Gary Keller and Chip Harms (right) not only installed new equipment in every classroom of Ohio’s Kenwood Elementary School, they also trained teachers to use the new technology.

Jul 22 2008

The Great Upgrade

Follow these three rules to stay on course during large deployments of new technology.

Follow these three rules to stay on course during large deployments of new technology.

An increasingly vigorous embrace of digital learning means many school systems are forgoing gradual tech upgrades in favor of dramatic districtwide deployments of notebooks, interactive whiteboards, handheld devices and other technology.

To handle projects of almost unprecedented scope, those in the trenches say CIOs and CTOs must follow three basic rules to smooth the path from installation to integration:

  • Upgrade your infrastructure. There’s nothing worse than having your new tools inoperable when school opens. Make sure your building’s power and wireless needs are adequately met.
  • Train your staff. Teachers will ignore what they don’t know how to use. Make sure they have proper training and frequent support during the year.
  • Ready a maintenance plan. All technology requires IT support; determine the most efficient way to support each tool.

Wireless Upgrades

Connections to power and the Internet are vital for almost every piece of technology you install, so oversaturate your coverage to avoid later problems. “It’s hard to deploy new technology if you don’t have a wireless campus,” says Ellen Moceri, headmaster of Ransom Everglades School in Coral Gables, Fla. Having to physically connect every piece of equipment can be impractical and leave behind a nest of cords that are unwelcome in classrooms.

Chip DeWolfe, the director of technology for the North Pocono School District in Moscow, Pa., agrees. He’s been upgrading the district’s five buildings to include interactive whiteboards, notebooks, webcams, video cameras and other technology as part of Pennsylvania’s Classrooms for the Future initiative.

“You need lots of access points,” says DeWolfe. His district installed some additional fiber links in each building to manage the increased traffic from having as many as 31 classes logged into the network at the same time. “If you can centrally manage [your access points], it’s a lot easier to troubleshoot the problem.”

Texas has 16 of the country’s largest 100 school districts; Florida has 14.

The 46,000-student Manatee County School District in western Florida created a large network to handle its new tools. But such a centrally managed districtwide network also has an impact on bandwidth, says Tina Barrios, supervisor of instructional technology for the Manatee County district. A complete fiber network is being installed across the district. “You’re going to need to make sure that you have a fast, reliable network. That’s true of any one-to-one program, because kids are going to be using the network as well as administration.”

Teacher Training

When Ransom Everglades School recently finished a schoolwide upgrade to interactive whiteboards for math and science classes and electronic sketch pads for geometry classes, the work had only just begun. “Now you have technology that kids are more adept at using than the faculty, so you have to be able to train the faculty,” says Moceri, whose private school serves 1,050 students in grades six through 12.

Her school’s training effort extends to regular attendance of about 20 faculty members at each year’s Florida Educational Technology Conference. Everglades teachers also receive in-house train­ing each summer from Promethean.

For larger districts, such as the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona, there’s often the challenge of managing multiple rollouts. “The biggest challenge is manpower, and how to get things done on a large scale,” says Ed Kowalczyk, coordinator of educational technology.

There were nearly 50 million students in U.S. public schools in 2004–2005, according to a new report released by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The 67,000-student, 117-building Tucson district is deploying early-learning software in more than 200 kindergarten classrooms, and is also introducing more than 1,100 notebooks to all teachers in the district’s 20 middle schools. And it’s installing about 100 Promethean whiteboards with automated textbook content.

For the early-learning software deployment, which took about six weeks to complete, the district’s educational technology staff trained teachers. Representatives from the vendor then visited the schools to troubleshoot following the deployment.

The district outsourced its notebook deployment and because the project includes a migration from Microsoft Office 2000 to Office 2007, there’s a learning curve for staff. “We try to be there the day after deployment to provide training for staff on the laptops,” Kowalczyk says.

Beyond the scope, there are timing challenges inherent in large rollouts like Tucson’s. “Because of our budget cycle, things have to be in place by July 1. The schools can be stressed out about the timing of this because it’s so close to the end of the school year. But they’ll have the laptops for the summer with extra time to learn on them,” Kowalczyk says.

It’s also vital to be able to measure the success of a rollout through data collection, whether you use an informal poll or a more sophisticated program linking student test scores to new equipment.

At the Sarasota County School District, which deployed more than 3,100 Promethean Activboards districtwide over a 12-month period ending in December, success is measured through anonymous online surveys and a web-based program that details how much the Activboards are being used. “Ninety-five percent of the survey responses we got said expectations were met or exceeded,” says Mike Horan, director of instructional technology at the Sarasota County district, which has about 45,000 students.

Horan attributes the success of the $13.5 million project to thorough teacher training. Teachers get about 30 hours of training on the Activboards within a week of deployment. The district also consulted with Bob Marzano, author of “The Art and Science of Teaching.” While Marzano says instructional strategies should be scientifically based, knowing when and how to use them is more of an art. “The teachers jumped on these boards because they found it didn’t compete with what they were trying to do in the classroom,” Horan says.

