Report From the Field | Feature

The Journey to Digital Content Delivery

An instructional technology director takes us down his district's path from an outdated content delivery system to one that belongs in the 21st century.

In 2004, leaders at Boulder Valley School District (CO) decided it was time to shift away from its old-fashioned, inefficient system of delivering instructional media to a more reliable, easy-to-use system that could adapt to a fickle technology landscape.

With the system the district had in place at the time, educators would have to reserve physical items such as DVDs and wait for them to be delivered by truck from the District Instructional Materials Center (DIMC) to their schools, only to be picked up a week later and returned for use by other teachers.

Leaders envisioned a future where instead the district would instantly deliver digital content to every desktop in every school through a private cloud. The ultimate goal was to transform the way teachers would access, share, and teach with digital media--thus engaging students on their own technological turf.

Led by Dave Williamson, the district's CIO at the time, and Len Scrogan, the district's director of instructional technology and library media, the district began the BVSD Digital Content Initiative, an aggressive mission to make its vision of digital content delivery a reality. Here, Scrogan shares the story of how that journey transpired.

Mapping the Route
Our dream of implementing a 21st century digital content delivery system for a school district with about 28,500 students, 55 schools, and 400 employees required a solid strategy and plenty of lead time. For one thing, we knew we would need buy-in from the entire organization. We understood that making the people comfortable with the transition was just as important as--if not more important than--managing the technology changes.

We started in 2004 by making sure we had a strong commitment from district leaders. We talked to the teachers' association, classroom teachers, school principals, curriculum leaders, and the IT department to get detailed input during the planning stage, including from our chief critics. Our district had a history of challenges with previous technical rollouts, including tremendous technical problems. This time, we wanted to do it right.

In the end, it only took a few months to build the political consensus we needed for a digital content delivery system, but money to fund the project was a scarcer commodity. In fact, it took a year and a half before we could convince our district leaders to include our startup costs in a larger bond proposal that eventually met with voter approval in January of 2007.

Once we had it, though, we began to search for the right digital delivery tool to meet our long list of needs, which included:

  • On-demand delivery of video resources in varying formats (.wmv, MPEG-4, Flash, .mpeg, and PDF, among others)
  • The ability to slice longer videos into bite-sized learning segments
  • The ability to access video resources from anywhere, at any time
  • Straightforward digital rights management to ensure the intellectual property rights of our chosen vendors
  • Delivery of specified cable television channels to every classroom
  • The capability for districtwide or in-school live broadcasting

After issuing an RFP in 2008, we selected InventiveTec's MediaCast solution because of its ability to meet many of our needs, its K-12 focus, good feedback from other districts, and its price point.

Before we could pull the trigger on our project, though, we still had to make sure we could fund operations once we were up and running. To accomplish this, we used a strategy that other districts could easily imitate: We simply converted the annual costs of maintaining the older materials distribution center into funds for maintenance, cable television charges, and content licensing.

Hitting the Road
Once our plans--and our funding--were set, we began a two-year countdown to wean our teachers from the use of our traditional DIMC and put the new system in place.

After proving to leaders, affected teachers, and concerned employees that less than 20 percent of the center's materials were actually being circulated to schools, our next step was to shrink the center's collection by 50 percent and move it to a smaller space. A year later, we announced the pending total shutdown of the materials center, the use of which then fell naturally and rapidly into a state of attrition.

At the same time, we worked behind the scenes with the district's purchasing department to discourage and virtually eliminate the purchase of traditional televisions and DVD players. We also worked with our bond construction office to ensure that every newly constructed or remodeled classroom would be outfitted with projectors, as opposed to older display technologies. We kept shrinking the old DIMC slowly over time, encouraging and warning of the change. Then we had a six-month vacuum with no service in the transition, but people had plenty of notice and complaints were minimal.

During 2009, the final year the traditional materials center was open, we scheduled the shipment, installation, testing, and scaling of new servers and software. At the same time, we assembled and trained teams of teachers and librarians who would be prepared to teach others when the time came. (Most technology efforts at Boulder Valley have been built on a foundation of teacher professional development, and implementing our Digital Content Initiative was no different.) With that cadre of trainers fully prepared, we began a rigorous schedule of just-in-time training in early 2010 and commissioned a multidisciplinary committee of teachers to evaluate content offerings that could be loaded into the new digital delivery system. We chose content from multiple vendors, including CCC Core Curriculum Content, Defined Learning, Visual Learning Company, and Learn360.

We started our phased rollout with five highly motivated pilot sites, hoping to double that number in the next phase, and so on. We were pleasantly surprised by three positive developments: the quick and relatively trouble-free back-end installation, the enthusiasm that our trainers demonstrated in seizing the training challenge so readily, and the ease of adoption by classroom teachers. In fact, the adoption by teachers was so trouble-free that, after the second rollout phase, we quickly discarded the schedule and allowed the entire district to move forward over the past school year.

The Final Destination
Educators can now access the district's media collection in a few different ways. At school, they can use a web browser to select video content and project it in a classroom--any classroom. At home, they can access media materials through a web browser to prepare and preview them before they use them. Educators can also create a URL for a video and insert it right in a PowerPoint presentation, Word document, or syllabus, and then play that video in class, at home, or anywhere just by clicking on the link.

With the successful completion of the BVSD Digital Content Initiative, we experienced some benefits we did not anticipate beforehand:

  • Ease of use. We did not realize that teachers could learn the system so quickly. That allowed us to repurpose our planned professional development budget to other projects.
  • Community connections. Our school board immediately adopted MediaCast as a vehicle to store and serve up recorded board meetings to an information-hungry community.
  • Multimedia integration. The URL builder function of the system offered us an entirely new way to integrate digital content into classroom and home learning by enabling the creation of simple video links that could be embedded within PowerPoints, e-mail, class syllabi, web pages, and more.
  • Budget savings.We accomplished our goals and were able to return over $35,000 in annual general fund dollars back to the district budget during tight times.

But how does this new digital media system affect student achievement? There has been no tracking of student achievement yet--metrics being measured chiefly are usage, frequency, demand, etc. Anecdotally, though, the system benefits students by helping teachers be more efficient at what they do; it makes the content more contemporary, since each year many new titles are added to our collections; and it promotes more effective visual teaching and learning. Beyond that, content is truly readily available to students anywhere, at any time.

The Next Stop
Acquiring, installing, and scaling a new digital content delivery system was just the first step in Boulder Valley School District's (CO) transformation. Len Scrogan, the district's director of instructional technology, tells us what's coming next:

  • OnLocation carts. Schools are starting to purchase MediaCast OnLocation carts that hold the tools necessary for producing school-created content.
  • Teacher- and student-developed content. One school has already populated the system with its own outstanding weekly television production. We expect that more school-, teacher-, and student-developed content will follow.
  • Evaluating and refining content. We will continue to search for great content that's tied to common core and state standards. We plan to select only the best content, using an iTunes-like model for purchasing.
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