Most educators agree increasing access to technology and getting devices into the hands of students is a good thing. What they don’t agree on is how to provide that access. Should they implement a BYOD policy or fund a 1:1 initiative? Each approach has its inherent difficulties, but for the Union County Public Schools (UCPS), the choice was a no brainer. The North Carolina based district is in its fourth year of a 1:1 initiative with laptops. Last year, Union County introduced about 24,000 Lenovo Chromebooks as the final stage of a district-wide 1:1 initiative that spans grades 6-12. Although they considered the BYOD route, the district ultimately ruled against it.
“If you can imagine being a teacher and having one child walk in with a MacBook Pro, another with an iPhone, another with a Chromebook, another with a PC and another with a Kindle Fire, that’s a recipe for disaster in our opinion,” says Scott Jacumin, lead instructional technology facilitator at UCPS.
Union County wanted its students to be creators of media, not simply consumers. In a BYOD environment teachers would have to be conscious of picking tools that are device agnostic, meaning they would work across multiple operating systems. Otherwise teachers would have to have knowledge of several different tools and how to troubleshoot them.
“Bring your own device is not really conducive to production in the classroom,” says Jacumin. “What happens is the device becomes a consumption tool and a teacher says let’s research X rather than lets produce Y.”
The 1-1 initiative in Union County began as a pilot with 120 sixth grade students. The district originally deployed Dell Latitude 2110 Netbooks, but has decided to introduce Lenovo X131e Chromebooks next year spurred in part by the increasing popularity of cloud-based tools and their ability to provide anytime, anywhere access.
“It was looking at cloud computing as a viable option for our students and how accessible their data would be to them not only on the Chromebook, but from whatever device they may have available at home,” says Jacumin.
It All Begins with Infrastructure
Before any device ever enters the classroom, a district has to think about the strength of its network. Is it robust enough to support at least one device per child? What happens when everyone attempts to stream video at once? Then there are filters and firewalls to think about.
“If you don’t have the infrastructure in place to support 24,000 devices connecting to your wireless network and still have other instruction going on in your central offices via hardwire, it’s not going to work,” says Tony Burrus, chief technology officer for UCPS.
Although the district has been 1:1 for four years, it is still making changes to its infrastructure. Bandwidth was originally increased to 1 Gig per school back to the data center. This summer, the connection will be increased to 10 Gigs. New firewalls and more filters were also added to the network.
An often overlooked part of infrastructure is man power. Do you have enough technology staff to provide support for the additional devices? Union County has an engineer at every school to service its machines. Two years ago the district even built its own Technology Depot, a retrofitted building housed on the same campus as Technology Services. The Depot allows Union County to bring computer repairs in-house, which was projected to save the district $3.8 million in repair costs. It is here the new Chromebooks will be serviced before they are distributed to students.
Union County provides ongoing and multifaceted professional development for teachers and administrators. For the last four years, technology staff has concentrated on creating teacher mentors, a group of instructors who were part of the early 1:1 implementation and can pass their knowledge onto their peers.
“You’re never going to have the capital at the central office to do all of the staff development,” says Jacumin.
Teacher mentors bolster the efforts of the central office by acting as a resource to fellow educators. Each building also has an instructional technology facilitator who helps instructors with pedagogy and working with a specific classroom device. The focus of professional development is always about creating positive changes in teaching and learning.
“It never became about the device,” says Dr. Mike Webb, superintendent of UCPS. “It was always about the professional development and how technology could be utilized to improve learning.”
When the district decided to purchase the Chromebooks, it implemented what staff refers to as the “Chromebook Expo.” A group of the machines were taken to every school where teachers had the opportunity to play around with them and explore what the Chromebook had to offer.
“We showed them some of the things that they can do in their classroom, but more importantly dispelled the myths associated with Chromebooks,” says Jacumin.
For example, there were concerns that the Chromebook is not a “real” computer because it’s Web-based. Another concern was that it would only work online or that its effectiveness would be limited if a student didn’t have Internet at home.
“We identified a set of questions we heard that were negative things about the Chromebooks and we dispelled those myths in the process,” says Jacumin.
Another very important aspect of professional development was a focus on what Union County calls “transformational use of technology.”
“It’s one thing to take a textbook and digitize it so that a student can read it on a computer or on an iPad, but to be honest you can do that by handing a child a book,” says Jacumin. “We try to focus on ways to do things with technology that could not be done before.”
For example, every year students take a trip to Barrier Island in South Carolina. Prior to the trip, teachers use the Chromebooks and Google Earth to survey the area and teach students about the location, blending social studies and geography.
Mobile Device Management
When you have 24,000 devices on your network, management can become an issue. Burrus uses Google’s Web-based management console to install and block apps as well as push down what access ID the devices connect to. He can also block sites students shouldn’t be accessing via the network filters.
“We have filters set up for students, teachers and staff. Each one has different levels and different things they are allowed to do,” says Burrus. These features also help to ensure network security.
Keys to Success
In the four years since Union County first implemented a 1:1 learning environment, the district has had to overcome challenges associated with a project of such significant size and scope. Staff has found those challenges differ depending on your role within the school community and no one challenge outweighs another.
“Your biggest challenge depends on the chair you’re sitting in,” says Webb.
For CTOs the biggest challenge is likely infrastructure and putting the support in place for mobile devices. For instructional technology specialists’ the greatest challenge may be changing the culture of teaching and learning at a school. For administrators it’s sustainability. How do you continue to support and fund a 1:1 and a culture that now increasingly expects greater access to technology?
There is no easy answer to any of these questions, but the staff at Union County has a few tips to offer other end users. Number one: conversation has to take place from the top down.
“You have to know what the vision is from the superintendent [and] the Board of Education,” says Webb. “You have to talk to your technology officer to make sure that the infrastructure can handle the vision and will bend to the vision or provide funding to upgrade the infrastructure to meet the vision.” Webb also warns that you need make sure people are actually on board with your plans.
“If you look around and no one is following you that’s a hallucination not a vision,” he says.
Number two: you have to define your learning outcomes. Identify what is you want students to be able to do or what skills you want them to gain. Then pick a device that supports those learning outcomes.
“If you’re buying computers because the county next to you got computers, then you’re buying them for the wrong reason,” says Jacumin. “Education hasn’t changed. The tools necessary to educate children have changed somewhat. You have to start with the end in mind. What do I need my kids to know to prepare for life? If computers help [you] get there, begin building infrastructure and selecting a device. If they don’t then spend your money elsewhere.”
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