Friday, August 3, 2012

From the iPad of Ron Dodson, Assistant Superintendent of Hoover City Schools...


Engaged Learning Initiative: Historical Notes

The Engaged Learning Initiative actually began five years ago, but we didn’t know at the time that it would have that name or that it would be manifested in the current form.  The following pages are my attempt to recall how we got where we are today because this project is only possible because of critical decisions and preparations which preceded today’s efforts. 

Back in 2007, it was evident that the next great leap in instructional technology would be 1 to 1 learning.  However, the early results of such initiatives across the country had yielded a mixed bag of results.  Laptop projects typically generated great excitement at the start, but many had faltered or failed in subsequent years.  The obstacles to success could generally be placed in three categories:

1.       Insufficient infrastructure-  Many of the early initiatives greatly underestimated the cost and the time involving in getting a school ready for wireless computing on a large scale.  Something as simple as providing electrical power outlets in the ceiling for projectors can quickly become prohibitively expensive, especially when working in older buildings. 

2.       Instructional vacuum-  Research has clearly established that the presence of technology as a single variable has no significant effect on student achievement.  However, when the technology was used in conjunction with the implementation of proven instructional strategies, the chances for significant gains in achievement were much greater. 

3.       Financial sustainability-  Once grants or special one-time discounts expired, districts faced difficulty maintaining and replacing devices with existing revenue.  The political climate then and now is such that communities are mostly reluctant to pass new taxes, so when the early excitement waned after a few years, the funding often waned as well.

We began in 2007 by approaching the challenge of infrastructure.  A $4.5 million classroom upgrade was approved by our board which placed projectors, document cameras, and other devices in all of our classrooms.   This upgrade took two years to complete at both the secondary and elementary levels, and it was much appreciated by both teachers and the community.  However, we knew at the time that this was only a beginning because the improvements were focused primarily on equipping the teacher, not the individual students.  Behind the scenes, the technology department began gradually increasing bandwidth capacity for both internal and external network connections, consolidating user identity profiles and managing network policy through Microsoft Exchange, and installing early generation wireless access points at strategic places in school buildings throughout the district. 

In 2008, we began approaching the instructional obstacle by focusing professional development resources on two specific instructional reforms which we believed would yield the best achievement gains for our district in the long term: differentiated instruction and formative assessment strategies.  Our city had become much more diverse over the previous decade, transforming from a sleepy homogeneous suburban municipality to a vibrant metropolitan city whose demographics had come to resemble the national profile for our country.  More students were entering our schools at all grade levels in greater frequency (approximately 30% of the student population was moving in or out every three years) who were typically less prepared for the rigorous learning environment which was our cultural norm, but the expectations of the community to maintain our 90% college acceptance rate had not wavered.  The old traditional methods of training students to become patient listeners and good note-takers would not suffice for the next generation of learners and workers.  Two professional development initiatives, D.I.R.T. (Differentiated Instruction Resource Team) and F.C.A.R.T (Formative Common Assessment Resource Team), created cadres of teachers throughout the district who opened their classrooms to other teachers and provided peer training in these innovative instructional strategies.   Both of the initiatives were generally well-received, but implementation of the strategies was often hampered by logistical or classroom management issues which required more effort from the teacher than some could muster.

In 2010, we began seriously modeling the financial viability of 1 to 1 computing.  The iPad was first released that spring, but the full transformational impact of tablet computing had not yet taken hold.  Earlier models of tablet devices by other manufacturers were still prohibitively expensive and had not gained widespread acceptance.  A new term entered the national conversation in instructional technology circles:  BYOD which stood for Bring Your Own Device.  The idea was that the proliferation of smart phones and personal electronic devices, including gaming platforms, meant that most students in the near future would possess personally owned wireless technology which could be used for instructional purposes if school networks allowed them to access a filtered internet connection.  Having counted the cost of laptops and tablet devices and finding them still to be prohibitively expensive, we began to make internal improvements to expand and enhance wireless connectivity within all of the buildings in the district to prepare the ground for BYOD learning. 

