S. Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools and a 2013 White House Connected Educator Champion of Change, set out on a mission to create a digital learning environment and curriculum that helps prepare students to be competitive in a global economy.

In this vein, his team created Lighthouse Schools in 10 elementary and seven middle schools, with three high schools set to come on board soon. At these schools, students each have their own digital device; personalized and blended learning; and a culture steeped in digital learning. They're some of the first schools to embark on this digital learning adventure.

At the Consortium for School Networking Conference held in early April, Dance shared some strategies that have helped digital learning move forward in his district. 

1. Split the top IT position

If school districts really want to lead with technology, they need to have both the information and education technology interests represented in its top position, Dance said. In his district, two executive directors make decisions and attend IT and education technology meetings together, one representing the IT side and one representing the instructional technology side. They basically act as a married couple on the job that makes decisions jointly.

2. Create an IT customer service model

As schools transition to more devices and digital content, they need IT support staff who will listen to their problems and take care of them in a timely manner, Dance said. That means taking the time to train IT staff so they can respond appropriately.

"If you don't have a true customer service model in place," he said, "there's no way you're going to achieve the work you need to do."

3. Send IT staff to the classroom

On a similar note, IT staff can sometimes understand the problem better when they see it in person versus talking on the phone with the customer, Dance said. That's why it's so important to send IT staff from the central office out to schools on a regular basis. When IT and instructional staff work together, they can identify bigger problems and come up with better ways to do things.

4. Talk about what students should do, then talk about the device

Instead of settling on a device first, it's important for district leaders to figure out what they want students to learn and accomplish, Dance said. Then they can start talking about what devices will allow students to meet those objectives. While his district spent 18 months planning its digital transformation, 12 of those months focused on what they wanted students to do with devices.

5. Forge strong community partnerships 

With such a big shift to digital devices, the community needs to be involved. Baltimore County held about 250 community meetings where district leaders shared what they wanted to do and listened to the communities' concerns, Dance said. The district also worked with the county as it was figuring out where to add fiber in the community.