When I joined ReNEW Schools in New Orleans, Louisiana as the Director of Blended Learning in August of 2013, I focused on continuing to build upon the strong foundation created through the initial blended learning consulting work led by Education Elements. Our goal: To prove out our blended learning model at SciTech Academy, the strongest performing PK-8 school in our network.
Thanks to local donor funding, our exceptional IT Director Sean Hudson built two 60-unit Lenovo desktop labs at SciTech during the summer of 2013, and I worked with teachers to integrate the digital content with our classroom instruction. As the first few months of our 2013-2014 lab pilot unfolded, we began to recognize that the lab model was not going to fit with our evolving vision for blended learning. School leaders didn’t want labs; they’re hard to schedule around, while laptop carts offered flexibility. Similarly, teachers wanted the laptops in their classrooms and freedom to decide how to integrate the technology into their instruction.
So, with the online PARCC assessment looming in the 2014-15 school year, we decided to go all-in and purchase 1,200 Chromebooks to support our growth with blended learning.
Choosing a Chromebook
With our blended model determined, our next big decision was selecting laptops. Chromebooks were a no-brainer for us; our organization was already using Google Apps, and the price point allowed us to maximize our budget to purchase additional machines.
The biggest challenge, then, was choosing the right model. A group of Rocketship consultants gave us a good piece of advice: Pay for quality. We knew that if these Chromebooks were going to last us at least three years, we needed to choose a model that could withstand daily use.
As we discussed our purchasing decision in January of 2014, four contenders captured our attention:
+ Quality build; large screen; best battery life - Heavy; highest price; only available in white (in bulk)
It was a frustrating process for us. Dell, Lenovo and Samsung kept announcing new models that were forthcoming, yet the new models wouldn’t be available to ship for another few months. As such, we ended up selecting the HP Chromebook 14 due to its large screen size, strong battery life and quality build.
By placing the largest Chromebook order ever in the state of Louisiana, it was inevitable that we would run into a few snags and learn some lessons the hard way. Here were some of the bigger ones
1. Vendors charge a premium for standardized units
If you were to go to the store and buy your own HP Chromebook 14, the internal components (i.e. hard drive, motherboard) will likely come from different manufacturers. When we placed our order through our vendor, CDW-G, we learned that schools who purchase over a certain number of computers are required to buy standardized units, meaning all internal components are identical. This costs an extra $30 per Chromebook, bringing the price up from $299 to $329. The result? We had to go back and adjust our budget accordingly.
2. We decided to spring for the “white glove” treatment
When we realized how long it was going to take to set up 1,200 Chromebooks, we had a mild freakout. CDW-G offers a “white-glove” treatment for an additional fee that attaches the Chromebook to your domain and adds it to your school inventory system. While we weren’t considering this at first, it turned out to be a lifesaver for our IT team. All we had to do was open up the box, and the Chromebooks were ready to go.
3. Umm, where are we going to store all of these?
Two months after we placed the order, our 1,200 Chromebooks were delivered. When the semi-truck arrived and dropped off the four shipping containers, it dawned on us: “We don’t have a secure location to store all of these.” After a collective facepalm, we split them up across multiple locations within the school.
At the same time that Sean and I were navigating the Chromebook selection and ordering, I began working closely with the school leaders at our second pilot campus, Schaumburg Elementary, to lay the foundation for our implementation. Each of Schaumburg’s three school leaders had been experimenting with various digital content programs, and all were eager to unlock the potential of blended learning for remediation purposes. More importantly, they all agreed to coach teachers and collaboratively troubleshoot problems.
We began by focusing on messaging and change management with teachers. We thought to ourselves, “How will we get teachers excited for blended learning? What will be some of the criticisms and concerns? Who will be early adopters?”
To help answer these questions, we began with a short all-staff training on the basics of blended learning in early March of 2014, then each leader selected a handful of teachers to participate in a series of in-depth blended learning sessions beginning in April. These early pilot teachers would prepare an initial classroom implementation in May, rolling out i-Ready (our primary digital content program) and troubleshooting any issues with the Chromebooks during the final four weeks of the school year.
Training Game Plan
Sean and I began designing the blended learning training sessions by brainstorming a list of topics teachers would need to learn, including Chromebook basics (differences from a traditional PC), ReNEW’s instructional model for blended learning, using Hapara to create student accountability online, and Chromebook cart procedures.
I developed modules for each of the topics, and we broke the trainings up into four two-hour sessions, laying out all of the resources on our ReNEW Blended Learning PD site. I tried to give the PD a blended feel, integrating videos and outside resources to maximize teacher learning:
For Chromebook basics and how to use Google Apps in the classroom, I linked to several resources from the newly updated Google for Education Learning Center, and developed a few simple mastery tasks for teachers to complete, such as building a Google site.
In order to avoid melting teachers’ brains with a four-hour i-Ready training, I went through the initial setup sessions individually with a remote trainer, and broke segments up into digestible 30-minute chunks.
Sean set up a model Chromebook cart, and I created a video that highlighted the expectations and procedures for the computers. This was the most effective way for us to emphasize the increased accountability for staff and students without running a whole-group training.
I facilitated the sessions throughout April and May, meeting with teachers during PD days or after school. We chugged through sessions despite LEAP testing and end-of-year demands, and the teachers were enthusiastic about getting the Chromebooks in front of students and doing some experimentation.
Continuing Along the Learning Curve
The month of May flew by quickly; overall, teachers and students had about four weeks to use the Chromebooks before the end of the year. Along the way, we had to troubleshoot significant issues with our network, fine-tune our Hapara setup, and navigate issues with our Chromebook carts.
For all of the things we got wrong or didn’t think of, there were a number of things we got right. We’re confident we chose the right Chromebook model, and our early discussions around change management and coaching have paid dividends. Strategically breaking up the sessions, especially the i-Ready training, was immensely helpful.
Additionally, our teachers have had a number of invaluable insights to share. Rosheen Joseph (1st grade) says, “One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made during the Chromebook rollout is not trusting my students sooner. Appointing a student for ‘tech support’ allowed me more time to work with other students.“ Kelsey Hegel (7th/8th grade math) describes Hapara as “a control center for my classroom,” allowing her “to monitor student computers and documents.”
While it’s still too early to whether Chromebooks and blended learning will be the key to accelerating the academic achievement of our students, our team is excited to have started down this path, and we’re committed to empowering our teachers to use technology in the most effective way possible.