Q & A With Chad Lewis, Director of Technology, Tampa Preparatory School
The ‘technologist of the year’ has helped immerse students and teachers in active, tech-driven learning.
Chad Lewis and his school, Tampa Preparatory School, have received a fair amount of attention lately.
Lewis, the director of technology at the Florida private school, has transformed classrooms throughout his 670-student institution, which starts with sixth graders and goes up through 12th grade.
All the kids are 1-to-1 with iPads. Lessons and student work are projected onto three interactive projectors per class, and all the walls are “writeable,” meaning the students can use special markers or their fingers to write on erasable, interactive whiteboards.
The classes are furnished with mobile desks, so students can move their desks anywhere. The classroom configurations are different every day.
All teachers are equipped with Redcat wireless microphones, which means they’re not tethered to the front of the classroom. In fact, they can be anywhere in the class and students can hear them clearly from a speaker — upending the very notion of front and back of the class.
Ninety percent of books are digital on the students’ iPads, meaning the kids don’t have to lug around heavy texts and they even wind up saving money. Updates to texts can easily be downloaded onto the iPads.
In 2014 and 2016, Tampa Preparatory was selected as an Apple Distinguished School, recognized as “an exemplary learning environment for innovation, leadership and educational excellence.”
Lewis has implemented what he calls an “active learning environment,” with project-based learning, flipped classrooms and students doing podcasts, learning code and filming movies — all facilitated by technology.
For his efforts, Lewis, a member of the FETC executive board, has received local media attention and was named nonprofit CIO of the year in 2016 by the Tampa Bay Business Journal. Also last year, the Tampa Bay Technology Forum selected him as technologist of the year.
THE Journal: When did your students go 1-to-1?
Chad Lewis: We’ve been that way for four years. This will be our fifth year.
THE Journal: Did you consider the Chromebook? It’s been gaining in popularity in the schools.
Lewis: We did. Five years ago, we started the conversation — we knew we wanted to be a 1-to-1 school. We explored what kind of functionality we needed: We wanted to create multimedia projects, videos, use green screens, record lectures, have our books on our devices. We wanted a long battery life. We looked at Chromebooks, Windows-compatible laptops — Dell and Lenovo. The iPad really fit the bill because it hit all those criteria. You can create videos really easily in that device. Since 90 percent of our books are digital textbooks, that was the device that was chosen.
THE Journal: Do you have a policy regarding cellphones on campus or in class?
Lewis: Generally cellphones aren’t an issue, because all the kids have iPads and use it every day and in every class. iPads do everything a cellphone would do.
We have a really good solution for that — that’s our learning environment; respect it. We have an acceptable use policy — you will not text in the classroom. Teachers have the right to inspect your device.
THE Journal: What are the advantages of Redcat and Flexcat audio devices?
Lewis: When you have an active learning environment, it can get kind of noisy. You can use the volume control on the microphone and be the voice of God, and be really loud. Or you can put it on normal, which is almost unnoticeable [amplification]. When teachers are facing a wall or not facing an audience, [students] are still able to hear.
I had parents of a student a couple years ago come to me and say, “My child, my son came to me and said, ‘For the first time I’ve been in school, I’m able to hear the teacher.’ ” It was not identified as a medical issue. He was not at the back of the class. He just couldn’t really hear.
The really neat part, too, is for music and chorus teachers — vocal and music — we put the Flexcat pods and let the kids take those to the practice rooms. The teacher can listen in, see if the kids are on task and in tune. The student can buzz the teacher — it keeps them monitored and engaged.
It’s a huge change. It’s experiential and students say, “I’m more engaged in learning than I’ve ever been.” It’s like learning in an IMAX theater. We’re preparing students to be lifelong learners and to take ownership of their learning. We have so many resources available for students curricularly —engineering, aeronautics, virtual reality, everything.
THE Journal: With every student using a separate device, how does the teacher control what they’re looking at in class?
Lewis: We started using Apple Classroom — it’s an app for the teacher, with just a turn-on function. There are times when you do want to take over the classroom. It works in a BYOD [bring your own device] environment —you can create a class with the app. The teacher can say, “Everybody connect to my class.” When they connect to it, they type in the code that the teacher has given them.
Teachers see the displays on their iPads — if you have 20 kids in class, you’ll see 20 icons. You can push them all to one URL, or lock them in to a certain application.
We also have different classroom management controls. The teacher can lock their screen. You can lock them in whatever you want, wherever you want.
THE Journal: There are so many new ed tech products out there. How do you keep up with what’s going on without breaking the bank?
Lewis: I try to keep involved. It does change a lot. But it’s an exciting job. There’s always something new. There’s the whole flash in the pan — just because something’s new, that doesn’t mean we have to buy it. We always look at pedagogy first. Our technology budget isn’t that large.
But the benefit we do have is experience. I have to deal with a completely different culture at school than in the IT world.
THE Journal: Are there teachers or students who resist all the technology that’s being implemented in the classroom?
Lewis: Kids easily adapt to new things, but it’s not that kids are inherently so much more brilliant with technology. We have a teacher who is older than I am who absolutely rocks technology. It has to do with lifelong learning and a willingness to learn new things.
We don’t have a problem with kids being off-task. Most of the teachers have really embraced all the new technology.
THE Journal: What about the argument that physical textbooks are better for learning than e-books?
Lewis: Digital books are great for transporting, and you are not having kids with 80 pounds of books in their backpacks. We’re transforming what a textbook is. With a digital text, you can have interactive quizzes and videos and adaptive quizzes that you can’t get from a textbook. I don’t buy into the fact that a physical book has any more value than a screen has.
The Journal: What are some other products, devices or platforms that you’re using at your school?
Lewis: We use a myriad of different apps and things. Teachers have Ergotron sit-stand desks, which allows them to sit or stand behind them. What I am excited about now is virtual reality and we’re piloting that a lot. We’ve had a large number of Google Expeditions and that kind of immersion. It’s interesting and cool to see the difference between watching a video and watching a Google Expedition.
If I’m watching a [flat screen] video, I can still be distracted. But with immersion through virtual reality, you can’t be distracted. And with Google Expeditions, it’s not kids solely wandering around through VR. The teacher is still guiding the class around.
There’s also student-created VR — virtual reality environments and apps created through Unity, which is a coding-free app. That’s pretty amazing to me, the student-created aspect. We’re working on VR applications that will teach chemistry. Virtual reality is so good at helping explain things that are difficult to explain in the 2D space.