This past week at Burlington High School, we started rolling out iPads for incoming freshmen. During this process, I couldn't help but reflect on what had occurred over the course of a year. Around this time last summer, BHS had roughly one thousand iPads ready to roll out to all students. The anticipation was great, the waters uncharted. During the 2011-2012 school year, we, the IT department and the teachers charted a course that led us to many exciting discoveries as well as many learning experiences.
NOTE: When I say "we" from here on out, I am referring to Dennis Villano, Director of Instructional Technology for Burlington Public Schools; Patrick Larkin, Principal of Burlington High School: Bob Cunha, IT for BPS; Jose DeSousa, IT for BPS; John Allegreto, IT for BPS; and Tim Calvin and myself, Instructional Technologists at BHS. This was our 1:1 team along with three students that helped over the summer and our Superintendent, Eric Conti, who spearheaded the initiative and made this venture a reality.
When you unfold such a large-scale initiative as giving every student an iPad, you tend to overthink everything. We tried to avoid this, but it was inevitable. Despite our anxiety, we devised a plan that simply worked. That plan consisted of all team members communicating daily. There was never a defiant voice, and we made sure to listen and constructively respond to each other's thoughts and concerns. The administration team worked closely with us, serving as our equal and not the ultimate decider.
The first rule of launching one thousand iPads: have lots of conversations.
If all members of your launch team are not communicating daily and working together as a unit without any hierarchy, then you can stop reading at this point. Without this basic, human infrastructure, your 1:1 initiative -- or any initiative -- will not take flight. As easy as it is to overthink this process, the golden rule is human communication. If you're not listening and providing constructive criticism for each other, then this will be a failed venture.
One of the best decisions our team made last summer was to pre-install Casper profiles on all of our iPads. We pulled the student IDs from our ASPEN student information system, logged each student into Casper and installed the four profiles needed for our plan. The profiles took Safari web browser off the iPad. This was a decision we all made initially to provide peace of mind and assurance that we would be filtering inappropriate web content from students' iPads both in school and beyond. This seemingly simple yet crucial decision cut down on the time parents and students had to be at the school during the iPad rollout days. Plus, it allowed for us to bring in groups of 50 students at a time throughout the day and night sessions. In short, do as much as you can to expedite the process before the device actually touches the hands of the students.
Learning As We Go
This may come across as cocky, but we did not hire outside professional development, nor did we subscribe to an outline set forth by Apple or another school. We simply tread our own path. This is not to say that we didn't have the occasional hiccup or fail. But what great innovator or trailblazer got it 100% right on the first try? We decided to move forward despite the rhetoric around 1:1 initiatives, and made a point of remembering that, along the way, our goal was to provide the best learning environment for our students.
Several times over the course of the year, I was asked to identify our three learning moments during the launch, deployment and integration. Here are my answers.
1) Saying you're eliminating textbooks -- and actually doing it -- is hard.
At the beginning of the year we prided ourselves as a school that was moving away from traditional textbooks in favor of teacher-created, digital alternatives. Our primary tools were open source sites such as Project Gutenberg and Creative Commons in conjunction with Apple Pages, which we used to provide the content for each subject area. Once created in Pages, teachers could save this file as an ePub and distribute via email or Dropbox so students could view via iBooks. While we are no longer supporting new textbook licenses or purchasing digital textbooks through iTunesU, our direction has shifted.
As we progressed through the year, we discovered that these tools took a lot of time to create something we were trying to move away from in the first place. The reason for moving away from textbooks is that they offer a myopic vision of a world that is ever-changing. Simply viewing a textbook on an iPad does not change or innovate learning, nor does it use the iPad to its full potential. If your plan is to digitize a standard textbook, save your money and renew your textbook licenses.
This year we are linking up with Net Texts to publish our teacher-created digital content for each subject area. Net Texts gives us a web-based application that teachers can use to upload media that will sync with an iPad app students can use to download their course materials. Teachers can update their course app as needed, and it will sync automatically with the student's iPad. This application offers our teachers and students a clean, easy-to-use alternative to a textbook and allows for more autonomy in creating rich, engaging classroom content.
2) Every student will not readily adapt to technology.
I like to dispel the digital native myth any chance I get, and so I will do it again. Assuming all students will easily adapt to educational technology is a giant misconception. In fact, some students actually prefer learning in an analog world. And that is fine.
However, we must work to incorporate information and digital literacy standards into the K-12 curriculum as early as possible. Students in Kindergarten should understand what it means to be nice to someone and how that will translate to writing and living on the Web. As students grow up through the educational pathways, they must be exposed to new and emerging technologies as early as possible in a safe, responsible manner. By doing so, we are preparing them for a global economy that requires these skills.
This year we are incorporating K-12 digital portfolios along with revised information and digital literacy standards. Every BPS student will have a Google Apps for Education account that they will use in conjunction with the Blogger application to begin creating their Life of Learning portfolio. This portfolio will create a sustainable archive of students' learning throughout their academic career in Burlington Public Schools.
3) Trust students.
One of the best decisions we made before we deployed 1000+ iPads to our student body was to create a student-run genius bar. With this decision, we were putting a lot of trust in the hands of our students. However, it turned out to be a core component of the launch.
Our help desk students must go through an audition in order to get into the class that is co-taught by Tim Calvin and myself. We ask students at the end of the year to submit a resume and sign up for an interview/audition time. During the interview, we not only ask students questions, but also give them three scenarios that they must troubleshoot on the spot. Once the interviews have commenced, my colleague and I review our notes and submit the final roster to the guidance department.
The students that make it into help desk are those who not only enjoy working with technology in an educational context, but have a desire to serve, support and possibly solve problems in the school on a daily basis. Aside from simply troubleshooting, our students help their former teachers at the middle and elementary levels as well as create how-to scripts and videos for students, faculty and the Burlington community. Our students have not only helped within the BPS community, but have helped our Tech Team organize two major conferences in the past year: The New England 1:1 Summit and the Massachusetts Digital Publication Collaborative. This year, BHS help desk students will be presenting at several conferences and have been asked to work and present at one of Massachusetts' largest technology conferences in October. They will also be assisting with the Google Apps for Education New England Summit at Burlington on November 3 and 4, iCon 2013 at Burlington High School in April, and will be organizing an EdCamp on June 1, 2013.
You can have the most precisely calculated plan in place before you launch, but if you don't have the right support in place, your launch may stumble. I regard our IT department as one of the best I have ever worked with. I say this in all sincerity because I do "work with" this team. These guys not only manage a robust infrastructure, but they take part in the educational conversation and give our staff the best tools to create dynamic, engaging classrooms. We also have a Director of Instructional Technology instead of a Director of Technology. Dennis Villano oversees a team of instructional technology specialists and library media specialists. He has designed and integrated new models of professional development at BPS, including our BPS Professional Development conference happening next week, and led the iPad launch by organizing and creating an iPad driver's ed course in conjunction with the high school instructional technology team. It is imperative that you have a team willing to communicate and connect daily to make the best decisions for your initiative.
Despite all of the human support in place and the meticulously calculated planning, it will take time for students, faculty and the greater school community to adapt to a transformative learning device. As you approach your pilot program this year, or your own 1:1 launch, keep in mind that you're giving students the best opportunity to learn in a dynamic, engaging environment. And when things start to get difficult or when you encounter a stumble, don't see it as a failed plan, but as a valuable learning experience.
If you would like to find out more about our 1:1 iPad environment, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.