Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

3 Pillars for Success with IT

on August 19, 2011
Educators in the Digital Learning Collaborative learn together over a two year period. | Photo courtesy of Bud Hunt

While many district IT departments focus mainly on obtaining technology, a Colorado district places equal weight on obtaining technology, training teachers and sustaining technology investments.

"For far too long, education technologists in schools have been focused on obtaining technologies," said Joe McBreen, CIO of St. Vrain Valley School District. "But they're forgetting the other two pieces that are equally important."

Keep reading to find out how the District Technology Services team emphasizes three elements on its mission to help students learn.


Obtain technology

Two years ago, the wireless system was fragmented, and not every school had wireless. But over the past few years, the district has added more bandwidth and a rock-solid wireless system. 

St. Vrain has more than 10,000 computers, a third each of thin clients, Macs and PCs. And as the district plans ahead, McBreen will look at what kinds of devices students need for each task.

Schools generally think they have to choose between a laptop and a desktop computer. But schools have room for both, along with netbooks, tablets, smart phones and other devices. Moving forward, the district is looking for ways to make these computer investments sustainable by providing different kinds of devices for different purposes.

Each one of those tools fills a need, which McBreen illustrated with an analogy of cars and trucks. Most of the time, a car works just fine, he says. When you need to move on the weekends or haul stuff, then you need a truck.

The same goes for computers. Occasionally students do need the horsepower that a desktop computer provides when they create videos or use programs like AutoCAD. But most of the time, a netbook or other smaller device works.

"You don't always need a pick up truck," McBreen said. "Sometimes a little sedan is better."

Train teachers

But the tools aren't the point. Learning is the point. And that's why the instructional technology team works with the professional development and curriculum departments to design professional learning moments.

While the district does provide training that focuses more on a specific technology tool, it also provides long-term, job-embedded professional development.

"One shot PD just doesn't really lead to change," said Bud Hunt, instructional technology coordinator.

Through Digital Learning Collaborative cohorts, teams of teachers spend two years learning together. The first year, they set learning goals and explore technology with their goals in mind. The second year, they research and apply what they've learned.

"The real intent of all of that work is that we know that it takes time to make change," Hunt said, "so we have to give you time and a structure to make that change."

And they also give teachers a place to share. Through personal learning networks, educators share the results of their research. If the results are good, they continue their work. If they're bad, they stop and try something else.

The district is starting to get to a critical mass with the collaborative. So far, 15 to 20 percent of teachers have been through the Digital Learning Collaborative, for which they volunteer and receive stipends.

And administrators are going through a condensed version called the Digital Administrative Collaborative in a year-long process. This year, the district is launching a third cohort of both the Digital Learning Collaborative and Digital Administrative Collaborative.

Frederick High School

In the first year at Frederick High School, a team of educators set a goal of helping teachers develop websites. They decided to have teachers at least post a bio, contact information and a description of their course and syllabus.

This year, the cohort will study whether a website is an effective way to communicate with parents and provide easy access to information for students.

"I'm hoping that we find that it's effective and that it makes our material and ourselves more accessible to our students," said Stephanie Osborn, math teacher and technology integrator.

The team would like to add a calendar to the site that includes tests and assignments. That way, both students and parents can view assignments and know when they're due. Ultimately, they want students to have a space to turn in their work.

In the process of exploring websites with the cohort, Osborn realized that she could have her geometry students create websites for one of their projects. She asked them to design a quilt square using Google Sketchup and then replicate it using paper and pencil.

Based on the rubric and questions she provided them, they found and described math terms on the quilt squares. Then they shared both of their creations on the Google Sites they made.

Camp Innovation and Longmont Estates Elementary School

This summer, St. Vrain partnered with IBM to host Camp Innovation for about 75 first- through third-graders. At IBM, the students worked on smarter planet initiatives for two weeks at the hands-on, inquiry based camp.

The district's camp facilitator, fifth-grade educator Paige Gordon, had co-facilitated a Digital Learning Collaborative cohort the previous year at Longmont Estates Elementary School. And because of that experience, she felt more comfortable guiding students at the camp.

Students learned about themes such as water or transportation using a library of resources that Gordon built on 30 district iPads. And then they created an innovation that would help solve a problem.

Throughout the camp, facilitators gave them creative space to reflect, take risks and be curious. And those are the same things the facilitators in the Digital Learning Collaborative were helping educators develop.

In professional development, teachers generally do what someone else tells them to. But in this cohort, the facilitators acted as guides and empowered them to explore different ideas and technology.

