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Ed-Tech Reboot

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Ed-Tech Reboot

Hardware glitches delay, but don’t derail, Guilford County’s $30 million plan to personalize learning. Here’s how the district recovered from an early setback.

By Dennis Pierce

In Lauren Smith’s sixth-grade math class in Greensboro, North Carolina, students who are ready to advance to a new topic aren’t held back by those who need more time. And students who need extra time to learn aren’t dragged ahead before they understand a concept.

Smith uses an app called Lensoo to create self-paced math lessons for her Jackson Middle School students. She records video lessons for each topic, and her students watch the videos, practice their skills, and take an assessment that shows whether they have mastered the content. While her students are completing these activities, she walks around the room, offering help and individual attention as needed. Students can also go back and watch the videos as many times as they want, and they can move on to various enrichment activities if they score high enough on the assessments.

“The kids are excited,” she says in a video about her new style of instruction. “They’re eager. They come in and they know exactly what they have to do.” And it seems to be paying off, with average test scores rising by an average of 10 percentage points in her classes. “When I gave them their tests back,” she proclaims, “I had kids’ jaws drop.”

Smith’s class is part of a new district-wide effort in the Guilford County Schools (GCS) to transform teaching and learning through personalized instruction, using tablet computers from Amplify. But the program almost never got off the ground.

Beset by early problems that included broken screens and melted chargers in the fall of 2013, Guilford County suspended its $30 million educational technology initiative just a few months in.

For most school districts, such a high-profile setback would have spelled the end of the program. But not Guilford County. “We believed in what we were doing,” says chief of staff Nora Carr, who notes that community support for the initiative’s goals remains high.

Determined to get it right, Guilford County officials worked with Amplify to make key changes to the program. Amplify found another manufacturer for its tablets and strengthened the devices’ screens. The company also agreed to place one support technician in each building during the program’s initial reboot.

As a result of these efforts, Guilford County is now moving forward again with its personalized learning program. This past fall, the district deployed more than 17,000 redesigned tablets to its middle school students, and teachers are in the early stages of reshaping their instruction.

Guilford County’s experience is a stark reminder that while integrating technology into instruction has its potential pitfalls, when a school district and its vendors are united by a common purpose, it’s possible to overcome these challenges to achieve real success.

Fostering Instructional Change

Funded by a $30 million Race to the Top grant in 2012, Guilford County’s PACE (Personalized Achievement, Curriculum, and Environment) program aims to personalize learning by providing a tablet computer to every middle school student, as well as training and support to staff, students, and their families.

“Kids are wired to want to learn,” says Robin Britt, director of PACE. “If we can get them working at their own level on something that interests them, then they will be engaged.”

To help teachers implement personalized learning, Guilford County assigns a PLC to each middle school. (Britt was a personalized learning coordinator (PLC) when the project began in 2013.) Each of the district’s PLCs is responsible for two schools.

“Essentially, personalized learning is a new buzz phrase for an old practice,” says Britt, who explains that personalized learning relies on “best practices that have evolved over the long history of education: everything from knowing your students’ interests…and how those influence their learning to doing a good job of assessing students along the way, so you know what they need to learn.”

Because personalized learning will look different in every classroom, Guilford County focused its training on identifying the practices that every teacher should integrate—and then exploring some of the possible strategies for achieving these.

“We want to see assessment happening all the time,” Britt says. “We want to see teachers moving from whole group instruction to differentiation and small group instruction—and from that to individualized learning, where every student is moving at his own pace.”

The training was an integral piece of the program, but what garnered the most attention were the tablets.

“It’s really an instructional change initiative, one piece of which is the integration of technology,” Britt says. “We’re trying to use [technology] as a lever to create instructional change in our middle schools.”

In mid-2013, Guilford County entered into a $16 million service contract with Amplify to provide the tablets. A key reason was that Amplify’s tablets come with a mobile device management system to make deployment easier.

“We wanted a turnkey solution, and Amplify offered that,” says Carr, Guilford’s chief of staff.

But just a few months into deployment, problems with the devices began to surface. Screens were cracking or chipping, and chargers were overheating. When a charger actually melted in a student’s home, it became a safety concern—and district officials decided to suspend the program immediately.

Addressing Problems Head On

When Guilford County suspended its tablet program in October 2013 district officials notified all middle school principals and parents, and they also held a press conference to announce their decision.

“Many districts might try to keep the news to themselves and hope it doesn’t get out,” Carr says. But transparency is one of Guilford County’s core values, and so district officials refused to hide from the news. “We just ripped the Band-Aid off,” Carr adds.

However, Guilford County leaders remained committed to the program and its goals, and they immediately began working with Amplify to explore remedies.

Amplify, too, had a vested interest in making sure the project was a success: Guilford County was the company’s largest and most visible customer.

“It was in everybody’s best interest to make this program work,” says Jill Wilson, general counsel for the district. She and Amplify executives worked “days and weekends” negotiating a solution that would enable the program to continue.

For starters, Amplify cut ties with its original tablet maker and chose another manufacturer. The company also insisted on the use of Corning Gorilla Glass, a more durable and damage-resistant material, for its tablet screens.

Amplify also agreed to reimburse Guilford County more than $850,000 for lost staff time, training, and other expenses incurred during the 2013-14 school year. To make up for that lost year, the company added another year to the end of its contract with the district at no additional charge.

“We owed that to the district,” says Justin Hamilton, former chief of staff for Amplify and founder of the public relations firm Justin Hamilton Solutions. “We wanted to make sure they got everything that was promised.”

Guilford County had planned to roll out the tablets in phases, but because of the lost year, this schedule was accelerated during the 2014-15 school year. To ensure a smooth transition, Amplify agreed to supply a support service employee at each of the schools receiving tablets for 90 days.

Throughout the negotiations, the district continued to keep the community informed. This transparency was a key factor in maintaining stakeholders’ trust and support.

Guilford County conducts a public opinion poll each year to learn what its stakeholders are thinking. “I thought our numbers would tank last year” after the district’s technology troubles, Carr says. In fact, they improved: Eighty-two percent of respondents said they thought the district was doing a good job—up from 80 percent in 2013.

