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Here Come the Chromebooks

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Tablets used to reign as schools’ top hardware choice. But Google’s low-cost laptops are cutting into Apple’s share of the education market.
By Michelle R. Davis

The iPad implosion in the Los Angeles Unified School District may have been the first sign of real rouble. But there had long been grumblings about the Apple table not playing nicely with other software and costing nearly twice as much as some alternatives.

Enter the keyboard-based Chromebook as challenger in the race for dominant digital device in K-12 schools. With its simplified technology management and a suite of Google tools and apps designed for students and teachers, the Chromebook is starting to draw market share away from the iPad.

Chromebooks can sell for as little as $150, while iPads can be several hundred dollars more. The Chromebook also has a keyboard, crucial for meeting Common Core testing requirements,and provides automatic operating system updates.

All of these factors combine to make Chromebooks attractive to schools and districts, says Douglas Levin, former executive director for the State Educational Technology Directors Association. “Apple was a little bit challenged in providing those types of tools because the iPad was built first for personal use and not for enterprise use—either business or school,” he says. “Apple has since developed powerful tools, but Chromebooks were built for that type of use from the ground up.”

Despite its benefits, the Chromebook does face obstacles, including the perception that the iPad and other touch-screen tablets do a better job of encouraging students' creativity and curiosity. Additional issues are student data privacy concerns with Google software and districts’ disappointing experiences with a previous round of low-cost laptops known as netbooks.

Catching Up to the iPad

As of 2013, Chromebooks had 20 percent of education’s mobile computing device market, compared to iPad's 40 percent. But Chromebook sales have increased sharply since then, creating competition for iPads, which previously competed mainly with traditional laptops that cost more or lacked necessary computing power.

Apple claimed 85 percent of the U.S. education market for tablets last summer, but during the third quarter of 2014, about 715,500 Chromebooks were shipped to K12 schools, compared with 702,000 iPads, says Rajani Singh, a senior research analyst for the International Data Corporation, a market analysis company. “Chromebooks as a product category have become the hottest-selling device [for schools],” a first for the Google-centered technologies, she says.

It’s hard to compare school sales of the devices, since iPads are made only by Apple, while Chromebooks are produced and sold by a variety of companies, including Samsung, HP, Dell, and Acer. And iPads are much more popular than Chromebooks outside of education settings. Only about 20 percent of iPads are sold to schools, while 75 percent of Chromebooks sold wind up in classrooms, Singh said.

A “One-Stop Shop”

In the spacious cyber café at Kennedy Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina, students might sit on wooden benches hunched over their Chromebooks or balance on inflatable blue exercise balls as they tap away on keyboards. The low-income school launched a one-to-one Chromebook initiative this year.

Those same students might also experiment with iPads mounted on tables in the cyber café, or use a PC or a different tablet in class.

Like many schools, Kennedy, which is part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, has a variety of devices for students to use, but the Chromebook is dominant: The school has 720 Chromebooks, about 50 iPads, and a scattering of personal computers and Samsung tablets.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg is in the process of implementing a district-wide middle school one-to-one Chromebook initiative with nearly 33,000 devices. Price—each Chromebook cost about $220—was important, says Valerie Truesdale, the district’s chief of technology, personalization, and engagement. “It was a huge factor,” she says, noting that iPads cost $369 per device.

For Kennedy principal Kevin Sudimack, there are other benefits to Chromebooks, which run on Google’s Chrome operating system and host apps and data storage in the cloud. The whole system, which updates automatically, creates a “kind of one-stop shop,” he says. Students get access to Gmail, Google Drive, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and a host of other free tools and apps. Last year, Google began offering unlimited storage for students and educators, and in 2013, the company introduced Google Play for Education to give students better access to Chrome and Android educational games and apps. The cloud-based platform allows students to access their work from home, even though they are not yet permitted to take their devices out of school, Sudimack says.

Kyle Pace, an instructional technology specialist at Lee's Summit R-7 School District in Missouri, says his district, which has purchased 7,000 Chromebooks, likes the machine for many of the same reasons. “The biggest thing is the seamless integration with all of the Google applications. The management of them is just so easy.”

Integration Versus Creativity

From an IT perspective, Chromebooks are easy to manage, says Bob Jensen, the director of assessment, technology, and information services at Sioux Falls School District. The South Dakota district runs a one-to-one Chromebook initiative in grades 3-12, with about 24,000 devices. For younger students, the district offers iPads—about 3,000 of them, says Jensen.

From his office, Jensen can do things like push out specific apps soley to seventh graders (although that feature costs extra, a one-time license of $30 per device). For similar iPad management, Jensen had to purchase outside software, and it doesn’t always work seamlessly, he notes. Jensen also likes the automatic operating system updates from Google; during district and state testing time, he has the ability to freeze the updates.

But Jensen and others say there are things that iPads just do better. Until recently, for example, Chromebooks had no touch screen, a feature that's particularly important at lower grade levels, where most students aren’t adept with a keyboard.

Other educators point to increased creativity with iPads, particularly with video. Eric J. Chagala, principal at Vista Innovation and Design Academy, a grade 6-8 magnet school in California’s Vista Unified School District, says that unlike Chromebook cameras, the iPad camera can face toward or away from the user to shoot video, and the tablets are more portable. And editing apps like iMovie allow students to be more imaginative. For now, most of the Google apps “are not as creative and there are not as many options,” he says.

Security and Privacy Concerns

Google has had to face hard questions about the privacy and security of student data collected through its Apps for Education. Just this month, Google belatedly signed on to President Barack Obama’s “Student Privacy Pledge” to safeguard student information, after initially declining to officially support it. Apple and Microsoft signed up immediately.

Privacy and student data issues continue to be a concern for educators. Last year, Google’s admission that it data-mined student e-mails in a way that could be used for targeted advertising gave some educators pause. The company has since discontinued that practice and created an Education Trust website detailing company policies on education data protection, data ownership, and advertising.

The Chromebook’s reliance on the cloud is also a concern, Jensen says. Educators in the Sioux Falls district are barred from saving sensitive student information in the cloud. “If you’re using Google Docs and trying to store student names and I.D. numbers, that’s a no-no,” he says.

