Two district tech leaders share the steps they’ve taken to give every student access to the digital resources they need.
Four years ago, our schools in Pickens County, South Carolina had funding approved for a 1:1 initiative that we called Tech It Home. We started with Chromebooks for 9th graders, then added tablets and at-home internet access for 6th and 7th graders.
Now in our fourth year of Tech It Home, students in grades 4-12 have devices, but we’re still working to be “digital from day one,” meaning that all of our systems and applications are interoperable so that students have access to every resource they need, starting on the first day of school. Here are the steps we’ve taken to get us this far.
1. Start with a vision.
Over the last four years, we have dedicated the time and effort to really understand what interoperability means. Interoperability can encompass a wide variety of facets, including account provisioning, class rostering, single sign-on, and shared learning data, all of which play a role in providing students and teachers the right tools, all in one place, at any moment.
A big part of our research process was looking at districts that had made interoperability work. We’re the first district in our state to pursue digital from day one, so we had to find inspiration from others. We looked at Orange County (FL) Public Schools, Gwinnett County (GA) Public School District, and Houston (TX) Independent School District, three districts that were about five years ahead of us in that department. These schools helped us develop our blueprint.
2. Research platforms that will work for your school.
When studying other districts, we paid close attention to what they were using. We interviewed people around the country and found ClassLink could provide our teachers with a single sign-on that could link to our asset repository, SAFARI Montage, and to all the applications we were using or planned to use. For a learning management system to allow our teachers to build lessons, we landed on Schoology.
Once we found the tools that worked, we developed a master textbook and digital resource list of what we were using so that we could plan how to make them all work in harmony with each other and provide ease of use for our educators.
3. Connect with vendors.
After laying the foundation of what technology and resources we were using, we reached out to our textbook and digital resources companies, telling them that our district was moving toward interoperability amongst platforms and our goal was to be digital on the first day of school. We asked them, “Can you work with the three main platforms we have in place to make life easier for our teachers?” Specifically, we wanted our vendors to use the OneRoster standard to help us with submitting our rosters.
The first year we did this, we had a few responses, but every year since we’ve had more and more. Before we pursued digital from day one, we were paying for 180 days of usage on most web applications but were using the tools only for about 125–140 days because we couldn’t get the rostering information submitted easily. We let our vendors know if they were willing to work with us on OneRoster to achieve our goal, then we could continue the conversation. Most of them came on board. Now it’s a requirement in our RFP process, and we have these applications in usage 180 days each year!
4. Keep your network up-to-date.
We’re so heavily digital now that if the internet goes down, our teachers really are stuck. To update our broadband, we’ve leased a dark fiber network that’s going to give us a hundred times more bandwidth than we’ve had. We also worked with a consultant out of Texas, Education Partners Solution, Inc., who helped us design a network that’s fault-tolerant. This means that if fiber gets cut, there’s always another route for the traffic to go, so we really have no downtime on our internet.
5. Get buy-in from parents.
We’re constantly reaching out to our community to educate them about the tools we have and the direction we’re moving at in our schools. The first time we introduced parents to the idea of digital from day one, we said, “Everything’s not there this year, but every year we’re going to get more and more working through single sign-on, and then your kids’ textbooks won’t be coming home in their book bag anymore.” That was something they could wrap their heads around. They were tired of their 80-pound kids carrying around 20 pounds of textbooks.
6. Connect technology to teaching and learning.
Once the systems were in place and our stakeholders knew what to expect, we asked ourselves, “Are these tools actually saving our educators time?” For example, using a system like OneRoster frees up time and energy that used to go into managing digital rosters and handing out print textbooks to students. If we can save 10 minutes a day, that’s 30 hours a year, and that’s a whole week of instruction back in our teachers’ hands. We’re continuing to narrow down the list of tools to the ones that work best and everyone is using—for example, 100 percent of our students log in to ClassLink on any given day—so we know we’re setting our district up for success.
We keep asking questions like, “How do we use technology to engage students?” or “How do we build content and online assessments to do synchronous distance learning if we’re short on teachers?” As a next step, our superintendent has tasked our department to come up with a dashboard where we can gather data from multiple sources so that teachers and administrators will have a clear understanding of where individual kids and specific subgroups are at in each subject.
Being digital from day one isn’t just about having the resources ready on the first day of the year. It’s about serving our educators and community and finding efficient ways to provide every student with the resources they need to be successful in the world beyond the classroom.