Moving Forward

Having addressed the problems with its devices, Guilford County launched version 2.0 of the program this year. More than 17,000 redesigned tablets have been distributed to students and staff in waves over the first few months of the school year, and the district has seen far fewer technical problems.

Britt says the district’s focus this year has been on “regaining the trust of our teachers, acclimating to the technology, and developing the materials needed to create a more personalized approach to learning.”

Reaction from both teachers and community members has been positive so far.

“We cannot expect all kids to learn at the same pace and to be interested in all of the same things at the same time,” says Winston McGregor, executive director of the Guilford Education Alliance and the parent of a middle school student at GCS. “The tablets help provide for that personalized learning experience.”

As for having to pull back and then restart the program this year, McGregor says she thought the district handled the situation well.

“There was transparency and a lack of defensiveness on the part of the leadership,” she notes. “Staying committed to our goal allowed us to work through the tactical challenges of making the tablets work.”    

To help teachers use the devices to personalize learning, Guilford County is creating a video library of exemplary practices. One of these is the video of Smith describing how she creates self-paced math lessons for her classes.

“Every day, students log into our learning management system and they have three tasks to do,” she explains. “They watch a video that I’ve created in Lensoo with the day’s lesson, then they practice that skill in the online management system, which is graded immediately for automatic feedback. Finally, they complete a daily formative assessment so I can see how well they’ve mastered that concept.”

If students complete these tasks and they haven’t fallen behind the pace she has mapped out for the course, “they can use the extra class time to do some enrichment,” she says. This might include independent projects or additional math activities.

Why did she change her practice? Smith is sold on the district’s new approach, and one reason is the reaction of her students. “We need to change how we do work,” one student says in the video. With self-paced lessons, “we can rewind” the videos and watch them as many times as needed, he notes with enthusiasm.

“I have kids who never did much work before come to me on Friday and say, ‘Can I have extra [assignments] so I can get caught up and do more work over the weekend?’” she says in the video. “And I never thought that would come out of their mouths. That’s pretty encouraging to me.”

Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer who has been covering education and technology for nearly two decades. He can be reached at denniswpierce@gmail.com.

Credit: Courtesy of Guilford County Schools

Radical Overhaul, One Step at a Time

Radical Overhaul, One Step at a Time

Learn how this Pennsylvania district is ushering in personalized learning for each and every student. By Michael Snell

In their book Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning, Charles Schwahn and Beatrice McGarvey argue that creating a customized learning model for every learner is possible right now. By establishing higher expectations for students, shifting the roles of educators, and utilizing modern technologies, you can build a custom-fit school model that is effective and efficient, the authors argue.

Others take this a step further. Will Richardson contends in his book Why School? that we need to think deeply about the value of school now that opportunities for learning are exploding all around us. With the ubiquity of information, schools must fundamentally change to rethink how students are taught and address the new skills students need to succeed in the digital age.

At Central York School District in Pennsylvania, we use these concepts as the foundation and inspiration for providing our students with educational options tailored to their needs. Our vision—one in which students are empowered with voice and choice in their education—drives all of our decision-making. We provide a variety of instructional approaches, from classroom settings to blended learning to online courses. But the learning goals ultimately drive the instructional approach used for each student.

How does this work in reality? If a third-grade student needs fourth-grade math, fifth-grade reading, and second-grade science, they can receive those lessons through online or traditional methods, while remaining with their peers in third grade. Students move through the curriculum at their own pace rather than waiting for the next school year or being “left behind” in the traditional model.

Successfully transitioning from traditional schooling to an innovative approach requires a cultural transformation. We are encouraging our district’s leaders, teachers, parents, and students to overturn long-held beliefs about what school “should” look like and embrace a vision for a customized school that meets each of our learners at his or her readiness level.

Our journey to mass customized learning is far from over, but we have taken several steps—inspired by other educators or the authors referenced earlier in this article—that have brought us closer to realizing our vision. They include the following.

Establish a clear vision. It is critical that your stakeholders understand and can articulate your district’s vision for customization. Within our district, we engaged our staff, school board, and community members in book reads so that we could develop a shared understanding of the concepts behind mass customized learning. This helped us develop a common language for discussing changes ahead, and enabled us to craft a shared vision our stakeholders at all levels could articulate.

Reinvent the teacher’s role. We have replaced the term teacher with learning facilitator as a verbal cue that emphasizes the changing role of teachers in today’s public schools. Learning facilitators guide our students in their own learning, based on the student’s abilities and interests. The facilitator is also responsible for identifying learning needs and guiding students and parents in determining the best way to meet those needs. If an eighth grader is ready for high-school-level work, the student has the option of transitioning to high school by staying in eighth grade and pursuing advanced courses online or enrolling in a full-time virtual school. This allows the student to stay where they are socially and emotionally, while advancing intellectually. 

Invite parents to be a part of the process. We made concerted efforts to talk with parents at every opportunity—PTO meetings, eighth- and ninth-grade parent meetings, community meetings—to share the district’s vision. To get parent buy-in, we conveyed the vision in relatable terms, describing what the new model would look like and its benefits for their kids. For example, our principals spoke to parents about the college credits that would be available to their children and the opportunity for students to advance based on mastery rather than on age and grade level.

Our efforts to date have been very well-received by parents, and we continue to engage them in conversations about what mass customized learning will look like in our schools, and how it will benefit their child’s education.

Establish a practical plan. With a 42-person steering committee comprised of a cross-section of our district community, we laid out a detailed plan for curriculum, advancement, professional development, and more. However, the plan hinges on a phased approach, carefully engineering the introduction and expansion of customization across the district.

A key part of our district’s vision is to provide customized opportunities to explore interests that develop critical thinking and foster curiosity. One way we’ve applied this is to create a flex period at the end of the day for high schoolers to give them voice and choice on a daily basis. Students can decide what to do with that time, such as clubs or one-on-one time with a learning facilitator, but the district can also assign remediation if needed. We’ve started with a 33-minute flex period that we will expand next year.