Even as Chromebooks increase their school market share, then, more traditional laptops, tablets, or even PCs will continue to capture a good portion of the market, says Sudimack, the Kennedy Middle School principal. Despite the one-to-one Chromebook initiative at his school, he’s made it a priority for students to access a wide range of devices and technologies.

“We’ve got to expose children to multiple platforms, so they’ll know how to use the iPad or iOS,” he explains. “We’re being intentional about using different platforms so we’re not so Google-heavy.”

Playing Nice

Where is the iPad situated among tablets in the education market? Five years after they were introduced, iPads are no longer as distinctive as they once were when it comes to what they can do or how well they can do it—especially when compared with hybrid laptop/tablets like Microsoft’s Surface Pro, e-readers like Amazon’s Fire HD Kids Edition, or even smartphones like the iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy S5.

And then there are the touch-screen Chromebooks that are in the works. In January, HP unveiled a touch-screen Chromebook that retails for under $450, and Acer has said it has one coming out, too.

In the meantime, the iPad and Chromebook are starting to interact a bit more effortlessly, says Patrick Larkin, assistant superintendent of Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts, which has a one-to-one iPad initiative. Burlington is a Google Apps for Education district, using Google apps offered through the iPad. “The Google environment plays a lot nicer with the iPad environment now,” he says.

Image: Tom Wang/Shutterstock

CoSN’s 2015 Team Winner: Henrico County Public Schools

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CoSN’s 2015 Team Winner: Henrico County Public Schools

Fourteen years after first handing out laptops to students, this district continues to lead. By Caralee Adams

The fifth graders in Ellen Beane’s class at Sandston Elementary School in Virginia are scattered throughout the room, on the floor and at desks, working with an iPad in pairs to do a math activity about elapsed time.

“Focus, focus,” says Louis to his partner, D’Anthony, as both boys giggle. While one uses an app with the word problem, the other toggles between an app with an interactive clock and an app with a whiteboard to do his work. D’Anthony solves the problem and Louis enters the answer. On the iPad screen good work and a check mark reward the duo.

This scene is typical of how kids learn in Beane’s classroom. She spends less than an hour a day in whole-group instruction, preferring instead to customize activities for students to do in small, fluid groups. This past fall, Beane’s students used their devices to create digital portfolios for student-led conferences with parents.

“It’s like a magician’s briefcase that keeps opening up new opportunities. It’s their dictionary, atlas, encyclopedia,” Beane says of the tablets issued to the students as a pilot last year. “It opens up opportunities for these children that would otherwise be impossible.”

Sandston Elementary is part of Henrico County Public Schools, winner of the 2015 Team Award to be presented in March by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Henrico was the one of the first districts in the country to launch a major one-to-one initiative in 2001. Each student in grades 6–12 receives a laptop; last year, the district began to experiment with giving PCs to some students in third to fifth grades at Sandston. The 50,000-student district curves around the city of Richmond. It has a diverse population—40 percent of which is low-income—and technology is viewed as a tool to help level the playing field.

Now, the district is being recognized for continuing to innovate and build out a system that put students at the center of learning to prepare them for the increasingly digitally connected world.

“Henrico has been intently focused on identifying rubrics for defining 21st-century skills, implementing it countywide, and developing an accountability process to change instruction in the classroom,” says Keith Krueger, CoSN’s chief executive officer.

It was 14 years ago that then-superintendent Mark Edwards led the district in its big splash with devices for secondary students. The well-respected technology leader has since moved to Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, where he has garnered numerous awards, including the CoSN Team Award in 2013.

The remaining technology team in Henrico continues to push forward, they say, because students, teachers, and parents have come to expect it.

There is no turning back, says Debra Adams Roethke, assistant director of Instructional technology, who has been with the district for 27 years and was part of the original 1:1 rollout. While some in the district didn’t know what a laptop was 14 years ago, cell phones and computers are now ubiquitous at Henrico.

“Everything keeps progressing at such a rapid pace,” says Roethke. “It’s the world of kids, so we have to go where they are.”

Using technology in the district is connecting teachers and students, and making the world one big classroom, says Kourtney Bostain, educational specialist for instructional technology in the district’s high schools.

“[W]e are doing a disservice to [students] if we are not leveraging modern tools in the classroom and really equipping [them] with the skills they are going to need to be successful outside of school,” Bostain says. The district is committed to integrating technology in the schools for the long term and that has helped keep the momentum going and empowered a diverse group to own the teaching process.

Developing a Common Language

Henrico’s laser focus on developing 21st-century skills provided a framework for teaching and technology. To prepare students in four areas—research and information fluency, critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration, and creativity and innovation—the district adopted a common instructional vision called TIPC, or Teaching Innovation/Integration Progression Chart.

A year in the making, TIPC has categories that include an overview of skills covered and expectations of students and teachers in each area. The rubric ranges from “entry” (student-driven instruction) to “ideal” (student-centered, teacher-facilitated) with the aim of becoming a 21st-century classroom with engaged, student-led learning.

“It’s been the introduction of the common language around TIPC that’s really allowed us to sustain over time,” says Katie Owens, educational specialist for instructional technology at the middle school level in Henrico. Through new initiatives and changes in superintendents, TIPC has been the fallback and document that guides all district activities, she says.

Building Community and Highlighting Success

Along with the instructional rubric, the county launched an online repository to swap best practices. Henrico 21 has 1,200 teacher-created projects and lessons that span all content areas and grades. Through this portal, the district is both honoring teachers’ work and providing a useful exchange platform for ideas, says Roethke.

The instructional technology team launched Student 21 in 2010 so students could post and share their work with one another, their parents, and the community. Going beyond the 1,000 items on the website, the country developed a competition to recognize the most innovative work. Each spring, winners are honored at a ceremony and the best student work displayed. The event has featured 3D printing and robotics demonstrations, gaming displays, and even a photo booth.

“That was an attempt to build community and raises awareness,” says Bostain. “It celebrates and helps everyone involved to see why we are doing this. The kids really shine at that event. It’s another outlet. We have sports and awards…this is another opportunity reach students.”

