Jul 30 2019

Q&A: Mark Thomas on Best Practices for Summer Upgrade Programs

Summer upgrade success is about communication and understanding a school’s specific technology needs.

In 2017, Ohio’s Bloom-Carroll Local School District completed a major infrastructure upgrade.

EdTech asked Mark Thomas, Bloom-Carroll LSD’s director of instructional technology, to discuss the processes and best practices that worked for the district as it planned and executed upgrades.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out these three tips to making district upgrades with a budget.

EDTECH: What was the major infrastructure project recently completed at Bloom-Carroll LSD?

Thomas: We upgraded our edge switches throughout the entire district. We added an HPE Nimble storage system to our infrastructure for staff and student file storage. We added item-level backup, and we completed a Cisco Meraki wireless infrastructure upgrade throughout the district.

EDTECH: How should schools choose which upgrades to take on?

Thomas: My team and I identify the systems that we know are aging out and start putting together a budget and proposals. 

The Board of Education cannot fund everything, so we make our determination of how to use their allocation for our greatest need. Data connectivity and wireless connectivity are high needs — those typically would trump end-user upgrades, for instance.

EDTECH: How do you choose which technologies you adopt?

Thomas: We always have to be cognizant of cost. We also look at dependability. We talk to other school districts that use a specific type of system we’re considering, to see what their experiences have been. 

In my 20 years in educational technology, I’ve never been the first to put a brand-new technology into my systems. We try to look at the industry and see how the vendors we’re interested in have performed


EDTECH: Would you caution against being an early adopter?

Thomas: I’m definitely not an early adopter on most things, but I’m not a late adopter either. If a company comes out and they’ve taken the market by storm, and there are positive reviews and it’s a technology we’re looking at, then certainly we’ll invest in it. 

I don’t have a dedicated network administrator or voice administrator or wireless administrator. My staff and I do it all, so it’s our job to be extraordinarily knowledgeable about all the systems that we support. We watch industry standards and districts that are trying to do the same things we’re doing. 

There are a lot of things we can do — and a lot we can’t — with our specific resources, and we have to know the difference.

A lot depends, too, on the fact that we work with buildings that were built in the 1940s. Some systems just won’t work when you’re dealing with an old building. 

EDTECH: What pitfalls would you caution against?

Thomas: I would caution someone new in the field about jumping on every bandwagon or listening to every sales pitch that comes along. Eventually, you’re going to get burned, and you will waste taxpayer dollars. 

I have to be very cautious because every dollar I spend comes from a taxpayer. I also don’t have an unlimited staff that can spend hours and hours troubleshooting. The technology has to work the first time it’s set up.

Mark Thomas
My staff and I do it all, so it’s our job to be extraordinarily knowledgeable about all the systems that we support."

Mark Thomas Director of Instructional Technology, Bloom-Carroll LSD

You can also move too fast. We are the last district in our county to be a one-to-one school district. We’re moving in that direction, and the delay was by design — our district was not ready until now. We had to offer professional development, and we had to bring in different systems to help our teachers get used to the technology. Now, after five years of preparation, we’re planning one-to-one.

EDTECH: It sounds as though you have to know your district and its capabilities to find the right technology strategy — is that right?

Thomas: You absolutely do. I could flood our school buildings with computers, but if they’re not being used, it’s a waste of resources and taxpayer money. 

I listen to our teachers as they come to us with ideas. We do the research and analyze the technologies. If a product will work for them, we’re willing to take that step. But we’re not willing to just throw technology at a teacher if it’s not going to be used. I listen to the feedback from our teachers and from the administrative staff before we make any kind of decisions.

EDTECH: What has been the reaction of the teaching staff to technology in your classrooms?

Thomas: It depends, and it’s hard to predict. You may get a teacher who’s been out of college for one or two years who’s reluctant to try new things or a veteran teacher who’s enthusiastic and looking to bring fresh life into his or her classroom. 

A lot has to do with the approach we take. Teachers don’t want something forced down their throats. They want to have a voice, so we try very hard to listen to them. As administrators, obviously, there are things we have to do. 

For example, there are guidelines I have to follow for network security. Often, teachers and administrators don’t understand that piece, but if you explain it on their terms, they’re OK with it.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how to design an effective technology evaluation program.

EDTECH: So, user communication is important?

Thomas: It’s vital. If you don’t have user communication, you’ll end up with an IT department nobody feels they can rely on and nobody trusts.

EDTECH: What upgrades are in your district’s future?

Thomas: We’re in the middle of a new building project, a K–5 elementary that’s slated to be opened in August 2021. We’re moving away from projectors and interactive whiteboards in our classrooms and moving toward interactive video panels. The video panels are slated for the new building, and we’ll put them in the classrooms in our existing buildings as money is available. 

We’re analyzing moving the high school to a one-to-one program in the next couple of years. That will put a Chromebook in the hands of every kid in our high school. We’ll soon have to look at our wireless infrastructure again and do a refresh of that. We’ll probably have to increase bandwidth because we are doing more tasks with web services.

We’re rarely just doing maintenance. It’s important to move the technology bar in our school district, but to do it in very calculated way. We’re always looking ahead to figure out what’s next.

baona/Getty Images

Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT