Kyle Berger, Executive Director of Technology for Alvarado ISD,
in the North Texas runs IT for a district with about 3,400 students. Companies like HP, Verizon, Microsoft
, and Intel
have been interested in his ideas. His story is about entrepreneurial education leadership, and developing a business model. He has translated thinking differently into action that pays off for his district and students.
Alvarado is a pretty technology-forward school district. All of the classrooms have mounted projectors,
interactive whiteboards, and document cameras, as well as interactive slates for teachers. Furthermore, for the past two years, their 1:1 initiative has been in high gear. Every 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-grade student has an HP Netbook or Mini-Note-style laptop. And for the 2010/2011 school year, traditional-style laptops will be given to each 7th- and 8th-grader. “That gives me a little over 1,500 units in the hands of students. Next year we want to begin rolling out slate or tablet devices to our high school students,” says Berger. All 6 Alvarado campuses are WiFi.
On the surface, Alvarado may appear to be another one of those success stories, where a district has been fortunate in acquiring technology. But that’s not the case, and discovering why a company like Microsoft would want to launch their new Multi-Point Server there may have a lot to do with the leadership. Technology didn’t just drop out of the sky. There’s an out-of-the-box IT director in charge, who would be just as at home in a corporate marketing role than sharing at a board of education meeting. Creative ideas wouldn’t be enough, so what differentiates Berger and Alvarado? Well, it’s using a business model to strategically accomplish education goals, which include technology.
“One of the things I try to do is to run my education IT as a business model,” says Berger. An example is starting his 1:1 program at the middle school level.
Intel researchers recently interviewed Berger regarding his middle school-start philosophy. Most 1:1 programs start at the high school level. His business mind had him thinking ROI.
Berger thought beginning at the middle school level gave him a better place to see the impact of technology over a longer time span than starting at the high school. Politically speaking, if he wedged the 1:1 in the middle of his district, and sat back—watched what happened—Berger figured the parent community would back 1:1 more, to guarantee their kids would be at a 1:1 school at every level.
His strategy of placing the 1:1 initiative in the middle grabbed the attention of elementary and high school parents—as well as middle school parents. Very quickly, school board meetings began hearing requests by parents for the necessity of 1:1 at every building and grade level. “In this economy, starting at the high school level might make it too easy to say, kids will get 1:1 when they get to the high school,” says Berger, pleased that his middle-start has paid off.
Results Helps ROI
For a long time 1:1 programs have raised questions due to the unfavorable research out there, including reports of lack of laptop use by students, and lack of data supporting student gains in achievement. Berger can show positive results, and closing out his 2nd year, his program is showing 8% gains on state testing—across the board—in his 1:1 cohort groups. Berger says, “It’s working; it’s not a distraction. We’ve have the data now; we’re going with it, and it’s really exciting.”
It’s a Pretty Big Business
“Our district doesn’t have a whole lot of money, so we’re thinking about how we can approach all this to get the best bang for our buck and for the district,” says Berger.
It’s a pretty big business, with 3400 students and 400 employees. The organization and management—day to day—needs to be looked at from more of a corporate stance. “I need to drive value to my students,” says Berger.
Bringing the Internet to the Community
About 75% of Berger’s students are economically disadvantaged, and could never afford an Internet connection. “We were sending students home with devices that they couldn’t connect with. We tried the reverse classroom model, where we’d podcast or vodcast a teacher’s lecture, then load it onto the a student laptop. Students would take the content of the lesson at home. We then had students do what would traditionally be homework—in the classroom.
But the problem remained—my students didn’t have Internet, and weren’t getting the full use out of the tools we’d given them. I had to figure a way to do that effectively. That’s where I came up with my Internet kiosk program,” says Berger.
There are kiosks everywhere in society today—airports, and at the mall, you see these self-servicing kiosk units. I figured that I might be able to leverage that idea for what I needed to do,” says Berger. With help from HP, a walk-up kiosk unit was developed that not only would allow parents, who didn’t have computers at home to walk up to these terminals, check their children’s grades, get district information and news, but could also be a place where students could access the Internet. The kiosks had a WiFi antenna built in that would create free WiFi hotspots.
