, systematic approaches and strategic planning can all be significant elements affecting affordability.

Helen Gooch, instructional technology coordinator at Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools in Tennessee, says that establishing relationships with vendors can be a win-win situation. “Almost any vendor is ready, willing and able to work with you,” says Gooch, whose budget for the 16,000-student district has shrunk from $16 million to $2.2 million in recent years. Gooch, who has worked with Microsoft, CompassLearning and Scholastic, among others, says such partnerships can take many iterations. One model might involve a discounted pricing structure that would allow a district to buy software for one grade level while the company throws in an additional grade level. Or a district might get a year’s free product trial with a plan for renegotiation when the subscription is up. Beta-testing a product that is nearly ready for distribution and providing feedback to the company is yet another way to make a partnership work.

Gooch also suggests employing efficiencies such as computer imaging to save IT staff hours of time. Imaging is copying the contents of a computer’s hard drive onto a single compressed file, or image, so that the hard drive contents can be easily replicated on other computers. At Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools, Gooch says installing software and other tools onto a single computer can take up to two hours.

The addition and renovations to Brownsville Elementary School in the Albemarle County (Va.) Public Schools are designed to provide many opportunities to engage technology outside the traditional classroom walls. Students and teachers can use computers, iPods, and other connected devices throughout the school to supplement classroom instruction.“Compare this scenario to creating the image once and pushing it out to groups of six to 10 machines at a time where you simply set them up and let them run through the install while you’re doing other activities,” says Gooch.

Board Input

School board policies may also have a positive and immediate impact on district efficiency. Clarence Savoie, a 26-year board member in the St. Charles Parish Public Schools in Louisiana, a suburban-rural district of 98,000 students, says that a systematic, layered, committee approach to reviewing software and hardware eliminates buying on impulse and buying unproven products. The district’s double-tier system of product review includes both a site-based Teacher Facilitators of Technology (TFOT) body and the school board’s technology committee. TFOT personnel at each school assist colleagues with software and technology implementation, evaluate technologies piloted on different school  sites, and make purchasing recommendations to the school board’s technology committee. The committee then reviews the data on the success of each product and decides whether or not to recommend the product for purchase. The district rotates teachers in the TFOT program every two years so that all staff members develop an expert eye for product evaluation.

Savoie also says that the district managers avoid buying “canned” products, opting instead to work with vendors to develop customized solutions that fit the district’s specific needs. For example, when the district was looking to implement a new information management system a couple of years ago, the technology committee prioritized ease of use, data collection, reporting and an overall cost-efficient packaging of services before deciding on a specific vendor’s solution.

Rich Abramson, newly retired 11-year superintendent of Maranacook Area Schools-RSU 38 in Readfield, Maine, echoes Savoie in saying that districts must have a clear plan for handling new technologies and technology advances. “My advice is go slow,” he says. During his years at the district, Abramson implemented a two-tier technology piloting program over a two-year period. He asked vendors for samples to pilot and enlisted the help of the five or six most innovative teachers in each of the district’s six schools. These teachers would be the first tier of educators to try out and test the software or hardware programs, and as their colleagues became more curious, a second tier of teachers would volunteer to test the hardware in year 2. Abramson says that in year 2, normally 60 to 70 percent of the teachers at each school would sign up for piloting the program and provide evaluations and feedback to district purchasing personnel.

Savings Where Possible

Alternatives to buying new devices can also prove cost-effective for districts, according to Erez Pikar, CEO of CDI, which supports over 1 million refurbished assets such as computers, servers, switches and telephony technologies in schools across North America. For instance, he says, refurbished computers can offer a good solution for districts trying to achieve a one-to-one student-computer ratio at a savings of 50 to 66 percent over the purchase of new devices.

“As computers get more powerful, the minimum requirements seem to increase at a much slower pace,” Pikar observes. “This means that computers that are one to three years old are more than adequate to deliver software that is increasingly cloud based.”

Being strategic about building a technology backbone can save schools and districts big bucks as well, says Moje. He believes that a key to school construction is having an infrastructure spine that is easily accessible for upgrades. “Designing schools in a way that allows for future emerging technologies can mean a savings of two to three times over what it costs to start from scratch,” he says.  

Ensuring Educator Effectiveness

A primary challenge in teacher training is creating the circumstances to enable sustained high-quality professional development through communities of practice, mentoring, coaching, and online resources and programs.

At St. Charles Parish, Savoie says that the district found a creative way to provide sustained professional development to teachers at low cost by buying and converting an empty Kmart building into a professional learning center. The center has three different learning spaces, each furnished with 30 wireless laptops. It allows district leaders to offer ongoing staff training after school, on weekends, and during vacations through a budget-efficient train-the-trainer model run by district IT and curriculum administrators. Once trained, participants return to their schools and teach others in their departments or grade levels.

One of Abramson’s homegrown solutions included establishing ongoing “quick shops,” or after-school sessions in which, for a stipend of $100, a teacher trains a classroom of up to 15 colleagues in using and integrating new technologies, such as photo-editing software, digital cameras or student information systems. Sessions, for which attendees receive professional development credit, usually number between 80 and 100 yearly, Abramson says.

