A tale of three tech rollouts: Challenge and success in North Carolina

These districts' device deployments offer takeaways for administrators nationwide

When it comes to what constitutes the building blocks of successful ed tech rollouts, no one knows better than district leaders, principals, and teachers.

One recent study of 4,300 educators by TES Global and the Jefferson Education Accelerator confirmed that teachers want to be empowered and have a sense of ownership over the tech utilized in their classrooms. Some 63% of respondents said that they wanted to be the primary decision makers about tech in the classroom, while 38% said they aren't currently a part of the tech decision-making process. Additionally, 45% said tech trainings hadn’t made them more any more comfortable with new devices or platforms. 

Education Dive's recent State of Education Technology survey backs that up, finding that while technology is becoming more ingrained in K-12 education, not all deployments are created equally. In fact, 54% of the administrators and teachers who responded felt that teacher and staff training was inadequate when it came to new tech.

In North Carolina, three diverse districts share their stories regarding their own tech rollouts, including the benefits, the challenges, and some advice for districts launching new initiatives. 

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School District: Success from the start

In the summer of 2015, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County (WSFC), the fourth-largest district in North Carolina, chose to roll out Haiku Learning's cloud-based digital learning suite.

Heather Horton, director of digital teaching and learning at WSFC, played an integral roll in both choosing Haiku and helping schools adjust to using it. In addition to her role in the district, Horton also regularly participates in #edtech discussions on Twitter.

The district had also considered using Canvas and Moodle, Horton said, but ended up deciding on Haiku due to its ease of use, regardless of users' previous experience with tech. It was also important that teachers could easily share content and coursework, and that the platform integrated seamlessly with Google products.

During the rollout, she was careful to stress the importance of teacher buy-in. The district helped teachers build an understanding “of what an LMS is and can do for a classroom teacher – why they need it,” she said.  WSFC included all levels of the organization, from the top down, in the deployment.

By creating classroom “pages,” teachers are able to add and organize content blocks and change layouts, as well as embed content from third-party providers like YouTube, Google Docs, Maps, and Skype. “We have School Board, Senior Staff, Program Areas, and Principal sites in addition to classroom sites,” Horton said.

When published, content blocks, classes, and pages can then be shared with other Haiku Learning users, including other teachers and students. The platform also tracks grades and assignments.

Throughout the district’s 81 schools. Horton says that the platform’s rollout was handled equally.

Three professional development sessions were delivered in person, and then teachers were encouraged to start using the platform  but it wasn’t required. 

“Prior to teacher training, the technology department worked with instructional folks to move content resources to Haiku and worked with principals to develop school sites,” Horton said. “Therefore, teachers who were not ready to use the product with students were able to start experiencing it as a consumer through the content and school sites.”

The district also trained principals, administrators and central office leaders over the summer in advance of the rollout.

“These folks were employed 12 months [per year], so no additional funds were used,” Horton explained. “It was great to have admin and central office on board before teachers, and sent a great message about the importance.”

After just two months, WSFC had 3,000 active classes and almost 15,000 unique users using Haiku Learning.

Currently, plans are in the works for WFSC to create a “Haiku Learning Ambassador program,” in which district schools will send their own representatives to meet with those from other schools using Haiku, with the goal being to compare notes, share knowledge, and engage in a dialogue around the practical applications of the platform. It’s part PD, and part organic skill-share.

Today, the district is not only using Haiku Learning in the classroom, but outside as well. They’ve adapted the “class” feature to help their finance department collect payroll forms, and for senior staff to schedule and track weekly meetings and Board of Ed meetings, among other uses.

Guilford County School District: Rebounding from a 'meltdown'

In the Guilford County School District, the state's third-largest, a $33 million, 1:1 tablet initiative resulted in, by all accounts, a “meltdown.” One story published last year by Education Week referred to the attempted deployment as a “student-computing effort gone awry.”