Funding the Free WiFi Idea
“The question remained—how could we fund this thing and make it work?” It didn’t take long to figure that out. The kiosks had two screens. So on the top screen Berger rotates advertisements. It’s a simple format, like a PowerPoint, and it rotates Ads every 10 seconds. Berger sells them. “I started out with 5 companies that I was selling Ads to, and I had a slide that would come up offering Ad space at the kiosk, so the amount of Ads increased—building itself, says Berger.
The kiosks are placed in fast food chains, grocery stores, or Laundromats. They provide the business, or
location, free Internet for their customers. “Businesses love that, because it’s an added bonus for their customers, and I get to advertise and offer free WiFi for my students and parents to come to. It’s a win-win situation,” says Berger. “Now I just sit back and let the phone ring. Whoever wants to advertise calls me up, and I can sell them an Ad on one kiosk, or multiple kiosks. My monthly cost for a kiosk is really just a Verizon data card for about $40 a month to get that signal there—and I’m making more than that on my Ads.” Berger also appreciates the help his gotten from Verizon to make this happen.
With the revenue from the Ads, Berger can build more kiosk units, or build-out WiFi hotspots that are non-kiosks, like a rugged one at a park pavilion, which has no advertising at all. “We’ve actually approached some churches in our more rural areas that don’t have connections. A hotspot is perfect in a little community center out there. Anywhere with an area for my students to gather is a good place,” says Berger.
He now has businesses lining up asking for a kiosk. “We’re watching the money come in, which allows us to continue to think strategic WiFi placement. I have about 96 square miles to cover, so we’re building strategic plans on how to do that. We know there will be more mandates and less money, so I have to find new ways to figure this out.”
This year Berger will put free WiFi on school buses, making them mobile hotspots. “We have some long school bus routes. A child may be on a bus for an hour, and that could still be educational time—now that they have a device in their hands. For that, we’re thinking of a sponsorship sign on the side of the school bus,” says Berger. He says that a company would be a great partner/sponsor.
Additionally, Berger is looking at a mobile hotspot classroom in an old bus. He plans to gut the interior, put counter tops along the sides, load it up with computers, and make it all WiFi. The bus would be a rolling computer lab, which could go out into the community to teach parents, ESL, and do outreach programs. “If we can’t get the parents into us, we’re going to bring the programs to them—and start impacted our community a little more. I can fund that by wrapping the whole bus in Ads, just like you see on the commercial buses all over town,” says Berger.
District Advertising Policies
“This is not like advertising—in your face—in the classroom or campuses. We are very picky about who can advertise. We do sell some space on our Website. As our revenues decrease, we would be foolish not to look at alternatives to get the money for tools our students need. We’re certainly not going to plaster our kids with logos,” says Berger.
Because Berger is not doing this with e-rate, there are a lot fewer control restrictions. No school district dollars are being used to fund it, so Berger can do it with his advertising model. “I don’t have to follow all the management or filtering requirements on the WiFi spots,” says Berger.
Initial BOE Doubts Vanish
At first, when Berger presented his advertising-outreach ideas to his school board, they didn’t quite get it—and didn’t think it would work. He convinced them to try a couple of units. It worked, and just started blossoming. The kiosks in the community are a source of pride now. “When you walk in a store and see a kiosk in school district colors, as a community outreach—and signs saying Free WiFi provided by Alvarado School District, it’s a good feeling.
More Business Thinking
"One day I thought, I have all this storage space on my network, and I’m sure the district down the street does, too. I wondered how I could tie mine together with them, and offload my data there, and for them to offload to me. It really just amounts to sharing data space. It would be a simple way to back up data off site.
As school districts, we pay all this money for Internet connections that at 4 o’clock every day aren’t used. The idea is to leverage that downtime. I have free off-site data space in three locations around the United States right now. We developed a system where at 4:00 pm each day our systems tie together, and push data back and forth to each other. It’s free disaster recovery with school districts across the country. They have data with us, and I have data with them—all protected for free.
Kyle Berger has more ideas, which he may just turn into a book. It seems that some of them make what’s good for business also good for Alvarado ISD, education, and kids, too. Technology doesn’t fall from the sky at Alvarado, Berger earns it.