Keeping Everyone Up to Speed

Over time, the technology team says there have been lessons learned with professional development. Among them: “Lead with the skill, not the tool,” says Bostain. Although the equipment can be exciting, the real impact cannot be realized unless the focus is on quality instruction and training that accompanies the device.

Considerable staff turnover in the past two years has provided “fresh blood” and reenergized the technology team with new ideas, says Jon Wirsing, who works with the elementary schools as an educational specialist for instructional technology. “It’s not all been a bed of roses. We’ve had failures,” he says, noting that the team has collectively reviewed missteps but adapted and recovered.

Initially, it was all about the technology and computers, Roethke says. The team revamped its approach to training to revolve around creating a 21st-century classroom. At one point, they tried to take technology out of the framework for teaching, but that was a mistake, Roethke admits. Finally, a balanced approach of student-centered learning, technology, and content knowledge skills emerged and became the foundation for their model.

While there are still some large whole-group training sessions, smaller group PD and individual coaching have become more common. Job-embedded and consistent PD customized to the teachers’ needs has worked best, says Bostain.

Henrico technology experts help teachers work through new processes in small, scaffolded steps, notes Owens. The key: “Being patient,” she says. “Understanding what they want to accomplish…and build on success after each accomplishment.”

Leveraging Technology to Build Achievement

Henrico is continually working to improve instruction and innovative classroom practices, yet it has been difficult to show connections between the district’s progress with technology and student achievement.

While there was variation by school, overall, students’ scores dropped on the recent round of testing on the Virginia Standards of Learning. Henrico was not alone, however, as the commonwealth has changed its standards and made the test more rigorous, district officials note.

CoSN’s Krueger raises the question of whether the tests are measuring the 21st-century skills, such as creativity and collaboration, which Henrico is emphasizing. “Those are unlikely to be reflected in traditional, high-stakes tests,” he says.

Even if the scores don’t demonstrate it, Roethke says, students are learning more and the excitement in the classroom is apparent. Teachers have green signs on their doors when visitors are welcome for peer observation, and the culture of sharing best practices is spreading.

Using the testing data on specific areas where students are falling short, the district is trying to zero in on PD for teachers to address those deficits.

Student-centered learning is taking hold and each day kids are aware of their individual goals. In the elementary school, there are statements that start with “I can…” posted in the classrooms as a daily reminder of the academic expectations.

In a seventh-grade Spanish class at Short Pump Middle School in Glen Allen, teacher Patrick Wininger moves through the classroom checking in on students as they work through a lesson on their laptops at their own pace. Contemporary Latin music provides soft background noise.

Wininger says the technology allows the students to be more creative, for instance, allowing them to create a digital storybook using a website about the things they do and don’t like to do.

“We can get a lot more specific. It is a lot more real-world solutions than just a simple test,” Wininger says. “I want them to be able to use what they are learning, not just learn stuff. The computers enable us to do that and everyone is equal in that regard—everybody has the same resources and opportunity.”

2015 CoSN Team Award
Merit Award: District of Columbia Public Schools, Washington D.C.: Given in recognition of DCPS’ successes as a large, urban district that is working to overcome significant socioeconomic barriers.

Merit Award: Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, Texas: Honored for demonstrating an exceptional commitment to district infrastructure.

CoSN’s 2015 Withrow Award: Vince Scheivert

The chief information officer in Albemarle County PS aims to bring connectivity to each student’s home. 

As a teacher turned technology guru, Vince Scheivert is combining his expertise in the classroom with his passion for technology as chief information officer in the 14,000-student district in central Virginia.

His goal is to empower all students to have access to the latest tools they need to be successful—both at home and at school. To that end, Scheivert has advocated for a broadband, wireless network that will make high-speed Internet access available for free to students at home in his 768-square-mile county. The equipment has been field-tested and the rollout began this year.

“We always talk about providing a 21st-century learning environment. Well, it’s 15 years into the 21st century, I think our aspirations should be a little bit further. That’s what drives me,” says Scheivert, who has been with the district for 12 years and CIO for four. “If we know there is a better way, we should be pushing for it.”

In addition to universal online access, Scheivert is also overseeing a new 1:1 initiative where all students in grades 6–12 will receive a learning device to use at school and at home next year.

“You have to be willing to do something different,” says Scheivert. “You have to know you are making the right decision, and when you are making a decision that’s in the best interest of kids, you are doing it.”

Through his efforts, Scheivert is trying to eliminate the digital divide and live up to the plaque on his superintendent’s desk that reads all means all.

Image: Chris Adams 

Audio and the Core Assessments

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Audio and the Core Assessments

All you need to know to choose between headphones and earbuds for test-taking students. By Tim Ridgway

 When school technology directors and administrators are thinking about this year’s newly mandated audio requirements for language arts assessment, their minds immediately turn to headphones and headsets. And they should. However, there’s another audio option that many may not be aware of, one that involves a much smaller investment: earbuds, which come in a variety of models that sport diverse features to fit the needs of any classroom. 

Both PARCC and Smarter Balanced require audio technology be available to students for use during the English language arts test. Students who require text-to-speech features on the mathematics test also need this option. Earbuds fulfill Common Core State Standards assessment requirements.

Not all earbuds are created equal, though. Here is what decisions makers should look for when selecting earbuds for student use.

 Affordability

All school district leaders, regardless of district size, are looking for cost-effective solutions to maximize budget when investing in education technology. Earbuds are a budget-friendly strategy to prepare for assessments and equip students with a single-use solution in today’s classrooms. At a fraction of the cost of headphones, earbuds fulfill both assessment and daily-learning requirements.

 Warranties

An important factor to consider when purchasing audio ed tech is whether the tools come with a warranty. Saving money in the short term doesn’t help if you spend more later. Select earbuds include a one-year warranty specifically to cover use in schools. Read warranties carefully as consumer brands typically consider school use as “institutional” and more demanding than less stressful home usage. Those warranties may not cover the day-in and day-out demands placed on products by students in classrooms.