In the Thomaston–Upson County School District in central Georgia, interactive whiteboards and projectors recently went into the district’s six buildings. The district has an instructional technology coordinator (who is also a certified teacher) at each school, which David Beeland, the district’s director of technology, says is key to managing automated learning across an entire district. This 5,000-student district has four main schools, two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. It also has an alternative high school and a pre-K center.

“If you don’t have the technical and instructional support in place for a project to be successful, don’t do it,” he says. “It is an advantage to have an instructional person that’s site-based, to provide support for teachers on an as-needed basis, as they are creating and delivering lessons using technology.”

Maintenance and Security

Part of the maintenance of the new technology is making sure teachers know what to do if they have a question, says Gary Keller, principal of Kenwood Elementary School in the Bowling Green (Ohio) Area Schools district. His school recently added NComputing’s X300 terminals in all its classrooms, allowing four computers to run off a single computer processing unit.

Teachers serve as tech reps in each school in Bowling Green, and Keller says the representative in his school, sixth-grade teacher Chip Harms, can access requests via e-mail and either respond immediately or set up a visit to troubleshoot the problem.

There are 3.1 million teachers working in 98,600 schools in 17,700 U.S. districts.

“We put in some no-nos,” he says, telling teachers not to pull plugs or reconnect machines without asking for help. “It bears mention, [because with this system] you could take out the whole motherboard if incorrectly attached.”

Manatee County is in the midst of a one-to-one initiative that’s part of what it calls EDGE, or Education through Dynamic Global Experiences.

Part of the EDGE initiative is a deployment of about 6,000 notebooks with similar operating systems and software, such as FileMaker Pro. The software allows many repairs and installations to be made from a remote location, instead of each machine having to be updated manually.

“You can send out a patch or a quick fix or install software centrally. So instead of re-imaging each machine each year, you can do it from one location much faster,” says Tina Barrios, of the Manatee County district.

Managing time can also be a challenge, particularly when a project covers an entire district. During Beeland’s recent project, he says insourcing as much of the deployment as possible created flexibility.

The technology staff worked as a team to deploy the whiteboards during the district’s summer breaks. Several members of his staff also were certified on the whiteboards and handled teacher training. “That gave us much more control over how the project was rolled out,” Thomaston–Upland County’s Beeland says. “We could do training for half a day, then skip a day if necessary to fit teachers’ schedules. It would have been more difficult to do that had we hired a trainer.”

Biggest of the Big

It takes a large school district to buy and deploy a lot of technology at one time. Even though the 100 largest school districts represent less than 1 percent of all U.S. school districts, the schools in these districts educate 23 percent of all public school students in the United States, according to the 2008 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. Other facts:

  • The largest school district in the country remains New York City Public Schools, with nearly 1 million students in 1,200 schools, based on figures from 2004–2005.
  • Los Angeles Unified District, No. 2 on the list, educates 741,000 students in 721 schools. Combined with New York, these two districts educate more students than 28 of the states in the United States.
  • The average school district in the United States has 5.6 schools. By comparison, the 100 largest school districts averaged 163.3 schools per district.
  • One of the largest single schools in the country is Belmont Senior High in Los Angeles. It has 5,200 students.
  • Chicago Public Schools has the highest proportion of magnet schools among districts in the top 100. Chicago has 299 magnet schools, nearly 50 percent of its total number of schools.

Changing on the Fly? You’re Not Alone

School IT professionals grappling with quick yet large-scale renovations of buildings and classrooms have a lot of company in history.

“A company called Underwood-Elliott-Fisher, which is still around today, produced typewriters and accounting machines for decades. But when World War II came around, they had to change in a big way,” says Martin Morgan, director of research at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

He says the company was awarded a government contract for the M1 Carbine, a short-barreled infantry gun, requiring a quick production upgrade.

Morgan says a lot of companies had to make that kind of switch to meet the war effort, including IBM, which also retrofitted factories to manufacture M1 Carbines, and the headlamp division of General Motors, which was given a contract to produce M3 machine guns.

“In the case of the GM division, they had the pre-war experience of working with sheet metal, which helped them move over to machine guns,” he says.

“And IBM’s new mission had a resemblance to the typing machines that they were making before the war because of the precision assembly required at the factories. In making the typing machines and guns, the factories had to be precise. So moving into guns wasn’t a massive step really. It was a retooling.”

In a different vein, Henry Ford aided the country’s war effort when he built the Willow Run bomber plant in 1942, just months after Pearl Harbor.

Until then, aircraft had never been mass produced, and many doubted whether even Ford could conquer this task. Two years earlier, President Roosevelt surprised Congress by requesting the then-extraordinary number of bomber jets, 500.

Given the contract to build the four-engine, long-range B-24 bomber, the gigantic plant went to work. By 1944, it had reached its goal of building one bomber an hour, according to Ford. Willow Run ended up producing nearly 9,000 planes for the war effort, nearly 5 percent of all planes built in the United States from 1940 to 1944.