Talk about a big change in culture: A short two years ago, Milford Public Schools in Massachusetts had no network to speak of and even fewer computers available to students.
Today, we have a gigabit wireless network deployed at our elementary, middle and high schools, and starting this fall, we expect to have deployed more than 3,000 Chromebooks to our students, teachers and administrators.
Given today’s realities, going digital was the clear choice. We now view promoting the digital classroom as a way to attract young families and tech-savvy teachers into our community. Students and parents had been asking for a technology upgrade for several years, and the district made it its business to acquire both state and local funds to finance the project.
Embracing a future of digital innovation took strong leadership from our administration and a clear vision as to why it was important for our students and teachers to use digital tools. Here’s how to make it happen in any district:
Define the Vision for Transformation
Teachers and administrators have to understand why making the change to digital makes sense. It’s important to stick with the change — don’t let those who are not as comfortable with technology take the discussion off-track.
We ran professional development workshops in the summer and made sure I was on the agenda for staff meetings once school started in the fall. It’s important for teachers to understand that, with their knowledge and experience, they are still the experts in the classroom; they still control the content. My job was to point out that the technology tools will enhance learning, research and presentations and offer new opportunities for creativity, collaboration and communication. We did this through hands-on sessions and presentations that demonstrated how useful the tools are in the classroom.
Focus on Establishing Infrastructure
Nothing happens without a robust wireless network. We phased our infrastructure deployment over two years. For the fall of 2016, the district had just built a new elementary school with an 802.11n wireless network from Cisco Meraki. Access points were installed in all the classrooms, common areas, auditoriums and media rooms. We then followed up over the next two years with wireless deployments in both the middle school and high school.
Select a Cloud Platform and Hardware
School districts often need to mind their pennies. We looked at all the options and decided that Google’s G Suite for Education on an Acer Chromebook c740 was the most cost-effective choice for our district. The district had already rolled out G Suite in the spring of 2016, so going with the Chromebooks was a natural fit. With G Suite and Chromebooks, we were able to standardize on a single platform and know that it was secure and easy to upgrade and maintain.
The Chromebook has a good battery life and offers a five-year refresh cycle that we felt we could budget for. If a Chromebook fails, it is inexpensive and easy to replace. Plus, the c740 is a rugged device that can withstand the heavy use it receives from students.
Transform the Classroom with Digital Tools
Technology comes to life in the applications we use. With G Suite for Education, students can organize documents, keep a calendar, write down homework assignments, save presentations and share their work in multiple classrooms.
Over the past few years, we have deployed presentation tools such as Buncee, which lets students create and share their work in Google Classroom; and Pear Deck, which lets teachers create presentations using Google Slides that can be modified for student groups to use. We also use Newsela, a tool that pulls news articles on current events from the internet and turns them into multimedia presentations, with video, audio, images and text. All of these tools encourage students to be active learners.
Get School Administration Buy-In
At Milford Public Schools, we received great support from our superintendent, Kevin McIntyre.
“We wanted the program to develop organically, not by mandate,” McIntyre says. “At the same time, we wanted to provide embedded professional development in classrooms to ensure teachers had the support, confidence and tools to use technology effectively.”
Leading by example, the administration embraced the digital transformation. All employees in the superintendent’s office use G Suite for Education, as do all the principals and others who work at the elementary, middle and high schools. We create all school notices and district correspondence in G Suite. We also post a weekly document that keeps a running tab of all the week’s announcements from the superintendent’s and principals’ offices. With this level of buy-in, when the teachers see such enthusiasm for the technology, it sends a powerful message.
Support from the administration also sends a message to students and parents that we are serious about using technology to enhance teaching and learning. What choice do we have? We can’t go backward. It’s already 2018, and we are on the cusp of being fully digital in Milford. If we’re serious about preparing our students for life and future careers, we have to take advantage of the available tools and give them the opportunity to be creative and learn digitally.