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How To Go Digital

Technology comes second. First, Build support by selling your vision to staff and community.

It’s pretty much a given that technology has enhanced learning in dramatic ways, but many school districts still don’t know how to go about transforming a classroom from analog to digital. It starts with more than resources—you must have the vision and leadership at the top, says Keith Krueger, CEO of the nonprofit Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Only 13 percent of U.S. classrooms have 1:1 devices, Krueger observes, so we’re a long way from having school systems with ubiquitous access to technology. However, many districts are letting kids bring their own devices to school and/or supplying them to students who can’t afford to buy them, he adds.

“Ubiquity and access are a big, hairy problem for school districts because they don’t have 1:1 and robustness, but honestly, we think the biggest problem is people,’’ Krueger notes. “Most people working in our school systems grew up in a world that wasn’t transformed with digital. The human side of districts is the hardest challenge. Things like wired and wireless devices may be expensive, but they’re not hard to fix.”The process should start by shifting to a new expectation that the whole system is going to change—not just a few classrooms, says Krueger.

Create Consensus. The first step to take is to build community and district support, explains Mark Edwards, superintendent of schools for North Carolina’s Mooresville Graded School District.

“To get to the classroom, you have to build the sense that this is the direction you need to go in throughout the district. You want to create a shared vision for the new classroom in the community,’’ says Edwards, whose much-lauded district is ranked 105 out of 115 in state funding.

What is really powerful, says Krueger, is when school districts have a clear vision about the learning that’s going to happen and they use the technology to do things in deeper, faster ways. Too often, he says, a digital classroom is “characterized simply as an equipment strategy. That’s the mistake many superintendents, school boards, and state legislatures make.”

Now start building your network. Once you have consensus on the direction your district needs to take, the next piece is to build a robust, wireless infrastructure that will ensure ready Internet access. “That’s one of the things we’ve always made a priority—to make sure that when 6,000 students here in Mooresville go online, [the system] is efficient and they have the speed they need to do their work,” says Edwards.

Krueger concurs that school districts need to start by asking what kind of learning prepares students for ­college and their careers. “If we start with that question, then the technology follows. It needs to be mobile, 24/7, and robust, so you’re not waiting for things to load. But I don’t think you start the conversation with the technology if you want to be effective and make an impact.”

Scalability is another key issue. “If you go to almost any superintendent or principal and ask them to identify whether they’re doing great things with technology, everyone can identify little pockets, but there’s [often not] a plan to scale it,’’ Krueger says. Make sure there is a plan to reach all students in the district.

Assemble the tools. The next step is to ensure you’ve got the appropriate hardware. Mooresville has made having a 1:1 device a priority for each of its 6,000 students. “We believe having a full-service computer is what our students need,’’ says Edwards. “And it’s become the mainstay of our demagoguery.” (See “3 Different Ways to Go 1:1”)

Other tools that make a digital classroom work include video projectors or interactive whiteboards that enable teachers to display content and make notes; mobile carts to store and recharge mobile devices; and network printers and scanners. Student response systems, or “clickers,” enable teachers to engage students and assess their comprehension of class material. Students can also use smartphones to text their answers if a district allows for BYOD. (See “BYOD: 7 Steps to Success") When funds are available, some of the nice-to-haves include document cameras, wireless keyboards, Bluetooth headsets and mice, acoustic speakers, and external probes that can be plugged into students’ smartphones—particularly useful in science for collecting data.

Learn from your peers. Glean as much as possible from other districts, says Krueger. Connect through professional associations and by ­attending state conferences. Most of the work schools need to do to make their classrooms digital has already been done by other districts, so find out where those districts have been successful and where they have failed, Krueger advises.

“The good thing with technology is that you can connect with people around the country and beyond. We can look for others who are similar to us and [see] what they’ve tried and what worked and what didn’t to build a community of practice,” he says.

Find the content. Hardware and the networking infrastructure are the “vehicle to use the highway,” says Edwards, “but the fuel that drives it is the content—and that’s the magic.” So the next step is to ­find multimedia and online collaborative networks.

“What we’re seeing in a variety of education providers is a whole new layer, a whole new dimension of how educational content can infuse learning and knowledge,’’ Edwards adds, along with what he calls the “personalized adaptive content” that students are using to map out their own learning.

As the Mooresville school district is moving to a personalized learning approach, it is using a variety of online software. For example, eighth-grade teachers are using Discovery Education’s online content for science. Discovery Education offers free resources in several K–12 subjects. As students work, they can take online quizzes. “The real nexus of power in the classroom is that the student has information coming back to them immediately,” says Edwards.

A vast and endless array of free content is available on the Web. Open Culture, for one, has compiled a detailed list of educational online courses and resources for K–12 students, teachers, and administrators. And a plethora of paid educa­tional material is also available. Mooresville is using IXL, which can be purchased at a monthly or yearly rate, for math content.

Be creative with funding. Mooresville built its wireless infrastructure through capital funding. It has an annual budget of $7,400 for each of the district’s 6,000 students. Edwards says $200 per student per year covers the cost of the laptops, all online paid content, all maintenance agreements, and professional development.

“Most people say, ‘We can’t afford it,’ and we say, ‘Yes you can.’ We have not bought a textbook in about six or seven years,” he says. Mooresville now ranks second in the state in graduation rates and third in academic achievement, and its composite scores for state tests went up by 13 points.

School districts have to stop thinking about converting all of their classrooms to digital in a fixed time frame of two or four years or whatever is their “magic number,” emphasizes Krueger. “Our expectation has to be that we’re in continuous improvement [mode] and technology is a catalyst. It’s not an end. It’s not a magic bullet you drop in independently of other things.”

BTS 2014

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