Greg Limperis, a veteran school technology director, is CEO and founder of Technology Integration in Education, a worldwide community of 20,000 educators who share ideas and resources for implementing technology in schools. Limperis says that customization is key when it comes to sustained and meaningful PD. For him, an ideal district program would be a series of online courses built around department or subject-area goals that teachers could access at their convenience. For instance, if the goal is to ensure that students meet the Common Core State Standards’ requirement of global understanding, a course might include teacher training in how to use educational social-learning networks. Limperis says that schools could support the online courses by granting teachers PD credit and certificates for completed courses of study in particular areas and by revising the school schedule to allow them a half day monthly to complete courses either at home or at school.

Gooch, who is a certified Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE) and provides educator training on Microsoft products, says that her district is also taking advantage of the new Microsoft Office 365, which the company is offering free to schools. Besides taking the place of the district’s former secure school email system for which the vendor began charging, Office 365 also brings some features to schools that provide new opportunities for online PD.

The software’s Lync online conferencing and communications package saves time and money because it allows Gooch to engage in instant messaging, Web conferences, and video chats with colleagues anywhere. “The ability to hear audio, watch video, and see each others’ desktops helps extend best-practice sharing beyond your hallway and building,” Gooch says.

Cameron Evans, Microsoft’s education chief information officer, sees today’s affordable technologies as a perfect way to increase innovative PD. “I’d like to see teachers become media producers,” he says. “Put cheap video cameras in classrooms and let them show what they’re doing and talking about, rather than simply tweeting it.” Evans sees this as a way for teachers to share best practices with others and improve their own teaching.

At Clarksville High School in the Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools in Tennessee, students use technology for everything from research on topics to presentations for problem solution.Evans also says that Microsoft’s recent purchase of the Yammer cloud-based enterprise social-networking product offers educators another chance to participate in an online community of learning through which they can connect with colleagues and also businesses outside the education world for fresh perspectives within a private and secure setting.  

Innovative Learning Models    

Education leaders have been looking for more than a decade at the immersive environment of video games as a model for the kind of powerful learning that they hope schools will adopt over the next few years. Conery says that the way games harness failures or setbacks and then re-energize players to try again makes them a great model for innovation, provided activities are closely mapped to curriculum goals and standards.

In 2007, education game researcher and Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Chris Dede posted on the Internet his list of the top 10 free educational video games. In that list, Dede matched each game to specific curriculum goals in science, English/language arts, history and other subjects. He then described how these games, for example, promote an understanding of the scientific method of inquiry, instill an appreciation for Elizabethan England, and explore incentives for the American Revolution.  

John Rice, creator of the Educational Games Research site, which offers research and resources on game-based learning, says that video games are alive in education through initiatives such as the Game School in New York City, which is entirely devoted to game-based learning; Selene, a NASA-funded lunar exploration game; WNET’s Mission US online games; and DimensionU, a math and literacy software program for K12.

From the perspective of physical surroundings, Moje says that a school’s design can also support innovation and higher-order learning activities such as authentic scientific inquiry. He uses the example of Buckingham Elementary School in Virginia, which his firm recently constructed. The landscape is designed with channels to collect rainwater, which goes into a “frog bog,” or a wetland area where kids can conduct experiments such as collecting data on water and soil pH levels using handhelds and science probeware. “This allows schools to integrate more powerful and active learning methods,” says Moje, “and lets students perform ‘real world’ tasks which can add to the body of global scientific knowledge.”

College and Career

In today’s climate, district leaders understand that articulation between schools and future employers plays a key part in student preparation for higher education and the workplace. Partnerships and internships with local businesses are traditional ways for students to gain authentic work experience. But today’s digital technologies offer opportunities even more innovative for students who have access to the Internet and a broadband connection.

Like Moje, Evans is also a proponent of learning through active, “real world” work, and he sees this as students’ best avenue for college acceptance and success in the workplace. He says that challenging students, perhaps through a contest, to build and hone an app is an example of an activity that would teach them to create, not just consume, products. They could work in groups to assume different roles, with one person doing the art, another programming, and another testing. “They’ll learn core curricular and fine arts skills such as physics, music and writing, but also how to respond to reviews, take constructive criticism, and package, brand and market the product,” Evans says.

Microsoft wants to assist student app developers, says Evans, who reports that the company hired college interns in 2011 to build apps for Windows 8, a platform due out later this year that is optimized for mobile devices. Some of those students are already generating revenue from their apps developed for the beta version. “Today, learning how to start a business is more important than learning how to get a job,” Evans says.

Continuous change and the need for a culture of ongoing innovation are not native elements to institutions of education. But there is widespread agreement among today’s education technology leadership that vision, empowerment, communication and efficiency are among the essential building blocks for creating a system of ongoing innovation that can help schools reduce the digital divide in the face of sure and rapid technological change. DA

Susan McLester is a contributing writer to District Administration.