Missions and Network-Building: How One Rural District is Making the Edtech Transition

Missions and Network-Building: How One Rural District is Making the Edtech Transition

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Imagine a school system that operates in an environment where technology is abundant, teachers seamlessly use digital resources, and students communicate and collaborate with other students from around the world. Imagine that this learning environment has an infrastructure reliable and predictable enough to support such learning, where professional development is ongoing and supported by on-campus specialists.

Sound outrageous coming from a small rural school district with limited resources? Maybe not--especially when you take your time.

When I began my job as Superintendent of Franklin West Supervisory Union (FWSU) in Vermont, the community wanted a student educational experience that was dynamic, engaging and cost-effective. Today, as I begin my fifth year of service, we are living that vision with the help of technology. This journey has been fun, stressful, exciting, frightening--but most of all, fulfilling.

Leadership, Mission Acceptance and Small Steps

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” --Lao-tzu

Five years ago, FWSU was fairly typical by Vermont standards. Our schools were filled with hard-working teachers, committed administrators, and 2,000 excited students. Rural students. Smart, energetic students in northern Vermont--but ones that were disconnected from the world beyond their state.

Our schools had a smattering of technology largely based in labs. But with that technology came “homemade” wireless networks, no real replacement cycles, aging infrastructure, inefficient school-based email systems, inadequate helpdesks, no embedded professional development, and “dusty” web pages.

Here’s the word that came to mind: opportunity. In a global era, technology becomes an essential tool for students. As superintendent, I knew that technology did not define our district’s purpose, but that it was critical to our mission. If our students were to be fully prepared for their future, they would need 21st century classrooms that included integrated technology.

But I would need help to get our schools to a point where technology use in the classroom was the norm; a “top-down” idea would never work. This needed to be organic in the schools. With the assistance of district administrators and the support of the our school boards we got to work.

Thus, the logical first step? Develop our administrative team into a cadre of digital leaders. First, they had to be digital users. This was 2010, and not one of the eleven district/school administrators had ever used a smartphone. So, each administrator was immediately issued a smartphone to use extensively as a conduit for their work and thinking.

Little did we know, the smartphone was only the beginning. By the end of the summer, administrators had taken to Twitter, established a Facebook presence, created a blog, chosen a new web-page platform for all schools and more.

Community Development and Building Networks (Both Tech and Otherwise)

“Think different.” --Steve Jobs

The signs that FWSU employees were becoming digital leaders became apparent during the second year of our transformation. One FWSU principal, originally a reluctant technology user, developed a course entitled “Developing a Personal Learning Network” to inspire his teachers to broaden their perspectives on technology. At another end of the district, one of our middle schools decided to institute a 1:1 iPad deployment--not five years in the future, but for the following school year.

We were moving at lightning speed in 2011, and at one point, it seemed like a good time for us all to slow down, to relax a bit and let our work take hold.

But that is not in my DNA. We kept moving, and immediately started working on a “virtual merger” with two neighboring districts during the 2012-2013 year, Franklin Central Supervisory Union and Chittenden Central Supervisory Union.

District-to-district sharing was not and is still not common in Vermont, but our goal was to provide technological infrastructure and help desk support in a collaborative manner. By working with other districts, we attempted to break down silos and find strategic partners. This would ultimately help us save resources and also broaden our knowledge base.

To start, our districts worked together on enhancing and upgrading our systems help-desk, student information system, telephony communication system, wireless infrastructure and general infrastructure. And when we didn’t specifically share resources, we went to each other and consulted on new ideas.After some lengthy discussions, gone was the director of technology position, and it was replaced by a team-based decision-making group consisting of myself and two school-based network managers.

Turning Our Tech Plan Into a District Action Plan

“If you can dream it, you can do it.” --Walt Disney

As we continued to develop and turn corners, it came time to complete our state-required technology action plan during the 2011-12 school year. After reviewing the expectations sent to me by the Vermont Agency of Education, I began to wonder why we needed a district action plan (for tracking Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP) and a district technology plan (traditionally a procurement plan). But why couldn’t they be one and the same? Why did we have to look at technology separately from our school learning action plan?

Thus, we created one, centralized action plan that changed our system. How? We unbridled our thinking from test scores and started looking at what was important for our students’ future. Sure test scores matter, but we know that our students need so much more. We allowed ourselves to dream.

We identified four target areas for our action plan--student centered learning, student leadership, engaged community partners and flexible learning environments--that became understandable, simple targets. They were simple to grasp, easy for parents and teachers to believe in, and made our schools feel more human and less industrial.

However, it was one thing to get our new plan accepted by some--and another thing for it to get accepted by all. In order to expedite that process, we turned to social media and blogging to get the word out about our work.

First up, Twitter. A high school teacher came to me with the idea of co-moderating an #FWSU chat during the summer of 2011, and using it as a space to discuss the action plan with our educators and community. So, on Wednesday nights, we took to Twitter to raise awareness about our targets and action steps. Not a bad first step.

Our second foray into social media has truly moved our system. In 2012, we launched the FWSU Blog in order to inform our communities about our schools. The initial goal was to use blogging to broadcast our “good” news and build awareness of our system. While we still have those goals, we quickly learned our blog had turned into something quite useful--a qualitative data device to measure our action plan! Who knew?

The Future: Personalizing with New Wireless Management and a District LMS

“Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another.” --John Dewey

So what is next for our system? A persistent march forward in order to provide our students with the best opportunities to succeed in a digital age learning culture. After learning from educational consultant Bea McGarvey and her work on Mass Customized Learning, we now turn our efforts towards how we personalize learning.

In preparation for more customized learning, we hired an outside provider last year to build and manage WAN (wide-area network). The decision to use an outside provider was simple; our system is simply too small for us to be fully involved in such ventures. So this summer, the same provider will now install and manage a new wireless network. Paying a provider is a much simpler and efficient manner for us to reach our personalization goals.

And finally, we will begin planning for our new learning management system (LMS), one that will connect all of our learners and their parents virtually.

In short, our work continues, and we still have so much more to do. Are we one of those perfect school systems that are often featured in the literature we all read? Of course not. We have the very same issues in our district as many of you readers. But we continue to invest in technology and the professional development that supports our instruction. I’m not entirely sure what our action planners will dream for our future, but I do know they will dream with our students in mind--and the dream will be a good one. 

NOTE: This article is part of EdSurge's Fifty States Initiative (representing the state of Vermont). 

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