 Microphones

Headsets aren’t the only audio tools to feature microphones. Many earbuds offer inline microphones on the cords to support speech intelligibility and develop speaking and listening skills defined in state standards. Finding earbuds that include this feature can save money by investing in a single device for multiple types of work.

 Resizable

Not all learners are the same. Earbuds that include an extra pair of ear pads can better fit younger learners.

 Diverse Plugs

With 1:1 initiatives continuing to roll out in districts around the country, earbuds that are available with a variety of plugs are versatile tools that can work with a number of mobile devices. Some earbud options include a 3.5mm plug and similar plugs that can be used with computers, tablets, and smartphones, while some earbuds feature a USB plug for increased compatibility with devices. Each plug is designed to fit the needs of individual classrooms and can be chosen based on student learning needs and device availability.

 Single Use and Reusable

Because earbuds can be single use or reusable, they are appropriate for multiple educational settings. Single-use earbuds are the most affordable option for providing audio equipment, so they are a cost-savvy strategy for fulfilling testing and classroom needs. Reusable earbuds are an alternative option for classrooms using audio equipment in learning environments other than a one-time testing situation.

 Just as not all schools are the same, not all earbuds and AV equipment are the same. The advantage of this is that you have the opportunity to select from a diverse pool of solutions in order to maximize your technology investment and support learning and assessment goals in your district.

Tim Ridgway is vice president of marketing for Califone International LLC. To learn more about choosing the right audio equipment for your school, visit califone.com/blog

Image: Getty Images

Ed-tech_pulse

Check costs, demand guarantees, and don’t forget to ask for references.
By Rob Waldron

As detailed in the first article in this series, administrators and district leaders are tasked with finding products and services that support and meet the ever-changing needs of teachers and students. This challenging process can be simplified by following some key steps.

In this second article based on Curriculum Associates’ Guide to Purchasing EdTech the Right Way, additional steps to help successfully navigate the ed-tech purchasing process are provided. 

8. Pay Attention to Service. It is important to discuss service—including account management, data migration, roster sign-on, and the product roadmap—at length during the sales process. At the end of this process, administrators should know the following: how different tiers of support are handled; what the company’s contract renewal rate is; who will be the account manager (make sure to meet that person); and the CEO’s (or other executive’s) mobile phone number in case something needs immediate attention.

9. Understand Total Cost of Ownership. It is important to have a clear understanding of what a given product is going to cost, including any hidden fees, such as the professional development needed for staff to implement the product, ongoing costs for licensing, installation training, IT support, and troubleshooting. Regarding PD, a good rule of thumb is to assume that it will be 20 percent more than what was originally budgeted, so keep this in mind during the procurement process.

10. Demand Guarantees and Assurances. Administrators should always ask for a money-back guarantee and pricing assurance when negotiating a new contract for their district. To prevent being overcharged, ask vendors to send the last 10 sales prices (per student served) for districts of your size and ask that the vendor’s CFO certify the authenticity of this information.

11. Find Ways to Save. Work together with the potential vendor to figure out how both parties can save money. When asking for discounts, get a sense of the vendor’s real costs, such as having one of their employees travel to an all-day training at your district, and then discuss ways to economize. This could include having a company representative fly out and train everyone at the district once over a few days rather than making multiple visits, or exploring the differences between seat-based and site-based licenses. The top vendors will be able to provide the district with the best ways to be cost-efficient.

12. Ask for References. While this may seem like a no-brainer, references are one of the best ways to gauge a potential vendor. E-mail or call at least five references and leave the following message, “If you think the product and service of [the company] is truly outstanding, please call me back and leave a message. Otherwise, there is no need to call me back.” If the references don’t respond, you might want to find another vendor.

13. Implement, Implement, Implement. For a product to be successful, it is very important that it is implemented correctly and that everyone on staff who will use or support the product receives the proper training. Administrators should strive to find a product that works well for an “average teacher” first—not the highest performer or a struggling teacher—and then work to get everyone using it to take its usage to the next level.

14. Remember, it’s a Journey. With ever-changing technology advances, as well as curriculum requirements, there is no product that is truly future-proof. So it is important to focus just as much on which vendor you want to engage in a long-standing partnership with, and how well you believe they will adapt to any necessary changes. 

The last piece of guidance really sums up the ed-tech purchasing process: it’s a journey. Administrators should remember this and plan accordingly to make it a successful one for all involved.

Rob Waldron is CEO of Curriculum Associates. To download a complete copy of the Guide to Purchasing EdTech the Right Way, with in-depth information on each tip, visit www.curriculumassociates.com/lp/EdTech-buying-guide.aspx.


Image: Media Bakery

7 Steps to Making Successful EdTech Purchases

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7 Steps to Making Successful EdTech Purchases

How to determine what you need to purchase to meet your goals.
By Rob Waldron

From blended learning and flipped classrooms to BYOD and 1:1 initiatives, the adoption and use of educational technology has grown exponentially in the past several years in many schools and districts nationwide. It has become an embedded part of the teaching and learning process. Now, with the transition to the Common Core State Standards, technology has the potential to play an even more pivotal role in classroom instruction if it is implemented properly. With the new, more rigorous standards, administrators and district leaders are tasked with finding products and services that are built for the CCSS to help students—and teachers—thrive.

Purchasing educational technology—either to address the CCSS, or to complement other teaching and learning initiatives—can be challenging. It can be simplified, however, with some guidance. This is the first article in a two-part series based on Curriculum Associates’ Guide to Purchasing EdTech the Right Way, authored by me and my colleagues, which will provide 14 steps to help you successfully navigate the ed-tech purchasing process. 

1. Take Inventory. It is important to take an audit of what technology—hardware, software, and apps—is already in place and being used regularly before looking to purchase new technology. When conducting the audit, which can be done electronically using a free tool like Zoomerang, be sure to ask all staff members: “Which tools are you using most?” “Which tools are you using least?” “What are your top three favorite tools?” “Which are your least favorite?” And, for all of these questions, ask “Why?”

