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Common Core | Feature

7 Steps to Preparing for Common Core and Mobile Device Rollouts

Trying to implement a mobile device initiative while your district's teachers and staff are preparing for the Common Core online assessments can be like to trying to balance on two wild horses with a single set of reins. Fortunately, planning a mobile strategy in the context of the Common Core looks a lot like preparing for any major ed tech initiative.

During the recent Fall CUE conference, two California district leaders shared advice and resources they have gained from their ongoing mobile device transitions. Marie Criste is a teacher and site tech coordinator for a high school in the 10,000-student Roseville Joint Union High School District, and Mike Fury is the chief technology officer at neighboring Rocklin Unified School District, which has 11,000 students. Previously, Fury and Criste worked together at the Roseville district, where they rolled out an iPod and iPad program and, more recently, a Google Chromebook program. Here are their top seven tips for schools getting ready for Common Core and mobile device rollouts.

1) Engage your community.

From the beginning, you have to get everybody to weigh in on the plan. That includes not just teachers, administration, IT, and staff, but also students, parents, and the larger community. The goal is to manage expectations, address misinformation, and be transparent. “What you don’t want to do,” Fury said, “is get a bunch of people in a back room without gathering information from stakeholders and then have a plan doesn’t reflect what all the stakeholders considered important. As [the plan] intertwines with Common Core, it’s imperative to get community involvement, ideally, upfront.”

Parents, said Criste, can be your “biggest advocates.” For that reason, successful districts emphasize educating parents through surveys and handbooks. Parents who participate in parent-teacher associations or who indicate their willingness via survey can function as sounding boards for planning.

On the community side, Fury and Criste suggest seeking input from members of the school board, city council, school/parent support organizations, and local businesses that have been consistent supporters of the district. When it comes to working with companies, Fury said, “It doesn't have to be a tech company. It just has to be a company that sees the value and buys in. If you can bring parents and community members into a classroom or show them online what it is you're doing and how effective it is for students and how engaged students are, a lot of them are going to be interested and want to know how they can help.”

2) Develop a pilot team to help develop your plan.

The pilot team needs to be cross-functional and represent all of the areas that have stakeholder interest. This includes teachers who are “willing to take risks and run with it,” said Criste. Fury added that,” A lot of times you find folks who say, ‘I don’t know what I don't know. That’s okay.”

The pilot team should also include students. Where do you find the right ones? Criste suggests starting in your own classrooms, contacting colleagues for recommendations, and seeking out those who are enrolled in computer science or application courses.

The next step is to work with the pilot team to formulate a realistic and manageable plan. That doesn't start with deciding what device to deploy. The first step is to set the instructional targets and come up with the questions to be answered during the pilot, such as “What do you want to accomplish with this device?” At the end of the testing phase, Fury said, “You'll be able to answer those questions. You’ll be able to say, this device or this method did work or didn't work.”

The plan should also include a timeline and a readiness checklist for teachers. “We really focus on the goal of improving student achievements,” said Criste.

3) Test and future-proof your network.

Districts are getting better about examining their physical infrastructure from an enterprise perspective, said Fury. That includes the data substructure, fiber optics and copper, servers, storage, air conditioning, wireless, and every other aspect of network operations. “If the network's not reliable, not predictable,” he said, “the plans will get abandoned.”

He suggested bringing in a third-party company to test every aspect of the network to make sure it works and to “certify” the infrastructure. He also advised continual stress testing and load testing of the system, adding, “When you change from the pilot to the entire school or entire district, make sure to give yourself time to test that stuff—because we've got some deadlines come spring 2015 that should make us all nervous."

Criste said that one test at the Roseville district consisted of bringing class sets of Chromebooks into two rooms, loading them with high definition video from YouTube, and seeing what the impact on the wireless network was. “That was enlightening for me,” she said,  “and I was able to use that data to work with IT. Moreover, I was able to share that information with teachers and how it may impact classroom implementation.” For example, encouraging every student to bring up video on his or her device directly through the wireless network can make for painfully slow performance.

Districts also need to make sure the IT department has the tools it needs to troubleshoot problems. “Sometimes you have tools that come with a product, but you can only see what’s happening in real time,” said Fury. What’s needed is the ability to quantify what the technology was actually delivering after the fact.

Fury’s recommendation for capacity: Plan for a 10-gigabit backbone. “It may seem incredible and crazy,” he said, “but we're going to need it.” Getting his current district to that level meant updating switches, even though they wouldn’t entirely be lit up. This is one of the ways he seeks out opportunities to future-proof the network when it can be done cost-effectively.

4) Embrace the cloud.