Ensure a sustainable infrastructure is in place. We selected a flexible, customizable online curriculum provider to enable us to easily modify our programs based on students’ needs. Through Odysseyware, the district can offer blended learning programs, online courses, and a virtual school, as well as support our facilitators in adapting the online curriculum materials they use in their classrooms to localize lessons and address school and district learning goals.

Lead by example. All of us—administrators and learning facilitators—must show students how to learn by being learners ourselves. Our leadership team’s annual goals, including mine, shifted to include a focus on how we were taking action in support of our district-wide vision for mass customized learning. Together, we are learning new technologies and new approaches, and we are supporting one another through the process as facilitators and as learners.

Ongoing support and evolution is paramount. While a vision and a plan can be well intentioned, challenges pop up along the way that can derail the initial excitement and energy, particularly when confronting hundreds of years of traditional thinking. Districts must provide ongoing, job-embedded professional development to teachers to maintain enthusiasm, foster new ideas, and improve learning facilitation skills. We redefined our professional development approach to offer learning facilitators more voice and choice during in-service trainings, which enabled them to experience the value of customization that their learners will receive from their own classroom-based efforts.

There’s no “completion” date to this initiative. Technology has been a game-changer in transforming 120 years of the traditional education system and it will continue to evolve. We must be determined to adapt as information, technology, and the economy changes. But the need for customized learning and our dedication to ensuring every student succeeds will never change.

Michael Snell has been superintendent of Pennsylvania’s Central York School District since 2009. He blogs at www.cysdecosystem.com.

Image: Jim Craigmyle/Corbis/Media Bakery

The Parent’s Guide to Privacy Rights


The Parent’s Guide to Privacy Rights

This new work is the perfect introduction to the myriad privacy concerns and questions that parents and students face in schools. By Brenda Leong

Data privacy is the issue of the day—not only in the broader society but also in our nation’s schools. As districts increasingly rely on technology to improve student-learning outcomes, collect and store electronic data for administrative efficiency, and provide online resources for students, many parents have expressed confusion about their rights to information that concerns their child’s privacy. 

In April, the Future of Privacy Forum worked with the National PTA and Connect Safely to produce A Parents’ Guide to Student Data Privacy in an effort to help parents understand current student-data privacy policies and protections under the law.

The guide provides straightforward, easy-to-understand explanations for who can access student data, what education companies can do with student information, and how federal laws protect student data. It also includes information about when parents can opt out of sharing their child's information, and how parents can gain access to, make corrections to, or request deletion of their child’s information.

Without question, the guide is both timely and much needed. For administrators, it’s a perfect way to introduce parents to the myriad privacy issues that can seem overwhelming.

Old Policies, New Technology

Consider that current student data laws were written in the years before student records were maintained electronically, and before much student learning and school administration were handled via third-party technology vendors.

Many stakeholders—including vendors, policymakers, and educators—believe these laws need to be updated, and there are numerous efforts at both the state and federal level to amend or rewrite them to more directly address the current state of education technology. 

Moreover, there has been an increase in the volume of national discussion about educational policies and practices generally—addressing everything from curriculum standards to testing—and student privacy has figured more and more prominently in these debates.

For these reasons, we felt this was the right time to step in to help explain to parents what their rights are to access and correct information about their child in the education ecosystem.

The foundational law regarding parental rights to a student’s education record is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), written in the 1970s to help parents access information held by the school about their children.

Most current education records are recorded electronically, and access rights must be understood in the context of information shared with third parties via learning management systems and online assessment programs. Our guide explains how, even though records are now maintained electronically, parents still have the right to use FERPA as a vehicle to view their child's information.

For children under 13, another law—the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)—places strict requirements on vendors whose sites or products gather information directly from children. Critically, before a website or service can collect that information, “verifiable parental consent” must be obtained, meaning a parent must expressly allow the child to provide the information. The Parents’ Guide explains how, in an educational setting, the school is authorized to provide that consent, but only for educational purposes.

In all cases where a school partners with outside companies to provide either learning tools or administrative programs, the school must maintain control and authority over all individual student data. With limited exceptions, such as to improve or develop their products, companies may only use the information for authorized educational purposes. Parents still retain the FERPA right to access the information (via the school), and the school can require the vendor to delete the data when the educational purpose is complete.

Opting Out

Another topic that has received substantial attention recently is “opting out.” In the context of privacy and student data, this means—for certain uses—parents may instruct the school not to share their child’s information. Schools are authorized to designate certain types of personal data (such as name, address, and telephone numbers) as “directory information” and share that information. Examples of this would be data given to yearbook companies, or information shared for school events such as stage productions, awards ceremonies, or sports teams. However, each year the school must first clearly tell parents what information it has included in this category, and must then give parents the chance to “opt out” of having it shared for these optional activities.

Finally, there may be times when parents disagree with the accuracy of something in their child’s record.  In such cases, parents have the right to request corrections, make an appeal if their request is denied, and file complaints or concerns about these rights with the appropriate government agency. The guide helpfully and in detailed form lays out a step-by-step process to help parents take these actions, specifying the federal laws governing this process and providing specific contact information.

The education system is evolving and transforming at a unmatched pace. Within that cycle of change, student data and its privacy implications play a central role. It’s understandable that parents feel a sense of detachment or anxiety about how these changes—in both policymaking as well as digital application—are impacting how information about their child’s education is being affected and protected. We developed this guide to address and answer these needs.

Of course, blueprints like ours only go so far, and they must be matched by an ongoing, proactive effort by parents to engage on this issue with their schools. It will also continue to be important for parents to collaborate with other key stakeholders—such as teachers, school administrators, and lawmakers at all levels of government—to ensure that student data and privacy remain at the forefront of any debate over education policy.

To get a free copy of the guide, visit ferpasherpa.org/parents-guide.html.

Brenda Leong is senior counsel and director of operations at the Future of Privacy Forum. She works on education technology industry standards and collaboration on privacy concerns and partners with parent and educator advocates for practical solutions to student-data privacy challenges.

