As technology becomes more entwined with curriculum and instruction, school districts are looking to each other for models that work.
For their technology and learning initiatives, three school districts were recognized as first-place winners in their respective student population categories in the 2012 Digital School Districts Survey from the Center for Digital Education.
Keep reading to find out their major strategies for integrating technology into the curriculum in a meaningful way.
1. Start small and let technology integration spread organically.
While large districts such as the Clark County School District in Las Vegas may start a pilot with a million tablets, the smaller Springville-Griffith Institute Central Schools in New York tests devices with pilots of a thousand or less. By testing devices in a limited group, district administrators see whether something they think will work actually does work.
Because the Springville-Griffith school district has limited funds, it started a competitive grant program for technology. K-12 educators apply online for opportunities to try out tools such as interactive whiteboards. They share how they'll use the tools and how they connect to the New York and/or Common Core state standards.
Then support staff, educators and administrators who didn't apply or supply the technology review the blind submissions. They rank the submissions and award devices to the winners.
The first time the district made interactive whiteboards and document cameras available in the grant program, staff members expected to purchase between 10 and 20 devices. But only five educators applied.
"What it really came down to was people didn't know what they were or what they were capable of," said JoAnn DePue, director of technology, data and assessment.
But as other teachers saw what the five educators were doing in the classroom with the tools, they got interested too. The next time the grant option came up for the devices, all the teachers in one elementary school applied.
"Once they start to get that comfort level by talking with their peers and seeing what they're doing and how they're using it, they really do tend to come out of their shells," said Benjamin Higgins, district technology coordinator and webmaster.
A similar effect happened with an elementary school podmaster program. Teachers weren't sure they had time to create podcasts, so technology staff showed a few students how to do it. Within the first year, half of the elementary school students produced at least one podcast that was tied to the curriculum. The next year, almost every student had at least one digital piece online.
2. Set a curriculum-driven plan.
One of the most important things Henry County Public Schools in Collinsville, Va., does is to let the curriculum drive the technology. With a plan for certain curriculum pieces, districts can integrate technology and curriculum seamlessly.
This mid-sized district participated in the Virginia Education Department Beyond Textbooks pilot of iPads and digital textbooks. But the curriculum stayed central in this pilot. Third- through fifth-grade students have access to the tablets 24/7 with social studies and math textbooks on them.
With special needs students, the Henry County school district has a plan for them to use their iPads whether they're in an inclusion environment or a segregated room. It's not a reward device, but is integrated into the learning experience, said Janet Copenhaver, director of technology.
"Technology can be anything from an overhead projector to a pencil, but the piece of technology has to fit the instructional plan, and it has to be used in their daily planning as well as their 'I can' statements of what the students are going to get from a particular standard," Copenhaver said.
Another piece of technology integration involves continual professional development that fits the curriculum plan instructionally and technology-wise. Teachers go through summer sessions and three mandatory phases of professional development during the year.
Because teachers don't always learn their best after school's done for the day, the district hires substitutes to take their classes so they can attend training sessions during the school day.
"There's an expectation that we're going to have it so many times during a year, and there's an expectation that if we do introduce a new device to them, that we are going to make sure they have enough [professional development] ongoing that they feel comfortable and that they can actually plan during their planning times in small group settings that collaborate to make sure that they're all on the same page," Copenhaver said.
3. Stick with a concept that aligns directly to instruction.
When a school district finds a concept that works, it should directly match up to instruction and be used in different venues to get where the district wants to go, said Wanda Creel, superintendent of the Barrow County School System in Winder, Ga. The large Georgia school district created a Direct to Discovery initiative to find bright students who would do well in science, math and engineering careers.
Through this initiative that's funded in part by a $1.7 million Georgia Race to the Top Innovation Grant, students gain real-world experience in science. Each school has high-definition video-conferencing technology. The Barrow County School System teachers work with professors at Georgia Tech to plan lessons that connect to standards.
With video conferencing, the professors help teach lessons, while the teachers help students in class as part of a blended learning model. The high school students also use lab equipment at Georgia Tech that the district can't afford. As a result, they're exposed to more advanced concepts and technology than they would normally be exposed to in a high school.
"For us, this is probably our showcase piece right now and our greatest use of technology, but it is very broad-based," Creel said. "It's the video-conferencing equipment, it's the support of iPads in the classroom, it's building a teacher portal behind the scenes to support all that we're doing, it is the marketing piece that's going with it and what that's doing for our school."
As students apply their knowledge and experience science, they move beyond the boundaries of their classroom. An astronomy class pipes into Australia to manipulate telescopes and see the night sky. Then the students compare that with the views from national labs in Maui and other places.
When an elementary school teacher organizes a virtual field trip for her class to a place such as Ellis Island, other classes can join in through video conferencing if the field trip meets a standard they're working on.
Now Barrow County is using this Direct to Discovery concept in more fields such as math and music.
"We took a concept, and we got that down," Creel said, "and now we're trying to broaden it so that it can enhance lots of other areas."