2. Determine Your Educational Priorities. Create a small committee of three to ten people and share the results of the audit with them. Then, ask the key question put forth by Clay Christensen, author of Disrupting Class, “What is the product being hired to do?” When you figure out what that answer is—for instance, to increase student math scores by 10 percent, or move 25 percent of teachers from an effective to highly effective rating on their evaluations—make sure your committee unanimously agrees upon it.

3. Don’t Customize (Too Much). While each district has unique traits, it is important for administrators to remember that their technology needs are most likely not that much different from the needs of other districts. The bottom line is that spending extra money on customizations can often be unnecessary. Administrators should be specific with a given technology provider about what they want but be careful not to overreach.

4. Consider Collaborative Buying. By becoming a member of a purchasing consortium or buying cooperative, schools and districts can purchase products at a negotiated price lower than the one companies list. This can help a district save money, as well as time, since many of these organizations typically have already completed lengthy RFPs.

5. Make Real Comparisons. Require that vendors make clear, apples-to-apples comparisons of their product versus competitive products based on specific, data-driven criteria. Also, make sure to ask specific questions, such as “What are the results from your program in other schools?” and “What is your renewal rate as a percentage of sales?”

6. Know Data-Integration Capabilities. It is essential that all technologies be seamlessly integrated across multiple platforms and that the data garnered from those technologies is easily shareable among stakeholders. Administrators should work with companies that integrate and partner with other providers so that extra work is not being created for district staff members.

7. Consider a Pilot. Once a product has met a district’s initial criteria, administrators should consider launching a pilot. A pilot offers what a free trial often does not—the ability to use the product in one’s own schools with one’s own students. When coordinating the pilot with the vendor, it is essential that the planned pilot has the following: specific goals, internal champions (or eager volunteers), a sufficient length, a planned conclusion, transparency, and some type of monetary investment.

The second part of this article series will cover seven additional steps for making the ed-tech procurement process a smooth—and successful—one.

Rob Waldron is CEO of Curriculum Associates. To download a complete copy of the Guide to Purchasing EdTech the Right Way, with in-depth information on each tip, visit www.curriculumassociates.com/lp/EdTech-buying-guide.aspx.

 Image: Hiya Images/Corbis/Media Bakery

Killeen_pulse
Unlocking the Key to Personalized Learning

Blended curriculum allows for differentiation in this Texas district.
By Lynn Young

My diverse, 30-year career in K–12 education—including both general and special education—has taught me that each student deserves rigorous, standards-aligned instruction. While this has always been a foundational idea and professional vision of mine, it was not until recently that, through the help of technology, I was able to deliver a truly personalized, standards-aligned curriculum to all of my students.

As Killeen Independent School District’s (KISD) Executive Director for Special Education, I serve more than 52 elementary, middle, and high schools located in central Texas. From an outsider’s perspective, KISD may seem like a typical district; the student demographics, however, make Killeen unique. The district is comprised of more than 42,000 students. About 11 percent of our kids are in special education, while 50 percent are children of active military or civil service families. Both these groups present challenges to our goal of providing a rigorous and aligned curriculum that meets the needs of each individual student.

Take, for example, KISD’s transient military population. While a typical school may receive a few transfer students annually, KISD has a mobility rate of more than 30 percent—in other words, about one-third of KISD’s student population is either coming in or leaving due to their families’ military assignments every year. Each student arrives with a different educational background, leaving our educators and administrators with the important task of evaluating their knowledge quickly and efficiently, to identify their knowledge gaps and learning strengths. Similarly, in special education classrooms, KISD needs to deliver personalized instruction to students to close learning gaps and meet the state requirements of their IEPs.

When given the opportunity to implement a new math and reading curriculum prior to the 2010–2011 school year, our military and special education students weighed heavily in my thinking. In searching for a solution, I had three priorities:

  1. The solution must be customizable, allowing for personalized lessons and content for individual students, including assessments.

  2. The solution must easily and continuously track and report student progress.

  3. The solution’s software must be user-friendly for both educators and students.

 After months of research, I selected Pearson’s SuccessMaker, a researched-based educational software for personalized digital math and reading curriculum. I chose it because it focused on effectively addressing individual learning needs while supporting the instructional goals of our district. The implementation of SuccessMaker created a blended learning environment, with daily use of the software varying across schools. For example, during the first year of implementation the students at Clear Creek Elementary used the program for 15- to 20-minute sessions three or four times a week, while students at Harker Heights High School used it for 15- to 20-minute session three or four times daily. One of the strengths of the program is that it’s able to adapt to the learning needs of each student; it continuously analyzes performance, while identifying areas for remediation or acceleration, and effectively estimates the amount of time necessary for students to reach achievement levels.

The results speak for themselves. Within five months of starting the program, special education students at Harker Heights High School demonstrated 1.13 years of academic growth in reading and 1.43 years of academic growth in math. Furthermore, by the end of the 2013–2014 school year, 92 percent of special education students in Manor Middle School’s eighth grade who were building reading skills with the program passed the state reading assessment on the first attempt. For military special education students who spent the recommended time on the math curriculum, we saw a steeper learning trajectory than for special education students who were not using the program.

Additionally, we saw significant improvement on less tangible learning goals. Students were excited to interact with the technology and reported that the online program increased their confidence. One ninth-grade English language learner said,

“I like SuccessMaker because it helps make math and reading easier on the computer.  It is better listening on a computer than to a teacher. You get to have confidence in yourself.  SuccessMaker helped give me that confidence, a lot!”

To me, this testament speaks volumes. Anything that makes learning more enjoyable and increases student confidence, all while delivering aligned curriculum, is a huge asset. In fact, due to the success of the program, the 2014–2015 school year marks the first year that the online program will be made available to all special education students within the KISD.

Our adoption of SuccessMaker aligns directly with the national educational transition away from the traditional “seat time” methodology, in favor of a structure that promotes flexibility, allowing students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. The bottom line is this: It is our job as administrators always to be looking for avenues to enhance education for our students. Personalized learning tools provide the opportunity to further engage students, address diverse learning styles, and provide the resources and content that address their immediate and future educational needs.

Lynn Young, Ed.D., is currently the executive director for special education at Killeen Independent School District in Texas. She has worked in the education field for more than 30 years, in positions ranging from speech therapist to principal. She has spent the last 10 years specializing in special education.