Image: Ian Sanderson / Media Bakery

Home Connection


Home Connection

The contribution of Sprint to ConnectED has helped 400 students in this Illinois district bring high-speed Internet access to their homes. 
By Carol Patton

Sponsored Section

For several years, three educators from Elk Grove High School in Illinois met regularly with families living in local mobile home parks to provide parents with progress reports on their children. The meetings were necessary because the mobile home parks lacked Internet access, a situation that presented multiple problems for Township High School District 214, where the 2,000-student school is located.

Parents couldn’t log on to school websites for progress reports or to learn about school accomplishments, initiatives, or staff and operational changes. Students couldn’t use their iPads, which were distributed by the district, to complete online homework assignments, seek online help from teachers, or engage in chat sessions with other students. And many of these families couldn’t access the local library, which offered WiFi, because the parks were in an unincorporated area and were not eligible for city services, including library privileges.

The district searched for solutions. “We were looking at shooting a wireless signal over to a couple of mobile home parks,” recalls Keith Bockwoldt, District 214’s director of technology services. “That was going to cost $2.1 million alone. That wouldn’t even cover the needs of other schools in the district.”

Establishing off-campus Internet connections is a common problem for many districts, especially those in rural areas. According to federal government statistics, fewer than 30 percent of American schools have the broadband needed to teach with technology in the classroom. The average school has the same connectivity as the average American home but serves 200 times as many users. And less than 20 percent of educators say their school’s Internet connection meets their needs.

In 2013, President Obama announced ConnectED, an initiative designed to enable next-generation broadband and high-speed wireless access in 99 percent of schools and libraries by 2018. But to reach this goal, help was needed from the nation’s biggest telecommunication leaders. At least 10 companies signed up, including Sprint, all committed to education and bridging the digital divide. Collectively, they pledged to connect more than 20 million students during the next five years.

District 214 superintendent David Schuler says the work Sprint is doing with ConnectED is helping his district make real progress toward transitioning to a digital curriculum and reducing student achievement gaps. With 33 percent of his district’s 12,000 students falling below the poverty line, says Schuler, the program ensures that all students have Internet access to study, communicate, and collaborate after school.

“The biggest challenge we faced was how to transition to a digital curriculum without all students being able to access those resources outside of school,” explains Schuler. “We’re very thankful and appreciative to Sprint and others in the private sector for partnering with schools. Those partnerships are absolutely critical for our students to be able to learn and be on an even playing field.”

Equal Access, Equal Opportunity

For the past two years, Sprint has been working to provide 50,000 lines of service to schools for Internet connections, along with four years of free Sprint 4G LTE service, its highest-speed and highest-capacity network. Jim Spillane, director of Sprint’s ConnectED Initiative, says the company is working with 33 school districts nationwide, each in various stages of the federal grant approval process.

"Our goal is to get everyone up and running from August until early next year," he says, adding that the company is about halfway there. “We’ll continue to work with as many schools as possible and promote this until we get the 50,000 lines. At Sprint, we do good works because good does indeed work. That’s why we support ConnectED as part of our Sprint Good Works platform.”  

Spillane says schools can apply online for grants at sprint.com/ConnectED. In the case of District 214, it bought 400 MiFi hotspots from Sprint at cost and then assigned the devices to students for home Internet access.

So far, says Spillane, the company’s biggest challenge has been generating program awareness. Many school administrators at conferences he attends are familiar with ConnectED but unclear about its direct benefits or advantages for teachers and students.

Going Digital

Starting in 2009, District 214 introduced a series of changes that would transform learning for its 800 teachers and 12,000 students. The district redesigned its classroom instructional materials and implemented a policy requiring teachers to first review digital resources before purchasing textbooks, says Bockwoldt. English and math teachers participated in professional learning communities and developed their own digital curriculums. Each year, teachers were asked to submit pilot proposals outlining how they would use technology to enhance classroom learning—the number of proposals jumped from nine in 2010 to 39 last year.

The district has also distributed iPads to 9,000 students, with plans to equip every student with a mobile device by 2017. Funding for the mobile devices involved a budget shift, explains Bockwoldt. The district is reducing the size of its computer labs, which now contain 6,300 computers; instead of spending money to replace them, it’s using those funds for mobile devices.

“As we moved ahead, we were able to grow capacity and show achievement rates,” Bockwoldt says. “In freshman math, a non-iPad class had an 88 percent [passing] rate, which means students had an A, B, or C, and 12 percent had Ds or Fs. In an iPad class, that shot up to a 93 percent success rate. It’s now 100 percent.”

Is that improvement due to the device or the teachers? Bockwoldt credits both. While technology certainly engages students, he says teaching has dramatically changed. Teachers and students can communicate off campus in real time. Students are crowdsourcing with one another as they work through homework assignments. Just as important, learning has become a continuous process, both on and off campus.

And those students in mobile home parks and elsewhere who initially couldn’t take part in the district’s digital transformation? That gap was filled last year when District 214 received a grant from Sprint, providing nearly 4 percent of its student population with Internet connectivity in their homes.

“Sprint [and the district teamed up to] provide approximately 400 MiFi hotspots for students who didn’t have Internet access at home,” Bockwoldt says, referring to routers that provide mobile Internet access. Sprint then provided the families with four years of free ultra-high-speed Sprint 4G LTE services. Without Internet connectivity, these students had to complete their homework at stores or other places that have WiFi, Bockwoldt adds. Now, all students can learn at their own pace, on their own time.

Many take advantage of that flexibility. Based on data pulled from the district’s management learning system, some students log in at two o’clock in the morning to submit assignments.

“I feel really good knowing we are closing this gap for students who can’t afford [connectivity] and giving them the same opportunity to go home, learn, do their homework, and submit it just like any other student,” says Bockwoldt.

Custom-Made Learning

Linda Ashida is an innovative technology facilitator (ITF) at Elk Grove High School. Having Internet connectivity, she says, offers choice.

Consider the English teacher who has both struggling and advanced readers in his class, or the math teacher with a small number of students who didn’t perform well on a test. With Internet resources, Ashida says, there are many ways these teachers can organize student learning and respond to each student’s unique needs. For instance, they might offer afterschool help by providing review sessions on iPads, inviting students to jump in and collaborate.

“We’re able to personalize and differentiate learning,” she says. “We also let students use social media to share their learning and gain authentic audiences. We have students who write blogs and tweet about their class work.”