"It was awesome and scary for some to be in charge of their learning," Gordon said.

To help them get over the scary part, Gordon modeled the process of exploring technology. Each month, they met for a few hours to talk about what they learned, watch videos, do demonstrations and call in experts from other buildings to answer questions.  

Teachers often work in isolation, and sometimes they're too shy to share because they don't want to be perceived a certain way, such as proud. But it's important to pull the veil off the classroom and show others what's going on.

Sharing allows Gordon to reflect on her practices, grow in knowledge and understanding, and hear feedback from others who have interesting ideas she may not have thought of.

"It's my professional duty to share," said Gordon, who will teach at Legacy Elementary School this year and participate in the second phase of the Digital Learning Collaborative there.

Silver Creek High School

At Silver Creek High School, social studies teacher Mary Ellen Graziani has gone through both phases of the collaborative. This semester she's teaching a hybrid course, and she wouldn't have been able to do that without the experience of being in the collaborative.

"It was by far the best professional learning opportunity I've ever had," Graziani said.

And the design of the program made the difference. The collaborative has a small group in a school, a larger group district wide and an online community.

"It was really teacher-centered where we were doing a lot of work, we were exploring, as opposed to being taught something," Graziani said. "We were really empowered to go for it."

In the second year, she was curious about how collaboration in Google Docs could support student writing. Staff from the Colorado State University Writing Project worked with teachers on how to implement the research project. And that allowed Graziani to test ideas and figure out whether they would work.

While the study focused on one unit from beginning to end and compared it to previous traditional assignments, she had students peer-edit each other's writing in Google Docs for several different assignments.

She found that Google Docs wasn't more effective in helping students learn how to peer edit. But the students enjoyed it more than traditional peer editing with a pencil and paper. They enjoyed it because they could collaborate more, ask questions in the chat box if they didn't understand what the writer was saying, and insert and highlight comments easily.

Because they could chat and insert comments at night, they talked more about their writing outside of class too.


Sustain technology investments

Along with obtaining technology and creating professional learning moments, St. Vrain is emphasizing sustainable technology investments this year. And particularly in this time of limited budgets, school districts have the chance to find ways to spend money wisely.

"We're just like every other school district in America in that we're facing the same constraints, but those constraints are a blessing in disguise because they're making us look at every single thing we do," McBreen said.

For example, when considering whether to obtain five new computers for a class, the district needs to figure out a training plan to go along with it and determine if it has a funding source to refresh those computers in five years.

Most often, the answer is no. At that point the district has three potential options:

  • purchase the computers and know they can't be refreshed in five years.
  • find a funding source somehow.
  • decide not to purchase the computers and instead, invest in something else, like more training for staff.

Because of financial constraints, the district is looking for ways to sustain the investments it already has. But St. Vrain also wants to be open to new policies that allow and encourage students and staff to bring their own devices. And it needed to invest in a solid wireless network to support those devices.

To deal with the financial constraints, the district has built strong partnerships with local businesses and the community. St. Vrain's partnership with IBM and local telecom provider RidgeviewTel helped the district earn a federal Investing in Innovation grant.

The grant helped the district purchase laptops, but more importantly, paid for a few years worth of training and professional learning. This year, the grant will fund six Digital Learning Collaborative teams at three schools. For the schools that don't receive grants, the schools pay $1,820 per year, which covers substitute teachers and stipends for a team of one leader and three members.

While getting laptops is nice, you don't start to get any traction until you combine it with really good professional development, McBreen said.

A large portion of funding for teachers comes through the district's nonprofit educational foundation, which most Colorado school districts have. Because St. Vrain wants to sustain or refresh the investments it's made, a lot of foundation dollars go toward refreshing tools like computers and projectors.

While overcoming policy and financial challenges, McBreen has learned that change isn't as tough as it seems.

"Lots of times school districts and leaders inside the school districts go into massive change with an attitude that this is going to be hard and a big deal. And what I've found is that our communities and our schools and our staff and our students are ready for change and willing to help."

But it takes some work.  The district leadership has been intentionally visiting local organizations such as Rotary and Optimist clubs to establish relationships with them. McBreen emphasized that the district does not come to these meetings with its hand out for a donation all the time. St. Vrain wants to add value and enrich the lives of the community by providing volunteer opportunities in computer labs with students.

"This is our opportunity to show our value and really optimize the precious monies that we do have," McBreen said. "And because those financial resources are constrained, it's the perfect opportunity to develop a connection with the community, because we can't do it ourselves, but we can do it as a community and as a team."

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Tanya Roscorla

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.



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