 Image: Media Bakery

Discovery-ed_pulse

Tech + Grit = Math Success

Mathematics scores are trending upward with the help of digital resources.
By Wayne D’Orio

For students today, math is too often a four-letter word, to be avoided at all costs. We’ve seen the numbers and heard the reports—math education is a major weakness for today’s children, we aren’t creating enough students with the right skills to fill high-paying STEM jobs, and our students are falling significantly behind compared to other countries.

Yet amid all the gloom and doom, a panel of five experts gathered recently at Discovery Education headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, to discuss ways to improve math education, re-energize students and teachers, and end what many think has become a pattern of declining math performance.

“We’re on the cusp of tremendous opportunity,” said Mark Edwards, superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District, in North Carolina. “We recognize our deficiency and can use digital resources to help students.”

Francis “Skip” Fennell, professor of education at McDaniel College, in Westminster, Maryland, argued that perception is one of math’s biggest problems. Test scores on the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study bear him out. In 2011, fourth-grade U.S. students scored 12 points higher than in 2007, although eighth-grade students’ scores were flat. Fourth graders ranked behind just eight countries, while placing ahead of 42 education systems around the world. For eighth graders, 11 countries placed higher than U.S students, while 32 placed below. Math achievement can be improved, but students are making progress, said Fennell.

Actor and best-selling author Danica McKellar agreed with Fennell. McKellar writes books to help encourage girls to pursue math, such as 2008’s Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who’s Boss. At book signings, she has talked with girls who put down their math achievement, only to reveal that they are getting good grades. It’s a vicious cycle, says McKellar: “For most parents, math brings back bad memories.” We need to tell students that “doing math is like going to the gym for your brain,” she added.

Other panelists included Michele Weslander-Quaid, Google’s chief innovation evangelist and Portia Wu, assistant secretary of employment and training administration at the U.S. Department of Labor. The event was held in conjunction with Discovery Education’s new Math Techbook, a digital textbook designed to encourage inquiry-based learning.

To really turn the tide, said Edwards, schools that are used to celebrating success have to celebrate progress as well, especially by struggling students. In Mooresville, he added, where test scores are among the highest in North Carolina, there is “a relentless belief in every child.”

“We evaluate children for their potential,” said Edwards. “We have math nights in all of our elementary schools to teach parents about math. There’s a constancy of reaching out. This is not a short-term effort.”

Weslander-Quaid said teachers’ reactions to mistakes could deter students. Mistakes should be corrected but they should not be viewed as proof that a student can’t succeed, she added. “In the tech world, if you’re not failing sometimes, you’re not pushing hard enough.”

Wu previewed the upcoming job market, saying that more than 1 million STEM jobs will be created in the next decade. STEM jobs currently pay twice as much as median wages, she added, yet there are not enough qualified workers to fill these spots.

To watch the entire Discovery Education event, visit www.discoveryeducation.com

Image: Courtesy of Discovery Education

Salt-lake-city-pulse

Innovations Bold Gamble

Salt Lake school puts students in charge of their learning—and their curricula, and their schedules.
By Wayne D’Orio

Kenneth Grover had a big problem without an easy answer. As the director of secondary schools in Salt Lake City, he saw firsthand the struggles of the city’s high schools. Graduation rates were slowly increasing but they weren’t budging beyond 80 percent.

Not satisfied with adding a percentage point of progress every year, Grover knew a different model was needed. “Nothing changes with outcomes if you don’t change the inputs,” he says.

He did his homework, absorbing Clayton Christensen’s seminal book Disrupting Class, poring through Daniel Pink’s writings on motivation and success, and even gleaning insights from Steve Jobs’s best-selling biography. He visited schools, hopping from San Diego to San Francisco to Florida, searching for models he could emulate. While none of that work resulted in an “aha” moment, he did slowly zero in on what he thought would work best. Simply put, he aspired to create a school where students were in charge of their learning, directing the time, path, and pace of their education.

All of this work led to the hardest part of his journey: getting the Salt Lake City Board of Education to turn his concept from an idea into a living, breathing school.

“We wanted to take personalized education to its fullest,” he says. “We wanted to teach kids how to structure their own day.”

Grover presented his idea to the board. After the proposal was tentatively approved, he gave the school a name, Innovations Early College High School, and started recruiting students. Board members reacted immediately. “They brought me in front of the board for a three-hour Q&A and none of the questions were positive,” he remembers.

Once they saw he was serious, it was more than some board members were ready for, Grover says. “Board members said, ‘That’s the craziest idea we’ve ever heard of. You can’t do it.’ They added, ‘Show us a model that works, and we’ll support it.’” When Grover told them no schools existed at this level and depth of student-directed learning, the board said it couldn’t approve the school.

That’s when the meeting got even more contentious. Grover told the board, “If the premise is to find something that’s successful, are we closing our traditional high schools?” He explained that with a graduation rate of below 80 percent, he didn’t consider any of the city’s existing schools a success. “That really shook them up,” he says. “You said you wanted leaders,” I told them. “This is what leadership looks like. I’m not a manager.”

From Drawing Board to Reality

Fast-forward three years: Grover is holding court in the gorgeous lobby of his new high school. Students check themselves in and out of the school by smartphone, set their pace in classes that they choose, and in some cases even pick which books they will read. However, in many ways, the school looks like a “regular” school. Students sit in classrooms, sometimes being taught by teachers but more often working alone with headphones on. They consult with peers or teachers when necessary.

So is Innovations successful? Has it reached the goals set by Grover? Yes, and no. Last year’s senior class of 55 students had a graduation rate of 89 percent, and Grover hopes this year’s group of 89 students hits 95 percent. But for a high school principal who tells parents, “A high school diploma is meaningless,” he’s aiming much higher. This year, one student is expected to graduate with an associate’s degree already completed, thanks to Salt Lake Community College, which shares the building with Innovations. “In five years, it would be nice if half of our students graduated with an associate’s degree,” Grover says. “That’s ambitious.”