For incoming freshman, the district offers a two-day orientation at the beginning of each school year. Students are divided into roughly 20 groups, each facilitated by a teacher. During the orientation, each group participates in seven or eight workshops that focus on a wide range of topics, such as learning with technology, digital citizenship, and communicating via e-mail.

Ashida, who taught AP Spanish for several years before moving into her current position, says she noticed improvement among her students the first year they started using iPads. Learning with technology enhanced student engagement and ownership, encouraged more content creation and self-direction, and increased the student pass rate by 11 percent, she says. The district requires teachers to complete a blended graduate course that consists of online instruction and classroom sessions. Offered by Quincy University, the course was designed by the district’s teachers and focuses on developing iPad lessons for the classroom.

In her current role, Ashida, along with other ITFs and four district coaches, helps teachers implement and take advantage of technology in various ways. She and her colleagues offer classroom observations, conduct drop-in workshops, coordinate teacher-led sessions, provide technology demonstrations, and share best practices on Twitter and via a district blog.

With the involvement of Sprint through ConnectED, says Ashida, students without Internet access at home no longer have to jump through hoops to get their work done. One student, she says, had to write papers on her cell phone and another could access her neighbor’s WiFi but had to sit outside his house at night in an unsafe neighborhood to complete her homework.

“Even though we gave students iPads, they weren’t able to fully use them,” she says. “Sprint is making all of this transformative learning available to each and every student in our district, which is huge and very exciting.”

The iPad’s Impact on Learning
District 214 has charted students’ progress since providing them with iPads beginning in the 2012-13 school year. Here are percentage increases for students earning at least a C in intermediate algebra.

2011-12 (non-iPad)   60%
2012-13                     93%
2013-14                     92%
2014-15                     92%

For more information about Sprint and ConnectED, and to apply online for grants, visit sprint.com/ConnectED

Tech Update: BYOD


Tech Update: BYOD

The latest developments in hot areas of school technology. 
By Calvin Hennick

At a recent workshop on digital education, the presenter threw attendees a curveball and asked everyone to complete a brief survey using Google Docs.

“In this room of 50 tech-savvy adults, you’ve got tablets, Android devices, phones, and a handful of people with nothing,” says attendee Ann Lee Flynn, director of education technology for the National School Boards Association. “A lot of people couldn’t get [the program] to open.”

The point? This is what bring-your-own-device initiatives look like in schools without adequate support systems. If implementing BYOD means stopping a lesson to make sure that students’ operating systems are up to date, that they have the correct app installed, and that they’re all able to connect to the school’s network, it’s no wonder some teachers drag their feet when it comes to BYOD.

These difficulties make Flynn skeptical about BYOD as a long-term solution. With device costs coming down, more schools will be able to afford to provide all students with district-owned devices through one-to-one initiatives—a move Flynn says is vital for ensuring ­educational equity. “The current belief is, all kids have devices,” she says. “Well, no, they don’t. And trying to type a term paper on a smartphone is very different from typing on a laptop. It’s not a level playing field.”

Even if BYOD proves to be just a step on the road to one-to-one, it’s a current reality for many districts, some of which have found ways to both narrow the digital divide and make it easier for teachers to incorporate student devices in their lessons.

In Katy, Texas, the district buys its own devices to supplement its BYOD program, so teachers don’t find themselves in a bind when students don’t own devices, leave them at home, or forget to charge the batteries. The district provides enough devices for 30 percent of its students, and also allows kids to check out tablets and use mobile Wi-Fi hot spots. The wide availability of devices has increased teachers’ willingness to implement BYOD, says Darlene Rankin, director of instructional technology for Katy Independent School District.

The district also encourages BYOD implementation through continued PD opportunities for teachers, and recently adopted a single sign-on system where kids can access learning apps through the school’s network.

Previously, students had to download apps onto their own devices, which proved problematic. Some students’ devices were running on older operating systems that didn’t support newer apps. Some parents had locked the devices, making it impossible for students to install the apps. And, Rankin says, even when kids did have the apps, they sometimes forgot their passwords and couldn’t log in.

With the new system, students don’t have to worry about installing the apps, since they can access them through the Internet. Rankin expects the single sign-on system to drive BYOD adoption among teachers. “I think it will definitely go up,” she says.

Illustration: Viktor Koen

What You Need to Know When Shopping for an ID Card System


What You Need to Know When Shopping for an ID Card System

Determining your schools’ needs will help you zero in on the right choice for your district. By Maged Atiya

Being in school every day is vital for a student’s success, and with state funding associated with attendance, it is also important financially for school districts to minimize absenteeism. Improvements in ID Card System technology are helping to streamline the attendance process in timely, cost-effective ways.

Many districts have discovered that implementing such a system is well worth the commitment and investment, and others are finding that it’s time to upgrade their current systems.

There are a number of important factors to consider when you’re shopping around for an ID Card vendor/partner; here are some key elements to think about.

Dumb Cards or Smart Cards?

What do you want your card to do, how much functionality do you need, how secure must it be, and how fast does the card need to be read?

Dumb cards: These are cards with a magnetic stripe or bar code on them that usually do only simple things: they can open a door or pull up a food service or library account. Staff members typically swipe these cards to enter a building, which is easy enough to do. However, the wear and tear of swiping reduces the card’s lifespan.

Smart cards: These cards provide a host of options. They are contactless and use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology; students tap their cards onto a reader and they are logged in, quickly and easily. Readers can be installed on buses, in the classroom, in the cafeteria, in the gym, or in the auditorium, which makes tracking students extremely efficient. In fact, some configurations can process a thousand students in just minutes.

Smart cards are coded with a unique ID number that is assigned to one individual; it’s the back-end computer that maintains all the information on that person. This means that additional functionality can be added quickly, all at once, at any time, on the base computer. School districts can start with a straightforward ID system, and add features at a later date when budgets or needs change.

Some smart card companies can interact with legacy card programs—those ID card systems that are already in a school district. So the upgrade to smart technologies doesn’t always mean the existing service cannot be used.

To Cloud or Not To Cloud?