By 2011, the iPad had quickly seized the stage as the device which had redefined and transformed the manner in which individuals could access information and participate in virtual communities as a normal function of daily life, but the cost was still considered prohibitive.  E-readers had gained innovative ground by adding capabilities which, while rudimentary, offered many of the features of tablet computers at a much lower cost.  In our district, Dr. Deborah Camp led a pilot of two elementary classrooms where Nooks were issued to individual students for use as both e-readers and personal computing devices.  These classrooms were open laboratories where teachers and administrators throughout the district were able to visit and observe 1 to 1 learning in action, and it was extraordinarily rewarding to see that the devices were clearly supporting both differentiated instruction and formative assessment strategies. 

Toward the latter half of 2011, the district responded to concerns related to the threats and opportunities of social media applications by providing two collaborative learning resources in a safe environment.  Edmodo was a Facebook-like interactive site designed specifically for schools which included safeguards to protect children from undesirable interactions with persons outside of the school community.  Moodle was a learning management system which allowed the creation and support of individually designed online courses which could operate in parallel to or completely independent from a physical classroom.  Both of these resources quickly gained acceptance by teachers and students in the first half of the 2011-12 school year because they broke the barrier of the daily bell schedule and expanded the capacity for learning to a 24/7 environment.  This quick acceptance also increased pressure for the use of even more personal learning devices within the school building on a daily basis.

In early 2012, network infrastructure was deemed ready for full implementation of BYOD, and plans were made to introduce specific courses for 2012-13 at the high school level which would feature BYOD accessibility in lieu of traditional textbooks to test the 1 to 1 learning waters.  By late spring of 2012, these plans quickly changed due to two things:  First, the extraordinary success of the Nook pilot in our two elementary classrooms, and second, a visit to Westlake High School in Austin, Texas which was recommended by Don Hulin, principal of Hoover High School.  In regard to the Nook, cost drops which had occurred earlier in the spring made the financial model for that device clearly tip in favor of 1 to 1 learning, especially given the overwhelmingly positive reviews from the pilot classrooms.  At Westlake High School, the visiting team learned three important lessons from their example:

1.       Our earlier financial models had not considered specific areas where we could actually recover current and recurring costs over the long-term.  When 1 to 1 learning is in place, fewer dedicated computer labs and laptop carts are needed, so some existing spaces can be freed up to meet the need for additional classrooms, and the replacement and licensing costs of hundreds of desktop and laptop computers can be recovered.

2.       The Westlake technology staff emphasized the importance of answering the question “Why?” first and foremost.  Why should drive the question of “How?”, and How should drive the question of “What?”.  This is a simple way of acknowledging the instructional vacuum of earlier technology initiatives.  The end result must be improved student achievement, not just the excitement of opening new toys on Christmas morning.

3.       Patience and planning must be carefully balanced.  While students, as digital natives, adapt quickly to the innovative potential of tablet computing, most teachers, as digital immigrants, adapt more slowly.  Early efforts should emphasize enhancement in which the technology often serves as a substitute of an existing learning tool or an augmentation of existing instructional strategies.  However, intentional and purposeful planning must prepare the ground and nurture the transformative potential of 1 to 1 learning which can redefine instructional strategies and create opportunities to do things which would have not been possible in a traditional classroom.

When we returned from the trip to Texas, we debriefed as a leadership team and reconsidered our financial models.  We quickly came to the conclusion that the time was now.  BYOD will still be an important part of our overall strategy, but fears and concerns about accessibility, particularly for our growing population of economically disadvantaged students, needed to be addressed directly and consistently by offering school-provided tablet devices to all students in grades 3 to 12.  Nooks will be the device in grades 3 to 8 and iPads for grades 9 to 12. 

Changing course and setting in motion a plan which will directly impact up to half of the student population in the next year with only four months to prepare before the start of the 2012-13 school year has placed an enormous strain on our administrative, teaching, and technical personnel.  I am enormously proud of how everyone at every level has responded to this considerable challenge, and I’m appreciative of a board and a community which supports innovative instruction every time we ask for that support.  This is going to be amazing!

Looking forward, I patiently anticipate that time two to three years from now when we should begin to see the first fruits of the transformative impact of instructional strategies which have found expression in the innovative applications of the 1 to 1 learning environment.  I hope that the very definition of the word school will have become more blurred as our notions of a specific place and particular times become less fixed.  I wonder what the next great innovation will be, and I marvel at the possibility of new career choices for our younger students which haven’t even been dreamed of yet.  I hope, I wonder, and I marvel at the path ahead for learning in Hoover City Schools. 

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