During a recent visit, a group of nine students sat in a semi-circle, answering questions from visitors with nary a school official in sight. While they all spoke enthusiastically about Innovations, I noticed none of their answers was the same. One student came to Innovations because a medical condition caused him to fall behind in his studies and he needed time to catch up. (“Although I’m smart,” he added.) Another mentioned how the small environment allows people to get to know you personally. One student spoke of the freedom to take one class at a time, concentrating solely on a single topic for weeks, while another mentioned that a typical day for her ping-pongs between working on U.S. government studies, completing a creative writing assignment, and then, after lunch, taking part in student government.

In a way, the answers backed up Grover’s initial concept: Students are a collection of individuals and treating them that way will improve their engagement and allow them to learn at their own pace.

When I told Grover his students all seemed bright, and asked if the first-come, first-served public school catered to a somewhat elite group, he quickly mentioned that “a good 10 percent were reading two levels below grade” when they started at Innovations. But with the school’s blended concept, they were given the materials and the time to backfill their knowledge and bring themselves up to, and usually beyond, grade level. Another student got pregnant, and Grover said teachers told her she would have to frontload her work to stay on target. She did, took time off for childbirth, and remains on track to graduate, he adds.

Creating a New School Model

Setting up a school without too many rules is, in some ways, like building a house without a blueprint. Each decision has to be considered, agreed upon, and carried out, all without the benefit of following more than a vague outline.

“The first year was a rough transition,” Grover says. For instance, English teacher Heather Bauer notes she excelled at classroom management. But when she enthusiastically switched to Innovations, she realized her skills didn’t quite apply anymore. Since she’s not often at the front of the room, the dynamic is different; now, when a student acts out, she can talk to them one-on-one immediately.“It took me some adjustment,” she admits.

“I don’t lecture all day, but I do have classes,” says Bauer. “We do have lessons. They last as long as they have to. Some students leave early, others stay.” The best part of Bauer’s day, however, is the one-on-one time she has with students. “I get to reach each kid where they are and I get to help them move forward. Ten minutes of dedicated time with one student can mean more than hours of lecturing. This is the best job I’ve ever had.”

The school’s curriculum is online. Some of it is purchased, some created by staff. Teachers are responsible for being in school eight hours a day (students attend six and half hours, anytime between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.). Salt Lake’s union contract calls for eight-hour teacher days, but about six and half hours of that is spent in school, while the rest is taken up by grading papers, creating lesson plans, and other work done after school. Innovations’ teachers do all of their work in school, with the expectation that they shouldn’t have to keep working when they leave the building. The fledgling school of 320 students has seven full-time teachers and one half-time teacher, all of whom chose to work at Innovations because of the model. No teachers have left, reports Grover.

Each teacher mentors just over 40 students, meeting them weekly either in person or via e-mail to assess their progress. Mentors send out a progress transcript to parents once a month. Math teacher Chris Walter says he regularly sends notes to fellow teachers detailing which students are behind in their class work; his colleagues then find their mentees on his list and address any issues in their next weekly meeting.

Language arts teacher Dana Savage talks about how something seemingly as simple as meeting students weekly took a while to sort out. Because students progress at their own pace, the conferences are helpful checkpoints during which to set goals. What Savage quickly learned was that many students preferred to connect on Mondays. With some weekly meetings taking up to 30 minutes, Savage realized she needed to formalize her process, mandating that students sign up for slots so she can balance her work. Savage spends her time divided among four tasks: mentor meetings, class meetings, grading, and helping students individually.

Grover, when asked what aspects of the school he’s nailed, and what he is still working on, grows animated. “We’ve nailed the culture, we’ve nailed the rigor,” he says proudly. “We’re working on cross-collaboration among teachers.” Teacher evaluation is also still being defined. With so many kids working on their own, Grover and the staff are puzzling over how to create an evaluation model that best fits the school’s workflow.

Acclimating Students

Giving students this much freedom, when most come from Salt Lake’s traditional schools, took some adjustments, too. “One of our teachers said it best today,” Grover says. “We hold their hand a little more until they can fly. Some figure it out in a few weeks; some take three to four months. We build in structure as needed.”

Freshmen start out with a rough schedule, making sure they understand the school’s ethos before being cast out on their own. Some students can earn a credit in one week’s time, while others accomplish nearly nothing, says Grover. “It’s fascinating to see the lights turn on.” Conversely, he notes that some students do have problems adjusting back to regular classes when they go to college, although “none are hampered by the rigor.”

Students are expected to earn eight credits per school year, though the pace is theirs to determine. It didn’t take long to realize, however, that most students would avoid math as much as possible. To block this, Innovations requires that students stay current and on level with their math and language arts studies.

Classrooms have a collection of students working on their own laptops; they can check out computers from the school, if needed. Students who want courses not offered at Innovations can travel to nearby high schools for these classes. (Innovations is co-located with the district’s Career and Technical Education Center, so classes in hairdressing and automotives are offered on-site.) The school has just a couple of clubs, but no sports or music classes; students can participate in those extracurricular activities at the school in their zone. The district of 25,000 students operates four other high schools.

Innovations offers AP classes, but with the community college located just across the hall, most students are choosing to simply take college courses for extra challenge. After paying a $40 registration fee, students can take as many college classes as their schedule allows.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

When asked if the Innovations model would spread to the city’s K-8 schools soon, Grover shakes his head. “Give me a break,” he says, with mock indignation. “This is hard. I don’t want to get fired.” However, the blended learning idea is already spreading to the city’s four other high schools, and a three-year plan exists to push student choice into middle schools.

Similar experiments are sprouting up in other parts of the country. Partly because Innovations’ model doesn’t call for any radical restructuring of a school’s physical space, other districts have started to create their own student-driven schools. Twenty-two school districts in Kentucky are implementing personalized learning after visiting Innovations. An extremely rural district in Indiana is implementing the idea, while other districts around Utah are piggybacking on the model.

“We’re starting to build a little network,” Grover says proudly.

 Image: Courtesy of School Improvement Network. 

Data-security_pulse

Busting the Student Data Privacy Myth

It is possible to balance security with data-driven instruction. Here are five ways to achieve a balance that works for administrators, parents, and technology companies.

