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Tech & content team up in K12

Schools that set educators loose on digital playground allows districts to move beyond textbooks
  • ELITEBOOK AT WORK—A  young student gets comfortable at Church Lane Elementary School as he diligently works on his HP laptop, an element of the digital curriculum program in Baltimore’s K12 schools.
  • A LIGHT IN BALTIMORE—A student at Church Lane Elementary School in Baltimore, above, benefits from the STAT initiative. It brings a pilot 1-to-1 program to 20 “Lighthouse Schools” across the district. Superintendent S. Dallas Dance, peering over the boy’s head, led the way.
  • READING WHILE LISTENING—In what is called the educator’s playground, teachers at Rowan Salisbury School System in North Carolina test different products to potentially use as instruction tools. One product, shown above, is an iPad app designed to teach literacy skills to youngsters in K12.
  • A COMMERCIAL TO LEARN—Students at Rowan-Salisbury, above, demonstrate their knowledge of historical events to their teacher by creating commercials on their tablets. The district’s digital transformation has enhanced its education: increasing student creativity and access to tools and online sharing.

Three years into a digital-first initiative, Andrew Smith, chief strategy officer in North Carolina’s Rowan-Salisbury School System, has seen his role revised. In fact, “my position didn’t exist when all of this started,” Smith says.

When Smith was hired under Rowan-Salisbury Superintendent Lynn Moody in 2013, the new position was part of a restructuring of the district’s technology department that coincided with the digital-first initiative.

“Interestingly enough I didn’t have a job description,” Smith says. It was intentional, as he says he would be expected to “flow” between the technology and academic departments, advocating for both.

Smith is leading the program that three years ago aimed to give an iPad or a MacBook Air to all students—and their teachers—from grades 3 through 12. Rowan-Salisbury, which serves some 20,000 students, became 1-to-1 by the 2014-15 school year.

Today, its technology department is one of many across the country that has become “digital-first” as laptops and tablets replace textbooks as the primary tools of instruction. As districts make the transition, the roles of their tech leaders are evolving as rapidly as the technology.

A different kind of playground

Smith is overseeing the launch of what he calls the “educator’s playground.” It’s a place where the district’s teachers will be able to experiment with and give their opinions on products still being developed by education technology start-ups. The playground has been piloted in small-scale phases.

“Too often ed tech products are chosen by people who haven’t taught,” Smith says. When teachers can experiment with the products before they are purchased, they feel valued, and school leaders know the products are being used, he says.

Questions to ask yourself

When starting a digital-first initiative, Bruce Friend, chief operating officer for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, says it’s important to include the IT department. Friend suggests first answering some questions:

  • What is the digital curriculum that you want?
  • Do district leaders want a single login for teachers?
  • Will your schools have the bandwidth or speed so students and teachers don’t get frustrated?
  • Do you have device compatibility? 
  • Do any software programs need to be loaded on computers?
  • How do you want to manage teacher access to digital curriculum resources and student management systems?

One teacher tried and approved an iPad app with manipulatives that are designed to teach math and literacy skills to elementary students. It has so far been marketed more as a toy than a teaching tool. But teachers found educational value in it, he says.

Smith meets weekly with district leadership and oversees a team of 35 technology facilitators who work with building administrators and teachers. Smith also oversees technology-related PD with a focus on finding products that will help teachers personalize learning.

Beyond Textbooks expands

In Arizona’s Vail School District, the technology department developed a system called “Beyond Textbooks,” which was designed to distribute teacher-created material online to other teachers.

Teachers are adding the content and figuring out what works in lessons, says Chief Information Officer Matt Federoff.

Beyond Textbooks began as a collaborative interdepartmental initiative, but has evolved into a program that is now used by more than 13,000 teachers in several states. “Interesting things can happen when curriculum and IT are peers and interact as peers,” Federoff says.

While Vail’s IT department built Beyond Textbooks’ platform and still performs occasional maintenance, it is a mostly independent operation, with its own chief operating officer.

The tech department was also restructured to include a CIO and a technology director in part because of Beyond Textbook’s growth and because of a 1-to-1 program—using BYOD and district-provided Chromebooks—in its high schools.

Developing Beyond Textbooks did not come without challenges. First, designers had to identify the standards-based system by which content would be organized. Second, they had to incorporate productivity tools, such as curriculum calendars that assist teachers in lesson planning by mapping out when certain standards should be taught.

Third, when the system outgrew its server, the next challenge became migrating content to the cloud. And, eventually they had to upgrade bandwidth to accommodate the content.

Federoff says the collaboration between curriculum and IT continues. Both departments are equally involved in an RFP process as Vail seeks a new assessment system.

Relevant to today

In the Houston and Baltimore districts, technology officers say their schools used pilot programs to test digital-first initiatives before launching them full-scale.

The Baltimore County Public Schools is midway through a five-year rollout of a digital curriculum program called “STAT,” or Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow. It includes a 1-to-1 initiative in which students receive an HP Elitebook (a combination laptop and tablet) as their main instructional resource.

STAT is being piloted for two years in “Lighthouse Schools,” which include 10 elementary, seven middle and three high schools. So far, Baltimore officials have learned that, in deploying devices and developing engaging digital curricula, they need to ensure the classroom technology is relevant. Content should be interactive, individualized and provide instant feedback for students, says Lloyd Brown, executive director of the technology department.

For example, a high school science lesson on renewable energy can be taught using teacher-curated video from vetted sources, Brown says. Teachers can deploy it through a learning management system so students can study it independently.

To avoid the technology glitches that plagued other districts’ launches of similar initiatives, administrators started conversations to determine what the instructional objectives were and how the technology department could achieve them. Conversations started a year prior to administering the devices, Brown says.

A case for saving cash

No longer buying textbooks saves a lot of money—that’s what some tech leaders have discovered as their districts switch to digital curricula.

The Upper Perkiomen School District in Pennsylvania, for example, uses free online resources, such as the online library of textbooks, videos and lessons provided through the CK-12 Foundation.

The district also taps other resources through Pennsylvania Learns, run by the state education department. Using such resources has saved the district at least $300,000 in textbook purchases over the past two years, and some of that money has been rerouted to other initiatives. For example, $20,000 went to a 1-to-1 Chromebook program.

Houston has a phase-in

Meanwhile, Houston ISD is four years into its PowerUp initiative that has provided some 50,000 devices to students in its 282 schools, including giving laptops to all high school students.

The initiative cost Houston ISD about $100 million, and was funded through voter-approved bonds. First, they considered how to repurpose funds and staff members, says Lenny Schad, Houston ISD’s chief technology information officer.

For example, the district stopped buying software and allocating funds on resources that did not meet the initiative’s goals. The district also stopped spending money on professional development that wasn’t focused on digital transformation.

Funds were used to ensure that the wireless networks in each school building could accommodate thousands of devices each day. And it was slowly phased in to give teachers time to come to terms with what teaching in a textbook-free classroom entailed, Schad says.

Managing expectations has proven successful. More teachers are using more of the resources every year, Schad says.

Houston ISD also wanted to give teachers and students a single login so they could seamlessly access digital content across different delivery platforms, Schad says. So the district adopted IMS Global Learning Consortium’s Learning Tools Interoperability Standards. “It focuses on consistency between content providers, vendors and having them speaking one language,” Schad says.

Strategizing starts with a team

Districts should have an overall digital transformation strategy. The strategy starts with creating a “cross-functional team” that consists of the IT department, curriculum, principals and PD, Schad says. The team needs to evaluate the student information and learning management systems to determine if they are easy for teachers to use. “If it’s not part of a strategy,” Schad says, “it’s really not going to be effective.”