Q&A with Digital Innovator Andrew Smith

As director of digital innovation in North Carolina’s Rowan-Salisbury School District, Andrew Smith and his team of technologists successfully implemented a 1-to-1 iPad program for 20,000 students at 35 schools. He did it in less than a year. His district contracted with device management provider JAMF Software to help with the rollout.

Smith, 29, said he believes the mobile device initiative has simultaneously brought personalization to student learning and freed up instructional time.

THE Journal: What did you do before you were director of digital innovation?

Andrew Smith: I was a high school forensics teacher. I saw this job involving technology and integration, and, on a whim, I applied for it. I think we’re a little bit different [from] most other school districts. I went in not knowing we were going to go 1-to-1, with 20,000 users in eight months.

THE Journal: Did you consider multiple vendors before choosing Apple?

Smith: Yes. We brought in multiple vendors and thought about what do our end users want to see. We began by looking at different products they might want.

We were in conversations with different companies. We narrowed it down to Apple. When we looked at end-user goals, we felt like the Apple suite was a device that met those goals. We really wanted to offer the students of Rowan a product they could use in school and during their free time.

THE Journal: What was the cost of this project?

Smith: The total cost was $11 million. We did this on a budget shortfall year. We went through a process of zero-based budgeting. We had to determine what we were willing to get rid of to do it, down to how many crayons were needed in a class. We’re using a lease model.

If you do it all with a grant, that’s an amazing opportunity. But what are you going to do in three years from now? By doing a lease and zero-based budgeting, we were also able to provide a sustainability plan.

THE Journal: Describe the role JAMF Software played in the rollout. [JAMF is the publisher of Casper Suite, a set of tools for managing Apple devices.]

Smith: They helped orchestrate those events. They provided an instructional tech facilitator at every one of those 35 schools. They’re really the brains behind the operation. They know the intricacies of the program.

We kind of sat down with the vendors with an aggressive timeline. They were holding our hand with that process. We were all new to the 1-to-1s. We were seasoned beginners. We got our stripes through doing it for the first time. They were there to help guide us. How do you deploy 1,600 laptops in six hours? We didn’t know the logistics of that. They help us see the logistical items.

They really helped frame what that would look like.

THE Journal: Now that your school district is completely 1-to-1, what are some things you are able to do that you weren’t able to do before?

Smith: Just two days ago, I saw something I didn’t think would be possible. We were involved in a national debate with another school in Florida. We were using Google Hangouts, and the kids were connected to another school three states away. They were having arguments around real-life political events. Here are kids who got opportunities that didn’t exist two years before.

We’re hearing them say they are now even more connected with kids who aren’t necessarily from the same state or background. In Rowan-Salisbury [School District], 65 percent of the students get free lunch. We do not have resources that some other schools have, but we’re leveling the playing field by giving them their device. They can have the same kind of access. It would take three or four initiatives to try and get at that.

THE Journal: How do the devices change instruction and the structure of the classroom?

Smith: The devices are part of a much larger conversation. We really don’t talk about devices all that much. Instruction changes when we have opportunities to have different works. The device is one of those tools that gives us access to different works, different materials.

As for instructional practices, we’ve been examining recent work around blended learning. We see this at every level. Teachers are beginning to move away from the front of the classroom. Now they’re becoming co-constructors of knowledge, facilitators of learning. There are times when students can have individual conversations with teachers. When every single kid has a device, the experience is so much more advanced. Maybe you’re a high flier —  you’re actually getting content that’s different than anyone else. The program differentiates the level of reading for every single kid. If you have a student who’s in third grade but reads on a ninth-grade level, they’re getting content on a higher level. We couldn’t do that before.

THE Journal: You gave each kid an iPad. Aren’t you concerned they’re going to be playing games or watching videos or getting distracted instead of doing schoolwork?

Smith: We’re not naïve. Kids are not just going to use these for instructional purposes only. But allowing kids a little bit of autonomy actually helps with the buy in.

Giving some personal autonomy is kind of an active challenge. When new apps come out, we’re able to kind of intersect — these are things that we need, these are things we don’t.

Technology is not going away. This is not a fad. We know that the benefits of technology purposefully and meaningfully far outweigh the distraction. We’re beginning to produce some options for teachers that help them ensure that during the day, the devices are used for educational purposes.

We have to block some things. It’s a bit of a “Whack a Mole” situation. When we don’t think certain things are appropriate, we can go in and remove them. A bit of it is classroom management — if you don’t want a kid to play on it, just close it. We do lots of professional development. How do you manage 30 devices in your classrooms? The big piece of the puzzle is — teachers who engage their kids don’t have these issues.

THE Journal: A recent report published by the National Education Policy Center said that students in blended and virtual schools don’t perform as well on assessments than students in regular, face-to-face settings. Any thoughts on that?

Smith: It’s only one study. What I know is that the importance of an educator is paramount. He or she can ensure that kids are making progress. I think that oftentimes virtual learning is just not for everybody. And some kids just can’t do blended learning. I want to see what continued studies look like on virtual learning. It takes a lot of self-motivation to work your way through those experiences. That again shows us the value of face–to–face education.

About the Author

Richard Chang is associate editor of THE Journal. He can be reached at [email protected].