Ed Tech Trends | Q&A

Setting the Pace for Digital Initiatives

Last year, Piedmont City School District, a small, three-school Eastern Alabama district at the foot of the Appalachians between Birmingham and Atlanta, began a number of forward-thinking digital initiatives, including a 1-to-1 MacBook program, a remote-learning partnership with Stanford University, and a wide-scale project funded by E-Rate that will eventually bring high-speed internet access to every student's home.

In the first part of our two-part interview, Piedmont Superintendent Matt Akin discussed setting up and implementing his district's 1-to-1 initiative. Here, he speaks about his approach to professional development, the E-Rate program, and creating a class of responsible digital citizens.

Stephen Noonoo: Let's talk about some of the issues a lot of districts are currently struggling with. Where does your district stand in regard to social networking in and out of the classroom?

Matt Akin: With social networking, we decided last year that we were going to open our filter after school, so that Facebook and those things open up. Twitter's open all day now. We're in the process of devising some procedures that our teachers will follow, and we're going to open up Facebook all day.

What we learned is that, if you block it, the only people who aren't going to be able to get into it is your teachers because kids are going to figure out how to get around the filter. The key with social networking is training and informing parents and teachers.

Noonoo: Is it being used in classrooms at all? What are teachers feeling?

Akin: We use an LMS--we use Angel--and that's how we're delivering our content, but I have teachers that use Facebook to send out messages reminding kids about homework, tests, or projects. We have a small percentage of teachers where that's how they're communicating with kids. I think the potential is there, but we need to make sure that everyone is informed of how we're going to handle misuse.

Noonoo: So the issue really hasn't come up yet?

Akin: Not so far. We really haven't had anything. The way we respond is if we have a kid that says or does something on Facebook, we treat it as we would anything they had put it in writing. We handle it not as a Facebook issue but just as a student issue.

Noonoo: What are you using for e-mail addresses for students?

Akin
: Our kids use Gmail accounts. We don't set them up, but that's what everybody has. We've run our own e-mails for teachers, and as a matter of fact I think we're going to do some type of corporate Gmail thing.

Noonoo: How about cell phones and mobile devices in the classrooms?

Akin: We allow that class-by-class. When all students have a laptop in front of them, it really isn't an issue. If they're not texting on the phone, they'll figure out how to send a text through their laptop. They don't have to get their cell phone out because anything they can access on their phone they can certainly access on their computer.

Noonoo: What are you doing about letting students access the Internet during class?

Akin: That was an issue in the beginning, especially with iChat on the MacBook or Skype. It's more of a classroom management issue. If you take off iChat, then they're going to Skype, or they're going to use something through Google. We try not to fight the battle that way: We try to fight it more as a classroom management issue. If teachers are moving around the room, then that isn't really an issue. It was an issue when the computers were first deployed, but now it's not a big issue anymore.


A Wireless Free-for-All

In addition to its comprehensive 1-to-1 MacBook initiative for grades 4 through 12 and learning partnerships with local and national universities, the Piedmont City School District in northeast Alabama has undertaken another ambitious digital project--one that will blanket its entire community with 24/7 wireless internet access for students and staff.

The district has just received notice from the E-Rate program that it has been chosen as one of the first 20 sites in the country for the new Learning on the Go pilot, which funds programs to expand wireless networks off campus. (A description of the program can be downloaded as a PDF from the FCC's site.) In Piedmont's case, the program will provide free internet access to every student's home by next summer.

The problem, which spurred the district to apply for the program, was that, despite the significant investment in the 1-to-1 laptop initiative, "kids were going home without internet access," according to district Superintendent Matt Akin.

"Some were going home to rural areas that didn't have it, and a lot were going home and they live in the city and they can't afford it," Akin said. The pilot program will allow the district to build an entire wireless network across the 5,000-person community, so that "when our kids leave school, whether they're at the coffee shop or down the street, or at home, they finally have wireless internet access."

To achieve complete coverage, the Piedmont district is opting for a two-pronged approach. The first will require the district to partner with vendors to create the inclusive citywide network, which Akin said he doesn't see being completed before spring 2012. For the second part, the school will distribute Verizon access cards in early 2012 to students who live in remote rural areas, estimated to be 10 percent to 15 percent of the student population.

"The possibilities are so much greater when you know that every kid is going home to the internet," Akin said. "We have math teachers that have office hours from 8 to 9 every night to answer any homework questions. And the kid that doesn't have internet access is at a disadvantage."

Noonoo: How are your students using Wikipedia, and what are you teaching them about it?

Akin: They use it, but part of 21st century skills is teaching students how to go through and determine whether the sources they're using are valid. They can't just source a research paper on Wikipedia, but we think it's a valid area. It's more important to train students how to go and look and see if the information is valid and how to validate it. It gives us another opportunity to--hopefully--teach skills to students that will prepare them for whatever they're doing in the future.

Noonoo: Have you been mentoring other schools making the 1-to-1 transition?

Akin: We've had maybe 150 school systems visit us over the last six months. We'll have site visit days where we'll have a bunch of people come in and visit us. We've had two or three of those this year. The ones we've seen that are doing a 1-to-1 where it's not working, the issue is mainly that an LMS is not in place, which I think is infrastructure, or the wireless network can't handle it. It just seems like the main things are the infrastructure needs--you can't do this without a great wireless system. And the LMS for us is the glue that holds it all together.

Noonoo: How does the district approach security, and what's being done to protect students?

Akin: We do random checks. We don't go in every day and look at every kid's history, but our rule is you can't delete your history. If you do and you get caught, it's a violation and a disciplinary issue. We try to have some accountability that way. When kids are at school, we use something called Apple Remote Desktop, so a principal can pull up any kid's computer at any time. You can't do that at home, but filtering at home stops most of that. Knock on wood, we haven't had any issues at home, but that's how we try to prevent them.