By Jack Macleod

Tracking student data gives educators the power to make more informed decisions in their instruction for better student outcomes. But with great power comes great responsibility.

That’s why schools and ed tech companies alike are increasingly making student privacy a top priority. Still, many remain wary about data privacy issues—often due to confusion or lack of information on how the issue has progressed.

Let’s set the record straight on how education-technology companies and schools can find the right balance between the benefits of data-driven instruction and maintaining student privacy.  

Myth #1: The privacy-concern drawbacks of tracking student data outweigh the benefits.

Fact: Student data is an invaluable resource, not only to school leaders and educators, but also to parents and students. School leaders use student data to direct decision-making. With enough data, they are able to synthesize information about student performance school-wide and identify whether additional education resources need to be allocated. It also helps teachers drive their instructional choices because they can see where students are excelling and in what subjects they might need more support. Student data gives parents and guardians a window into the classroom so they can better support their child, and students have access to more comprehensive feedback so they can make better choices about their education.

The proof is in the research, too—data-driven instruction leads to better student performance. According to a 2012 report from the Data Quality Campaign, in a study of Oregon schools, those who provided embedded data training for teachers saw a significant boost in test scores and decreased the achievement gap in reading and math at a faster rate than schools without access to data training.

Myth #2: Digitally stored student data will follow a student for the rest of his or her life.

Fact: Best practices set by leading education organizations call for the safe and responsible deletion of student data. School leaders know that student data is not a new concept—schools have stored analog data in files for years. Not only is it easier to safely purge digital data records, but influential education organizations provide guidelines for schools on how to handle student data and make sure vendors are disposing of this data responsibly.

CoSN released the toolkit Protecting Privacy in Connected Learning earlier this year. Schools are advised to contractually require vendors to 1) only keep data as long as it is necessary to perform the services to the school; 2) return all records and delete all copies in possession upon termination of a contract; and 3) dispose of collected data by reasonable means to protect against unauthorized access.

Myth #3: Vendors will sell student data to marketers.

Fact: Under FERPA, a vendor cannot use education records in any way that is not authorized by the school district it serves. By penalty of law, vendors are required to protect student data and forbidden to sell the information. However, there is a valid concern that some companies will use the data themselves for marketing efforts. It is important for school leaders to make sure contracts with vendors specify that the school or district owns the data and clearly defines how the vendor will use the data. Many vendors committed to education are voluntarily making changes to contracts to address these concerns, as well as taking extra precautions with data security.

Myth #4: Student data can be hacked easily.

Fact: Many ed-tech companies are taking steps to protect student data. In an effort to be a trusted resource to the schools they serve, more and more companies are putting industry security standards and best practices into place to make sure student data is as secure as possible, including utilizing SSL encryption and performing regular penetration testing, vulnerability management, and intrusion prevention. At my company, Alma, one of the driving factors of creating an all-in-one secure platform is that data can flow seamlessly between tools with lower security risk. Schools are getting smarter about which companies they decide to work with, too. CoSN compiled a list of question that school districts should ask when looking into a potential vendor.

Myth #5: Parents don’t need to have an active role in setting privacy norms and policies.

Fact: Parents are key stakeholders in the issue of student data privacy. Schools have a responsibility to make sure parents and guardians understand what measures are being taken to protect their children’s information. The Department of Education released a list of best practices for such conversations. There are also a number of resources available from organizations such as Common Sense Media and the Data Quality Campaign that school leaders can suggest to parents so they can become more informed about privacy issues.

Ultimately, it comes down to finding that balance—a solution that offers mission-critical information to schools, teachers, parents, and students while ensuring that information is accessed safely and securely. Once the fear of “big, bad student data” is relieved, schools can receive the full benefits of the information and the insight that student data can provide.

Jack Macleod is president of Alma, an education technology company that offers a holistic student engagement platform for K-12 schools and districts. Alma has offices in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C.

 Image: MediaBakery

Skype_pulse

Demystifying Computer Science

Skype’s program connects students with industry experts to explain different computing jobs.

By Wayne D’Orio

Two facts: In just five years, one of every two STEM jobs will be in the computing field. About 9 out of 10 schools don’t teach any computer science. With Computer Science Education Week and the Hour of Code movement starting today, many schools and companies are beginning efforts to shed light on the first fact, and change the second.

One of those companies is Skype, which is taking the simple step of connecting students with computer science experts to show kids what the experts do, how they prepared for their job, and why they like the work.

“Skype enables students to engage with real people, putting a human face in front of the ones and zeros, taking the nerd out of it, and hopefully engaging students in the excitement of a career in technology,” says Ross Smith, the director of test for Skype and an Hour of Code participant. “These kids have grown up with technology, but they don’t make the connection” to computer science, he adds.

While most of the Skype calls are with middle school students, Smith says a colleague of his had a chat recently with kindergartners.

“It opens up a whole new world for these kids,” says Sandy Gady, a middle school design and engineering teacher in Des Moines, Washington. The class regularly uses Skype, and it’s become second nature for her students to set up a call. “Anything they can think up, they can automatically find a resource and set it up,” she explains. “They like the fact that they are in control of their learning.”

Skype in the Classroom, a Microsoft YouthSpark program, allows any teacher to sign up in less than a minute, and then explain who their students are and who they want to connect with. When a match is made, both sides are contacted to work out details. Microsoft YouthSpark and Skype’s program, while ongoing, supports Hour of Code.

Smith says that he constantly reminds today’s students to “dream bigger than you can” because it’s likely the future will outpace their expectations. “I work with people in India and Europe every day, and I walk around with all of human knowledge in my pocket,” he says.

Gady says her students even use Skype to set up ad hoc tutoring with classmates. She wonders if the connections will naturally cut down on bullying. “It’s hard to bully someone who is helping you,” she adds.

Schools can get involved with Skype in the Classroom at education.skype.com, or set up an Hour of Code event by registering at hourofcode.com.

Watch the video to learn more about Skype in the Classroom and Code.org's collaboration:

 

 Image: Courtesy of Skype

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.