We hear all about “the cloud”—and we know it’s important—but do you need a cloud-based ID card system?

In a non-cloud-based system, your data resides in a server somewhere in your school district. It is maintained by your IT department, and if you needed to expand your memory or upgrade your processing speed, then the district would buy a new, bigger computer/server.

If you want to upgrade functionality or software, your IT person has to go from school to school and manage each computer. And if there was a flood, fire, system crash, or security breach, all of your data could be lost and you’d have to start from scratch. Maintaining a traditional land-based system like this can be very costly—in time as well as in money spent.

Cloud computing means that your data resides virtually, in off-site servers, with backup systems in place, so if something happens, your data is safe and always available. Improvements are also simple to make: because the program resides in one place, it has to be upgraded in only one place, and added functionality can be transferred to every school instantly. This service-based process is more streamlined and cost effective.

Cloud services offer significant advantages, but make sure that your vendor/partner uses the highest level of data security available. There are international security standards (PCI, FISMA, SSAE16, to be specific), which are used by banks, credit card companies, hospitals and others, so look for them in your cloud-based ID card system.

Emergency! Emergency!

Sadly, it seems as though we hear about school lockdowns on a weekly basis. ID card systems can certainly help keep your buildings more secure, but there’s more to it than just knowing who came in the front door.

When there’s an emergency, look for an ID card system that can ensure that:

  • All doors in a building or across the district can be locked down with a single command, which can be issued from any wireless device or any computer. This immediacy improves time to action and can save lives.
  • An accurate location report is available on a tablet or computer that shows which staff members and students used their card for attendance and therefore can be identified in the building, in a specific room, which can help first responders react fast.

To automate the process even more effectively, some districts provide their local police and fire departments with precinct- or school-specific ID cards that allow them immediate access into school buildings.

Active or Passive RFID?

School districts have to strike a delicate balance between protecting students when they are on campus, and protecting a student’s right to privacy. You can defend yourself from litigation by making sure your RFID-based ID card system is passive, not active. You can also save yourself some money, too.

Usually battery-powered, active RFID tags have a transmitter and their own power source that is used to run the card’s microchip circuitry and to broadcast a signal to a reader (the way a cell phone transmits signals to a base station). This allows a student’s or teacher’s card to be read at any time—the card can be hanging around a person’s neck, held onto his or her belt loop, or in their backpack, and the reader can pick up its signal, as long as it is within a certain range.

Because the card transmits data, badge holders can be tracked and found anywhere, at any time. And while this may be an enticing scenario, schools have to consider student privacy rights as well. Also Active RFID cards require a battery and are heavier, more expensive, and need significantly more maintenance.

Passive tags have no battery. Instead, they draw power from the reader, and require a student to take an action, like tapping it on a screen, for the card to be read. This process makes it easy to track where students are, and you can get an accurate count of how many students (or teachers, or staff) have checked in at any particular time. However, because it is a passive process, these ID cards do not infringe on privacy. Also, passive cards are less expensive and last longer, hence they have lower overall cost.

Imagine That

Technological advances with ID card systems can make a host of administrative processes easier and more efficient. Here are just a few examples of what’s already happening in school districts across the country.

Attendance: An automated ID card system that generates a list of late/absent children; the parents of those children are then called by an automated system that reports them as absent, making the process more streamlined so office staff can focus on other tasks.

Classroom: Students tap their cards upon entering a classroom, so teachers don’t have to take attendance and substitutes always have an accurate count. Children tap out if they leave the class early and tap into the main office/nurse/guidance office, etc., which makes student movement easy to track.

Visitor Management: When a visitor arrives, there are visitor management modules that determine if he or she has been to the school before. If the person is recognized, a paper badge can be printed; if he or she isn’t in the database, the system determines if there are any district-defined exclusionary alerts regarding the person, while simultaneously checking for a match against the sexual offender database. An automatic alert is sent to the district, making the school even more secure.

Location and Time Clock Management: Staff members use their ID cards to open locked doors to enter school buildings or portable classrooms. Students with disabilities or injuries use their cards to access building elevators. Facility staff members use time clock kiosks to sign in and out of work, which keeps track of their time spent, their current location, and any overtime hours they work.

Students: ID cards are used at cafeteria registers and at libraries to check out books. The database carries personal schedule information, and cards are checked by hall monitors using mobile devices to verify that students are going to the correct class for the proper period.

Accountability and Control: ID cards are tapped for events that take place in buildings after school and/or at night. Students tap in to attend a sporting event, dance, concert, or any other school-sponsored program, which adds accountability and control to event administrators and lets them know who is in the venue for that event.


It’s important to plan ahead. With the pace of technology advances, make sure you find a partner that understands the needs you have today, what you might want in the future, and how you can plan to get there. And now that you’re armed with these important ideas, you can find an ID card system that works best for your schools.

Maged Atiya, Ph.D., is ScholarChip’s founder and principal partner, responsible for managing system and application developments with an eye towards emerging technologies. He founded the company to provide school districts with fast and powerful computing in order to centralize security and operations into a single low maintenance system.

Tech Update: Common Core


TECH Update: Common Core

The latest developments in hot areas of school technology. By Calvin Hennick

When Susan Gendron was commissioner of education for Maine, the state’s SAT scores dropped from within the top 10 in the country to dead last overnight. But there wasn’t any backlash. People were expecting it.

That’s because, for the first time, Maine was requiring all of its students (not just those going to college) to take the test, and Gendron had spent months telling the state’s education reporters and politicians to expect the 50th-place finish.

“It was the best thing we did,” Gendron, now president of the International Center for Leadership in Education, says of the public relations move.

Gendron recommends that school districts take a similar approach to the first round of Common Core–aligned test results. It’s widely assumed that, because of the enhanced rigor of the new standards, scores will drop dramatically in most locales. Given the antipathy with which the standards have already been greeted in some circles, plunging scores could cause an uproar in districts that lack a strong communication plan.

Gendron says administrators should talk to local press about the new tests, put sample questions in school newsletters, and enlist area employers to provide testimonials about how the skills assessed by the exams are valuable in the workplace. School leaders should also take to social media channels and board and PTA meetings to warn about the score drop, she says.

