Jeanelle Greene, Executive Director of IT Strategy Execution and Governance for Cleveland Metropolitan School District, ensures that students are consistently connected to learning.

Oct 12 2023

From the Bus to the Wilderness: How Hyperconnected Schools Expand Learning Opportunities

A combination of student devices and technology infrastructure takes learning outside of school walls.

Until just a few years ago, school-issued laptops, tablets and hotspots were largely considered a luxury in many K–12 schools.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, only about 49 percent of schools had implemented one-to-one device programs, according to a 2019 survey by OverDrive Education and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. However, by 2022, about 90 percent of middle and high schools reported providing students with devices, and 84 percent of elementary schools said they were doing the same, according to a 2022 EdWeek survey.

The digital evolution of K–12 schools involves more than purchasing devices for students. Effectively designed, hyperconnected learning environments require across-the-board implementation and adoption of a suite of education technologies designed to achieve the best student outcomes.

Take, for example, Cleveland Metropolitan School District. With 36,000 students, CMSD is the third largest public school district in Ohio. It started providing some students with devices even before the pandemic.

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However, once the pandemic forced school districts to offer remote learning, CMSD kicked its digital efforts into high gear, says Jeanelle Greene, executive director of IT strategy execution and governance for the district. That meant investing in next-generation digital whiteboards, such as Clevertouch for teachers, in addition to tablets and laptops for students.

“The digital whiteboards incorporate applications and make it easier to display and share information digitally while allowing students to engage with their teachers and with other students in the classroom,” Greene says.

The district also bolstered its networking infrastructure with Cisco Meraki and extends Wi-Fi service to school buses. Investments like these, Greene says, play a critical role in helping students meet their educational goals through consistent, reliable access to the technologies they need to succeed in the classroom, on the school bus, at home and elsewhere.

“Our hope,” Greene says, “is that kids will take advantage of all of these different connection points to stay engaged in the learning process.”

Alaska Schools Gets Ahead of Environmental Learning Obstacles

Even before the pandemic, leaders at Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District recognized the critical impact that technology and remote learning could have for its students and their academic outcomes.

MSBSD has 47 schools spread across 25,000 square miles, an area larger than Scotland. A variety of circumstances cause disruptions for the district’s 19,000 students. Chief among them is harsh weather, which commonly prevents students from making the long trek to school, says Justin Ainsworth, associate superintendent of instruction.

Many students and their families also regularly hunt and travel together, which results in routine school absences. Meanwhile, in some parts of the district, Wi-Fi and high-speed internet access is unreliable.

RELATED: Check out these best practices to overcome one-to-one device hurdles.

“Part of our thought process was, ‘How do we leverage technology so that when these students aren’t in school, there isn’t just a learning stoppage?’” Ainsworth says.

Determined to bridge the technological gap for these students, MSBSD began building its own one-to-one program in 2015. As a result, when the pandemic first shuttered school buildings and classrooms in March 2020, the district found itself well ahead of the curve.

“One of our strategic goals is to make sure that learning can happen anytime, anywhere,” Ainsworth says. “To make that happen, we had to leverage a variety of technologies.”

Today, every student in the district receives a Chromebook loaded with a range of educational software and platforms, including GoGuardian Beacon and Gaggle for student safety, along with Google Workspace for Education and the Canvas learning management system. The district provides students who lack Wi-Fi access with reduced-cost internet or hotspots

Whole School Collaboration Supports One-to-One Success

Ensuring the success of a school’s one-to-one program requires across-the-board collaboration at the district level and with the whole school community.

“None of this work really matters if it doesn't have a positive impact on student outcomes,” says Ainsworth. “Student achievement and access have to be front and center.”

At the district and the school level, it’s also critical to make sure that your faculty and staff possess the digital literacy needed to use these device investments effectively.

“One of the biggest challenges is helping people understand the potential of the technology and integrating it into the daily workflow in a way that generates a significant return,” says Claudia Newman-Martin, a managing director and partner with the Boston Consulting Group, which frequently works with K–12 school districts.

The Cleveland district, which relies on Google and Microsoft, employs coaches who travel from school to school, helping users troubleshoot problems and learn to make effective use of the technologies at their disposal.

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“We have a focus on digital literacy, device care and educating our students, families and staff on how to best manage and care for these devices,” Greene explains. “We also help families get internet access from one of our partners or by providing a hotspot.”

Before the pandemic, Greene says about half of Cleveland’s schools had one-to-one programs, and each were managed at the individual school level.

“Now we look at it from an enterprise level,” Greene says. “The IT department takes ownership of that one-to-one program. We’re getting the devices enrolled into mobile device management and ensuring adherence to rules and policies that might have been harder to address on an individual school basis.”

Such rules might include enforcing guidelines around banned versus allowed websites, permitted downloads and uploads, or security updates and patches.

“We have applications that teachers and principals can use to ensure that classroom students are focused on learning and not just surfing the internet,” Greene says. “We also have a robust set of cybersecurity applications that monitor for threats and risks.”

Source: U.S. Department of Education, “Local Educational Agencies’ Uses of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds for Technology,” June 2023

Schools Look to Local Resources to Sustain One-to-One Programs

Of course, new technology programs require new funds. The $190.5 billion federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund created during the pandemic, allowed schools across the nation to secure technologies to help close the digital divide for under-resourced students and facilitate more effective hybrid learning.

With those funds set to expire in September 2024, K–12 schools must now determine how to sustain these programs moving forward.

“I’ve worked extremely hard with our chief financial officer to ensure sustainability of our budget,” says Colleen Flannery, CTO of Arizona’s Chandler Unified School District, where students receive Windows and Chromebook devices. “We have created a five-year plan for the refresh, and we’ve identified funding sources to ensure continuity.” 

DISCOVER: See how upgraded audiovisual tools can improve learning.

CUSD’s one-to-one device program launched in June 2021, Flannery says. While the school district’s technology investments played a critical role in ensuring that students and teachers maintained access to learning during the pandemic, the outcomes of those investments will last much longer. Today, the district relies on a range of technologies, including Google Workplace for Education, Clever and Pear Deck. 

“The impacts of the pandemic have redefined how students learn and what our students need to be successful in their career pathways,” Flannery says. “To prepare our students for their future, it is critical that devices are embedded as part of their learning experiences and are used to deliver personalized instruction.”

Photography by Roger Mastroianni

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