Back in December 2013, the district decided to provide a tablet to each of its 15,000 students as part of a personalized learning initiative. With funding from a Race to the Top grant, it moved ahead using devices from Amplify, an ed tech vendor formerly owned by NewsCorp and based in New York City.

The rollout was marred with issues. Thousands ended up with broken screens or had cases that were easily smashed. And then there were the battery charger issues.

Worse, the rollout seemed haphazard and rushed. No devices were tested beforehand, and staff trainings were reportedly “condensed.” The district suspended the tech initiative after just two months and recalled all of the tablets.

School Superintendent Maurice Green worked out a deal with Amplify in which the faulty tablets would be replaced, and the district received some compensation to make up for the time lost to staff trainings.  

Today, 18,000 replacement Amplify devices are being used in the district. Unlike the first time around, they were piloted first.

The company has since ceased manufacturing the devices. 

The district chose to be transparent about all of its difficulties, a move intended to help restore the public’s wavering trust in school officials. In a move unrelated to the tech rollout, Green has since resigned to head the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

Onslow County Schools: A slow and steady implementation 

In Onslow County School Districts, a 1:1 device rollout was planned over the course of five years in an effort to mitigate costs and troubleshoot along the way. The rollout started with grades 7-9 during the 2014-15 school year and is moving down the grade levels annually from there, with an expected conclusion in the 2018-19 school year with a local initiative for grades K-2.

"Starting off with just a couple of grades allowed us to monitor and address any technical and support issues at a minimum," Ross Friebel, the district’s director of digital learning and teaching services, told Education Dive. "We would be able to improve these on a smaller scale, allowing us to be better equipped for the next rollout."

Right now, the device of choice is a basic Dell laptop.

Before settling on Dell, the district tested various tablets, netbooks, and laptops across grade levels. Then, based on feedback about efficiency and user-friendliness, it decided on Dell.

By using one common device, Friebel explained, the district set out to create a "common set of tools" to be used within each 1:1 classroom. Those tools are referred to, en masse, as Onslow's Digital Learning Platform.

It was a slow process. The school system took over a year before starting the 1:1 initiative in order to "do nothing but research," Friebel said, and to see what was working for other schools and districts. That way, it could avoid pitfalls.

"There are so many tools to use out there, and we wanted to have some consistency across our classrooms, grade levels, and schools. In this platform are the standard tools that all classrooms are expected to use," he explained. "So when you want to use an LMS, you use Edmodo.  When you want students to use email, then you use Office 365. When you teach digital citizenship, then you use CommonSense Media. And so on."

Teachers can use other tools, but those resources are expected to be utilized in all 1:1 classrooms. Every year, the district makes tweaks to the initiative as needed.

When choosing ed tech, Friebel recommended keeping two main questions in mind. First, how will “teaching” need to change to make the ed tech device or platform successful? And second, who will be available to help teachers?

Onslow Country School Districts has IT support spread across all schools, with 22 instructional technology facilitators and a similar number of IT technicians serving 37 campuses. 

"The biggest advice I can give is to make sure there is communication in place and do your research," he warned. "We didn’t just buy devices and give them to the schools – we first had to make sure that our infrastructure could support such an undertaking."

Inter-district collaboration and sharing experiences can increase success

According to “Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education,” the new federal 21-point guide to classroom tech use released in December, digital learning is best used to advance “a vision of equity, active use, and collaborative leadership to make everywhere, all-the-time learning possible.”

And though the government’s blueprint may help district officials think about using ed tech in the classroom, the guide offers little in the way of concrete suggestions to help districts and educators visualize how a plan could pan out. Districts have much to gain by comparing and contrasting their own experiences.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County's Horton has a few takeaways for districts in the beginning stages of purchasing, rolling out, and using new ed tech.

  1. Get leadership on board first.
  2. Allow early adopters to go as far as they want – they will push you but will set the pace and example for others.
  3. Set timelines and expectations for those at the other end of the spectrum.

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Top image credit: Brad Flickinger/Flickr