But schools shouldn’t just tell people that scores will be low. Leaders should also explain what they’re going to do about it. Results from the new tests are expected to come in much earlier than data from previous state assessments, and Gendron says schools should use the numbers to form a plan that addresses the areas of highest need.

“In the past, schools got scores so late that it was difficult to do anything with them,” Gendron says, noting that results used to come in as late as the fall. Schools are now ­expected to get them in the spring—early enough to help inform instruction for the end of the school year, or the following fall. “The intent is to give actionable data to the schools. They can reprioritize what they offer for student intervention, they can act upon the data in summer school, they can offer PD for teachers,” Gendron explains.

If parents, teachers, or community members are concerned about low scores, administrators would do well to tell the story of Kentucky. The Bluegrass State was the first to administer Common Core–aligned assessments, and schools saw the predicted drop in scores during the first year of implementation. But the numbers have risen, and state officials say that more students are graduating ready for college and careers than in previous years.

Students shouldn’t be left out of this conversation, Gendron advises. Kids can see that they’re being asked to do different things on the new assessments, and they may not be surprised that their scores take a dip.

“We have to say to kids, ‘We can’t compare to where you were before. This is a starting point,’ ” Gendron says. “We want kids to own their learning so they can start to measure their own progress.”

Illustration: Viktor Koen

Creating a Digital HR Department

Creating a Digital HR Department

Streamlining your application process with technology can save money and improve teacher hiring. By Ron Huberman

In recent years, we’ve seen a significant shift toward making classrooms digital to offer alternative learning methods and more effective instruction. Since students are the top priority, it makes sense that we invest in technology in the classroom to improve teaching and learning. But this transformation leads to the question: Where else might this trend foster improvement? Could districts save money and streamline their hiring processes by creating digital HR departments?

Using technology to hire teachers and process paperwork can decrease the time it takes to secure a new teacher in the classroom. Typical paperwork consists of W2 forms, affidavits, resumes, licensure, etc. Many schools still use paper documents and file cabinets, which increases the time it takes to collect and keep information organized. Further, whenever an HR director or principal needs information on a candidate, someone has to manually sort through a file cabinet to find that candidate’s file. These tedious, logistical tasks can be automated and streamlined through digital systems, which gives HR personnel more time to spend on important, strategic activities like attracting top talent and making careful, more informed hiring decisions.

In addition, paper documents and filing systems lead to financial and institutional costs that can result from losing the best candidates and increasing the time it takes to replace a teacher. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, “districts experience teacher turnover costs at two levels: 1) the central office expends resources when recruiting, hiring, processing, and training teachers; and 2) schools incur costs when employees interview, hire, process, orient, and develop new teachers.” The cost of losing a teacher ranges from $3,600 to $8,600, not including district-level costs and the even more important loss of student learning time. Furthermore, the National Bureau of Economic Research reports that when teachers are absent for 10 days, there is a significant decrease in student outcomes. When teachers are absent more than 10 days, the decrease in student achievement is even more significant; it may be akin to the difference between having a brand new teacher and one with two or three years more experience, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Another study, Missed Opportunities, found that when the hiring processes push districts’ timelines back, between 31 and nearly 60 percent of applicants withdraw from the process, often to accept jobs with districts that made offers earlier. The majority cited the late hiring timeline as a major reason they took other jobs. When schools efficiently move qualified candidates through the hiring process, the candidate is more likely to accept the position and the school will have a new teacher in the classroom faster. When quality candidates become disengaged due to delays, hiring managers have to consider less qualified candidates.

 These financial and institutional costs demonstrate just how crucial it is to secure quality teachers as efficiently as possible. Creating a digital HR department is one solution. So how can you digitalize teacher hiring?

1. Use a robust applicant tracking system to collect the necessary information from the start.

Applicant tracking systems streamline the hiring process by collecting and organizing candidate files from the moment they apply. These systems can also store and share digital copies of important paperwork that candidates can fill out as part of their application. 

“We’re working to build a custom functionality that will allow us to streamline the [hiring] process even further,” says Dan Pavletich, HR director at Elmbrook. “We’ll be able to digitalize all of our paperwork and keep it in the system so that when we hire a new teacher, he or she can log into the system to fill out the necessary forms and we can go in and easily see what paperwork has been completed. Then it’s on file forever; we don’t have to have hundreds of pieces of loose paper filed in a cabinet.”

2. Use a cloud service to store and send documents electronically.

Google Drive and Office 365 both let you share and download documents which makes it easy to send a document to a candidate, have him or her fill it out electronically, and send it back. You can then download the document and save it in the cloud service. Google Drive also lets you have a desktop version of the cloud so that you can access the files without using an Internet browser.

3. Create a website specifically for teacher candidates.

Clark County School District in Nevada created a website exclusively for new teacher hires. The website offers information and forms, new teacher resources, and welcome information.

It’s important to remember that student performance can be supported outside the classroom. Schools should begin to think about how to use technology to streamline processes in other departments. Changing your HR office is a small initiative you can take that has a lasting, positive impact on hiring time and cost, and will ultimately help place an effective teacher in the classroom faster to improve student learning experiences.

Ron Huberman is a former superintendent and the co-founder of TeacherMatch, an advanced K–12 talent management system that uses predictive analytics and data to help school districts identify, hire, and develop effective teachers.

