Feb 13 2017

Q&A: Seattle-Area Director of Digital Learning Prioritizes Student Learning Outcomes

Ellen Dorr helps Renton School District rethink technology’s place in the classroom.

For K–12 schools, establishing a strong infrastructure first is a key component of a successful tech rollout. EdTech recently devoted a webinar to preparing a network for an influx of devices.

Renton Schools, a K–12 public district in Washington state, heeded this advice in 2014 when they began prepping their schools for a one-to-one program for the 2019-2020 school year. Renton expanded the accessibility of their network through increased access points and drafted an entire districtwide tech plan for 2016-2022, EdSurge reports.

But a big part of Renton’s prep for more ubiquitous technology was in rethinking how technology could be a part of student learning. EdTech spoke with Ellen Dorr, Renton’s director of digital learning, about how the schools laid the groundwork with teachers and students for better tech usage.

EDTECH: How did the idea for this tech overhaul come about?

DORR: Two years ago, we had fewer programs and devices and we were finding that the older devices in our schools weren't working that well. Instruction an learning are complex; you need to have every tool possible. There are really powerful tools we needed access to. We now have things for live collaboration, like Office 365 and G Suite.

In some schools, we have a 5-to-1 ratio of students to tech. People had to fight over a schedule to make sure their classes had access. The resources were really used as a “computer time” and not integrated into learning in a consistent or intentional way.

EDTECH: You’ve got a fairly complex 2016-2022 technology plan. How was that put together?

DORR: It was a long process led by our CTO and three managers. We have a manager of customer service, a manager of infrastructure and me. Our manager of infrastructure is really entrenched in the tech world and he was really thinking about redundancies and managing risk. He started a process of increasing our infrastructure before we moved forward. There was even a point when we had more access points than we needed, but it was part of planning for the future well in advance of rolling things out.

We did one-on-one interviews with a number of different people who were serving a variety of roles. We went all over the district and asked, ‘What do you envision.’ We put together what we were hearing, which were really nonspecific aspirational things, and then we gave that draft to our leadership team.

EDTECH: Which part of the tech plan will be done this year?

DORR: We’ve added 3,000 devices this school year. We’re also piloting six digital tools this year, which is up from zero pilots last year. That’s been powerful.

Initially, my team was seen as an extension of a help desk. I asked them to move into more of a coaching model this year. I want them to be seen as someone who comes alongside and supports student learning.

We’re also gearing up to a one-to-one device program at one middle school, so we’ll be focusing on that in the spring.

EDTECH: What was considered when choosing digital tools?

DORR: The key was to start with what the school was doing well for their students and then figuring out how they can use tech to amplify that. Focus must be kept on supporting student learning. There are ways to connect bigger learning goals to pieces of technology.

We already had a really powerful adaptive math program. The technology was being used as a lab rotation model where kids were “plugged in” and then “unplugged” and they’d have math skills. I put together a survey of student experience and teacher practice, and I was able to show my team where we needed support.

Also, we did a number of surveys with teachers, students and administrators. I put together a survey to see what students and teachers needed from a device. All wanted quick login and long battery life, so Chromebooks worked.

EDTECH: What have been some of the challenges involved with this roll out?

DORR: Obviously budget is always a concern. We currently have a tech levy, but things can’t live in the tech levy forever. We have to figure out how things can be supported systemically.

I think using digital tools just take a while to get used to. All of the tools we are offering are good tools. That part has been vetted. Having a teacher or student use it well is going to take longer. I’m comfortable with that. The fidelity is to student learning. Not every tool will work for every student, and some tools will take a long time to master.

EDTECH: What advice would you offer a school district about to overhaul their technology strategy?

DORR: Shared decision-making is important. My favorite analogy for this is a tomato trellis. Central office should be the trellis. The tomatoes can grow without it, but they are going to grow a lot better if they have support. Trellises are adjustable, you can move it based on how the plant is growing. You can change how it is structured to make sure you are getting optimal growth.