Noonoo: So you're really focused on teaching kids how to be responsible?

Akin: Yes, how to be online savvy, to look at what to do and what not to do. Kind of like what we do with Wikipedia. You try to teach kids the skills.

Noonoo: What's your hope for your current fourth-grade class when they enter 12th grade? How do you hope they'll be different from your current class of 12th-graders?

Akin: For our fourth-graders this year, every class they take--at least every academic class they take--is going to be taught through a blended learning model. I believe by the time they come to high school they're going to have some options before they leave us. They may double up on classes or take some true online courses from local universities in addition to our classes. I think they're going to be so much better prepared. We're a small school system, and those opportunities wouldn't be there for them without laptops in front of them.

And the other thing--and I can't undersell this--is that my kids know that I expect them to go to college. That's just understood. If you live in my house, you're going to go to college. We have so many students whose parents, when they graduated from high school--or they may not have--they went to work. What I want is for when our kids leave us, the expectation is that they're going to go to college, and that it's their own internal expectation. It's because of the skills they've gained from fourth to 12th grade. Whether its collaborating with kids in different parts of the world or solving some problem with a group of their own peers or taking online classes or taking Chinese in fifth grade, all of a sudden their internal outlook is so much different than it was before.

Noonoo: How has the technology impacted student achievement?

Akin: I'm not a researcher, but looking at our numbers, they've been up. In Alabama, we take our AYP Assistance, called Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test, called ARMT+, which includes science too. Those scores were up across the board. Our Alabama graduation scores were up, and discipline referrals were down.

Our scores had been pretty good, so when you see improvement you can't put it all on technology, and I think a lot of it may not be just the technology but a different view by kids. They have a different expectation of themselves, and I think that impacts test scores, discipline referrals, and absentee rates. At our high school especially, our graduation exam scores for 13 years, which is our accountability grade, is just way up, as well as our ACT scores.

This year, for every core subject, at the end of nine weeks students take a short benchmark test. In the past, we've always basically known how kids are doing in, say, a fifth-grade reading class, or a ninth-grade regular English class, because you can tell how they'll do on a graduation exam, but there really hasn't been a way to tell if the kids in an honors Algebra II and III class are mastering those standards or not.

Now we've developed these internal assessments, so the teacher can look and see that 80 percent really mastered this objective, but only 65 percent mastered this one, and we can go back and re-teach it. Or maybe give the three or four kids who didn't master it an online computerized instruction to work on. To just have something like that to pinpoint where kids aren't mastering standards, I think, is really going to be a difference maker and you'll see ACT scores going up.

Instead of just focusing on the middle of the road, you can focus on low, medium, and high. I guess that would have been possible before laptops, but we would have to have made tests, printed them out, bubbled them in, and scanned them in. It would have been almost impossible from a time-management point of view. Now every kid walks in the class, opens their computer, takes the assessment instantly, and by the end of the day we have elementary teachers talking about what they're going to do on Monday from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. At that point you can see where it's not just a laptop initiative, it's a learning initiative.

Noonoo: Who handled the implementation of the MacBook program?

Akin: It was really a collaborative effort. We're small--three schools in the school system. We have a team that I'm on, that the tech coordinator is on, plus all of our principals, a group of teachers, and a board member. We really tried to go through that leadership team when doing those plans.

Noonoo: How is professional development handled? What are your thoughts?

Akin: We try not to do a whole lot of after-school stuff. We're fortunate that we have something called Regional Inservice areas in Alabama where state money goes to local universities and they provide teacher training. We have a local person--the program is called Technology in Motion--and he's probably here five days scattered throughout the month. Sometimes he's here three days in a row, then we won't see him for a couple of weeks, then he'll be here three more days in a row. So we try to schedule things during the school day. A lot of times a teacher will have planning fifth period, and we'll have a sub to cover her class fourth period, so she'll have two hours maybe three days in a row to work on some new thing that we're doing or new software we're using.

During the summer, we take almost 75 percent of teachers in fourth through 12th for a conference in North Carolina about Mooresville schools and 1-to-1 initiatives. When you have that many willing to go, not only are they learning, but it creates a lot of team building. It gives teachers a time to talk and relax and they don't have to worry about what the kids are doing with the sub.

Noonoo: Tell us about your innovative student teacher program.

Akin: Jacksonville State University has the largest college of education in the state of Alabama. It trains more teachers than the other schools. We've partnered with them, and as part of that partnership they send student teachers. The typical student teacher comes and stays with you for a semester, then they move on. We started a new initiative this year where they come and stay with us for a year instead of a semester, and the university sends them with MacBooks, and then we provide the training in the first semester: the training on our LMS and challenge-based learning, professional development, and different things so that can really co-teach with our teachers during the second semester.

We have a very low turnover of teachers, so more than likely they're not going to be hired in Piedmont, but it's a win for us because we have a really highly qualified, technically trained teacher, and when they leave here the thought is they're going to go to another school and they have expectations in regards to instructional technology and be able to really change the school they're going to.

Noonoo: What would you say technology in the classroom looked like five years ago?

Akin: I remember six or seven years ago that we had the lowest student-to-computer ratio in the state of Alabama. We had a bunch of Dells, and they were dang good computers, but they were really good at only two things--taking AR (accelerated reader) tests and doing grades on the computer. Although AR was probably impacting reading scores, other than that the computers were not impacting student learning. It was a management tool.

Now, management is part of it, but we're changing the whole approach to teaching and learning. Kids in Piedmont are engaged all the time because of that laptop that's in front of them and because of how teachers have changed their approach to learning.

Update: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the university that Piedmont City School District partners with for its student teacher program as Jackson State University. The correct institution is Jacksonville State University. We regret the error. --SN

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