Image: Chris Ryan/Media Bakery

Tech Tools: Software Picks 2015

Software Picks 2015

The latest and greatest education-friendly tech tools. By Brian Nadel

In OverDrive’s library, e-books are just like physical volumes, only more navigable. The software lets students browse the catalog and check out e-books that can be read on free versions of OverDrive for PCs, Macs, Androids, iPads, and Chromebooks. The e-book is automatically returned to the collection on its due date. OverDrive displays the material in several fonts and sizes, plus readers can get definitions, use bookmarks, and easily search the entire book. You can even use the software for audiobooks, which can be played at a variety of speeds. overdrive.com/schools

Aerohive ID Manager.
Whether you use Macs, PCs, or Androids—or all three—Aerohive’s ID Manager can make sense of an increasingly complicated networking landscape. The app emphasizes the self-service approach by providing every new client with a secure encryption key that can be generated from a student list or configured on the fly for a guest. Students can be added or dropped at any time. Price upon request. aerohive.com

Netop Vision ME.
Netop’s Vision ME not only puts the teacher in control of what every student sees on
their screens and blocks Web access but also broadcasts to a select group or displays any student’s screen on the projector. It’s integrated with Google Drive and Dropbox so that items can be stored locally or online. Available for iPad only. Price upon request. netop.com/visionme

SchoolCircle can streamline the complicated process of setting up a parent–teacher conference. It’s as simple as inviting a parent to a meeting. The system can also be used for scheduling field trips, events, and open-house nights, as well as providing key documents or daily classroom updates to parents. Free. schoolcircle.com

Kickboard Parent Student Portal.
Kickboard’s classroom management system consolidated everything needed to educate kids, but one thing was missing: parental involvement. That changes with the company’s Parent Student Portal, which delivers easy-to-read behavior and progress reports as well as alerts for assignments that have not been completed. Free. kickboardforteachers.com

Sponsored Content: Making Connections

As schools increasingly rely on resources outside the district to deliver instructional content and operational applications, a strong, reliable network is more important than ever. Article sponsored by Comcast.

Comcast V14

To test his network in preparation for the Common Core–aligned PARCC assessment, Keith Bockwoldt packed a gymnasium with 225 iPad-wielding students and asked them to all fire up YouTube videos at the same time.

The trial went off without a hitch.

“We didn’t have any buffering or any loss of connectivity,” says Bockwoldt, director of technology services for Township High School District 214 in northern Illinois. “A couple of years ago, we wouldn’t have had enough bandwidth to support that.”

In 2004, the district switched from an early networking technology with limited bandwidth to Comcast Ethernet. Since then, the schools have upgraded their capacity several times to keep up with demand.

“We’ve had exponential growth,” says Bockwoldt. “We currently have over 9,000 iPads deployed for 12,000 students. Next year, we’re looking at all students having a device, so it’s critical for us to have the capacity to support instruction in the classrooms.”

Two decades after the Internet began to transform the way teachers and students access information, most educators are well aware of the need for a fast connection. But high-speed Internet is only one piece of a school district’s connectivity puzzle. Strong connectivity between schools and other sites, in the form of a robust wide area network (WAN), is just as important. Increasingly, so are connections to external data centers and cloud-hosted systems—both of which can expand schools’ IT capacities without adding any physical infrastructure on-site. Finally, recognizing that the need for connectivity doesn’t end with the school day, a number of districts have found ways to help students and their families get online when they’re at home.

More Bandwidth

When the Internet first came into schools, it was largely used for basic research, and everyone was happy to wait a minute or two for webpages to load—that was still much faster than taking a trip to the library and riffling through the card catalog. That has all changed—­dramatically.

“You have streaming videos, with sites like YouTube and Khan Academy,” says Bock­woldt. “And there’s a plethora of tools that teachers are accessing. You need to have the bandwidth and the infrastructure. Otherwise, teachers and students aren’t going to have a good experience, and your staff will lose trust
in the system.”

In a 2013 Pew survey of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers, 92 percent said the Internet has a “major impact” on their ability to access content, resources, and materials for their teaching.

Intradistrict Connections

A high-speed Internet connection won’t do school districts any good unless they have a network robust enough to support it.

“While the Internet pipe needs to be big enough, so do those connections that go to the schools,” says Bockwoldt.

Fort Wayne Community Schools in Indiana gets its Internet connection through the state but relies on Comcast Ethernet to connect more than 50 sites in its WAN, and the district recently doubled the connection speed to its high schools to keep up with increasing demand.

Jack Byrd, director of technology for Fort Wayne, says that high-capacity intradistrict connections are vital, especially for delivering multimedia learning tools. “If we have any Internet or wide area network disruptions, that’s affecting instruction,” he says.

A WAN that is private, secure, and highly available is the foundation for resource distribution within a school district. It’s what allows schools to adopt new applications that enhance both instruction and business operations, and then push those applications out to every school in the district.

For example, both District 214 and Fort Wayne have moved away from analog phone systems to voice over Internet protocol (VOIP), which offers districts new features and can also reduce phone bills. Byrd notes that VOIP would be impossible if Fort Wayne hadn’t upgraded its WAN more than a decade ago. “Our voice communications, our video communications, and, of course, our data—that’s all done through Comcast’s network,” he says. 

Data Centers and Cloud Computing

When school districts run out of space to store servers—or when they simply want to move their data to a more controlled environment—they often turn to third-party data centers. Or, if they want to outsource some or all of their servers entirely, they look to cloud service providers like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.

A data center allows districts to rent space with adequate power, cooling, and security for their servers, eliminating the chance that a custodian might accidentally spill water on the equipment or unplug it. Some districts connect to these off-site data centers via the Internet, but increasingly, schools are using an Ethernet connection that replicates the performance of their WANs.

Cloud service providers allow school districts to eliminate their physical servers and rent out virtual servers instead, and these virtual servers can be accessed via the Internet or a private connection to the provider.

Even among districts that continue to maintain their own servers on-site, nearly all schools are using some type of business or instructional software that is hosted in the cloud. Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365, which allow students and staff to create, edit, and collaborate on projects that are stored in the cloud, are prime examples of this. Many districts also rely on the cloud for applications like teacher evaluation programs and learning management systems.

Connecting at Home

Fort Wayne is getting ready to switch to Office 365, which allows students to store their work in the cloud. If they save a draft of a research paper while they’re at school, they can access that same draft at home later—but only if they’re connected to the Internet. The district and Comcast have joined forces to make sure all students can have a robust home connection.

A number of Fort Wayne students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch receive home Internet service through Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which offers broadband at a reduced rate for those students and their families.

The district has participated in the program for several years, but Byrd says that home Internet is becoming increasingly important as schools move toward more cloud-hosted learning software that students need a connection to access.

“One of our goals is that kids can learn anytime, anywhere,” Byrd says. “Learning doesn’t stop at the school walls.”

Illustration: Laura Rolwing



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