Fury believes that IT people are beginning to loosen up a bit in their thinking about cloud-based computing resources. “We're starting to realize the value the cloud can offer. Significantly, it can reduce costs.” One way he now assesses decision-making in this area is to examine the impact of a given implementation on his team’s time: “We need to do other stuff that’s important,” he said. “We need to be in the classroom helping students and teachers.”

Both the Roseville and Rocklin districts are using Google Apps for Education, which allows schools to give students their own e-mail accounts and online storage. From the technology perspective, said Fury, “Less is more. And by the way, it’s close to free. And guess what? Students can get to it 24/7.” Besides, he added, “Leveraging the collaborative tools inside Google docs is amazing.”

5) Get buy-in for acceptable use.

Fury and Criste have had to address the security issues inherent in cloud usage, including grappling with regulations at both the federal and state levels. Both districts have based their acceptable usage policies on guidelines recommended by Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization that provides information and tools to help users sort out decisions regarding kids’ use of media. They’re also advising teachers to use the organization's other tools for educators, including its guidance on how to work within the constraints of E-rate planning and CIPA rules.

When an incident arises that could derail mobile device usage in the schools, they recommended responding as positively as possible, turning the mistake into a “learning opportunity,” not a disciplinary action that calls for widespread reaction. Fury also suggested making any written policy regarding device usage “as general as possible, because the technology will change and you want to give a certain degree of flexibility to folks who are going to try this stuff.”

Fury also distributes a template of a classroom policy for BYOD to teachers and encourages them to modify it as they see fit and then share it with parents. “Now we can get input back from teachers about what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “We can get feedback from administrators. We didn’t want to lock that policy in stone until that happened.”

6) One device doesn’t fit all.

At Roseville, Criste has found that the best approach is to let learning objectives guide the device selection process. This may result in a shared set of devices that varies by content area, grade, department, or school. At Rocklin, lower grades may tend to choose iPads and higher grades may tend to go with Chromebooks.

Device selection is an area where Fury is circumspect regarding future-proofing the technology. The Common Core assessment consortia Smarter Balanced and PARCC anticipate that in three years, schools will need devices with styluses and touchscreens. Fury pointed out that, “I've seen some districts go out of their way to make sure their purchases fit that now. But a lot of these devices aren't going to make it past three years anyway, so why spend twice as much?” He also suggested having “lots of conversations with special ed folks” to make sure special needs and accommodations are taken into consideration during device decision-making.

The arrival of BYOD brings its own problems, he said. “Your students are going to bring any and every device in, and you have to be prepared for it." During one pilot, he saw everything from brand new Dells to computers that came out of the “bottom of Grandma's closet.”

Sustainability is also an issue. Districts tend to be much better at acquiring new hardware than in keeping it going, Fury admitted. Eventually, hidden costs surface. For example, while IT may get funding to buy a bunch of new devices, is there budget to fund the professional development needed by a whole bunch of people?

7) Spend as much energy on PD as on the technical stuff.

Criste said that selecting the right teachers to participate in your pilot and then offering them ongoing training and support are the most crucial aspects of ensuring success for a new mobile initiative. “If you get your teachers on board, they’re the ones who will make the difference,” she said. “They’ll get the kids on board and excited about using 21st century technologies in the classroom, and eventually amazing things happen.”

It’s best, added Fury, if the teachers in a school’s pilot program share some aspect—whether a grade level or subject—to help create momentum from which to expand the program. Working with a group that has common goals also helps with staff development, he believes, because training is more effective when it’s targeted and specific.

When the Roseville district started running small mobile device pilots, the program handed out devices to technicians, teachers, and trusted students and encouraged them to play with various apps. This required working with administration to loosen up and not expect major results. Criste ran two-day summer training with teachers as in-service training, continually surveyed users to see how on-track the professional development was, and gave them ample time to experiment. One thing she learned: At some point the flood of apps had to slow to a trickle. She had to choose a few apps that did one thing well, because mastering a handful of apps allowed teachers to gain confidence and provided consistency for students.

Criste also found that creating a good relationship with your IT department is key to getting problems solved quickly for teachers. During her rollout of 200 Chromebooks, she always kept them in the communication loop, and even “bribed” them with donuts and coffee. As the work unfolds, she added, stakeholders need to keep their decisions student-centered and always ask themselves, “How will this impact kids?”

The key for any district or school attempting to implement a mobile program in the face of the changes introduced by the Common Core is to leverage existing resources. Fury concluded, “The reality is, there's no one magic bullet, no one size fits all. It’s just a matter of putting those pieces together in terms of the resources that are available to you for that organization.”

Many of the surveys, checklists, handbooks, and other digital resources Criste and Fury have used in their work are publicly available on a Google drive here. They encourage other schools and districts to customize the materials for their own use.

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