Plug In, Turn On, Win Out
Located smack-dab between Dallas and Fort Worth, Irving Independent School District has experienced technology acceleration at its finest. Its ambitious technology upgrade plan has put Dell laptops into the hands of every student and sparked renewed interest in learning.
"I see teachers teaching kids, kids teaching other kids, and kids teaching their parents," says Jennifer Anderson, Irving's executive director of technology. "And now I see other school districts coming to Irving to find out how we're doing it."
Boxes and Nails
To say the district has come a long way would be an understatement. "I think you can date our technology initiative back to 1997--three years before I got here," says Anderson. "The only computer network the district had was an ISDN line hung in a box that was literally nailed to the wall. So there was very little technology installed in the classrooms." Keeping the status quo would have resulted in constant system breakdowns for even the most basic technology upgrade.
At the time, technology obviously was not emphasized. But then the business community began collaborating with the school board on a plan that would change everything, explains Sam Farsaii, director of instructional technology. Neighboring districts seemed to be ahead of Irving, and one thing became clear: it was time to keep up with the Joneses.
Digging itself out of the low-tech hole took board room savvy, consensus building and old-fashioned elbow grease. District leaders realized that tying technology into learning was their best bet in getting students motivated.
The technology leadership team, already in place, agreed about the necessity of a long-term upgrade plan. "A five-year plan ... would result in reaching a vision for the district shared by school board members, parents and teachers," explains Anderson. "The consensus was that everyone wanted laptops for every student and [for] teachers to all have their own computers."
At the same time, the district was planning its fourth high school, the Academy of Irving. School leaders decided to bundle the two projects. A $47 million bond issue garnered 85 percent community support in 1999. The technology plan revolved around an ATM network platform for the new school, equipping it to handle video, audio and computer data transmission over the same network. The money would also be used to create a new technology platform--with student laptops as the centerpiece--for the rest of the district.
"We started with three to five computers in every classroom," says Anderson. "Every teacher had a laptop. We had studied other school models and figured that we had to have information technology professionals to train teachers to use the new computers." A technology specialist and a help desk person were placed on every campus.
Elementary schools got wired first, followed by the middle schools and high schools. "Elementary school teachers are generalists, teaching all curriculums, so we wanted to start there," Anderson says.
Student laptops, however, first hit the high schools. "We thought they'd have the most impact there," Anderson says. After signing a waiver saying they would take good care of their laptops, students paid $40 each to insure them for the year. Parents signed a letter giving permission for students to take the computers home. "With about 2,000 high school students in each school, we expected some problems. But things actually went very smoothly," she says.
Many of the district's students now have laptops, which Farsaii says cost $1,300 each. While some elementary students are sharing, Anderson says all students should have their own laptops next year.
Laptops aside, the sheer volume of new technology resources in Irving classrooms is impressive. At John R. Good (Elementary) School, which was selected by the U.S. Department of Education as one of 12 schools to receive the 2000-2001 Blue Ribbon Schools special emphasis award in technology, classrooms are loaded. Each classroom includes four or more Compaq computers with Web access, a Compaq teacher laptop, a laser printer, a VCR, a TV and a video projection box (allowing teachers to project what's on the computer screen to the TV).
Other resources are just steps away. All of Good's computers have access to Web resources. Teachers can check out a classroom set of Apple Emates (laptops for kids), one or more of the 10 Sony digital cameras, one of four Flex Cams, one of four Epson projectors, CD-ROMS (the school's collection numbers 500) and a SMART Board whiteboard. For class projects or keyboarding, teachers may schedule time in the 30-station Compaq computer lab.
"We want teachers and students to have the e-learning tools they need to succeed," Anderson says.
How much are technology efforts changing the lives of students in Irving? The district is constantly conducting student and teacher surveys to find out, Farsaii says.
Through a recent survey completed by 1,080 students, 755 reported using their laptops daily for learning. And 885 students said the laptop is "extremely useful" or "useful." When asked about how the laptop changed their attitudes, 704 students said the tool has given them "much greater" or "slightly better" appreciation for school. Students also reported greater skills mastery in areas such as computer basics, PowerPoint and e-mail when they compared their current skills to their pre-laptop skills.
Frances Lane, whose 16-year-old son Robby attends MacArthur High School, has noticed a difference in technology awareness between students at different grade levels. "Sophomores have had the advantage of using the laptops and all the great software that has been made available to students in recent years. The seniors didn't have that advantage all along." Robby uses his laptop for graphic arts projects and to edit videos created by the student council. "He has really embraced the technology," she says.
While teacher surveys don't show total saturation of classrooms with curriculum integration, instructional technology specialists and needs-driven professional development are there for support.
One example of how this translates into classroom learning: Pamela Eason's fifth grade class at Elliott Elementary School used videoconferencing equipment to hold a joint lesson on meteorology with a fifth-grade class in Fair Lawn, N.J. Irving students gave their New Jersey peers first-hand accounts of their experience with tornadoes, explains district spokesman Ryan Sanders.
The district also recognizes teacher enthusiasm for technology with its Distinguished Technology Educator awards. As of spring 2003, 61 teachers (including Eason) had gotten this designation, and lesson examples from each are shared online.
Irving administrators recently acquired $53 million in additional funding from a second bond issue to finish off the laptop initiative and expand the technology program.
Besides awarding 300 Macintoch computers with presentation system equipment to Irving teachers through an incentive program, the district is adding more computer training labs.
Meanwhile, interest in the school system has grown significantly. Microsoft has named it a Center of Excellence, and the company invited Anderson on a two-week speaking tour of Japan last March. She addressed both educators and political leaders.
"I went with Ray Myers, [liaison to the international education community at] the U.S. Department of Education, to essentially present Irving's new e-learning program to Japan," Anderson says. "Most schools in Japan do not have computers. So we wound up speaking to six or seven school districts, from Sapporo down to Okinawa, about our own success story."
And what's the next chapter? "All anyone knows for sure is that there are a lot of people out there who want to do what we're doing," she says.
Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Doylestown, Pa.