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The Basics of Open Technology

Albemarle County Public Schools

Grades K-12 | Albemarle County, VA

Ira Socol

Public School Educational Technology and Innovation Director, Researcher, UDL, SpEd, History, Motivations
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Three kids sitting in class on a big futon each with a laptop

The promise of contemporary technology lives in what these tools can do that previous learning and educational technologies could not -- they are open, connected, individualizable, and flexible. But if your school adopts these new technologies without adopting the policies and practices that take advantage of these differences, you have likely defeated your students before you've even begun.

In the Albemarle County Public Schools, we've worked hard to choose the paths that allow all of our students the full benefit of their century's tools.

Student Control

When we give our grades 6-12 students a 1:1 computer to take home, those students are the local administrators of their devices. They can download software, change settings, rearrange icons and menus, and personalize with on-screen images and bookmarks, or with stickers. They can make the computer fully theirs. Why? Because these are lifetime skills that they must learn, and because a "personalized learning device" is not that if we (not they) control it.

Do children mess up? In the words of Vince Scheivert, our CIO, "Of course they do, they're kids, and do middle school kids mess up more often? Of course they do, they're in middle school." But then he adds, "And we're OK with that." We quickly reimage the device and give it back to them. Our middle school kids mess up a lot, our high schools kids almost not at all. That's learning.

An Abundance of Tools

We hand our students real laptops with real capabilities, and we fill them with software, apps, and bookmarks. We like to have at least three ways that kids can do anything. They can use Google Apps to write, or Microsoft Word, or Open Office Writer. We have four different ways to convert Text-into-Speech, a half dozen different calculators, all kinds of organizational tools. We want our children to discover how to choose effectively for their own needs. To do that, they need choices, and so we believe in Toolbelt Theory.


Our laptops are Universal Design for Learning (UDL) devices -- they have the full Freedom Stick suite of accessibility tools installed. Microsoft Speech-to-Text is linked prominently on the start menu. We have talking calculators, Balabolka, and WordTalk installed into Microsoft Word. This is for every student. You don't need an IEP to choose these tools.

No student will have mechanical limitations in access to either information or communication -- whether through disability, inability at this moment, or even just discomfort. Learning is our goal, and we make it accessible.

Access Everywhere

Our school district, 726 square miles including hills, hollows, and mountains, comes with significant challenges. Seventy percent of this area lacks broadband access. Other areas lack access because of poverty. So with our Educational Broadband Spectrum -- something that the Federal government gave to every public school -- we're building out an LTE-4G system for home and on-the-go connectivity for every student in our district.

This isn't easy, and we're doing it without any budget initiative, but it is essential. "All means All," says the sign in our superintendent’s office, and we take that seriously. Every child needs the same opportunities, and we can make this possible.

BYOD and an Open Network

Every school facility has both a "closed" (our devices) and "public" (any device) network. And with the exception of certain licensed resources, both go almost everywhere on the internet. Every K-12 student can use his or her own device in class. This is key to both UDL and choice. And teachers can collect old smartphones, reset them to operate as everything but phones, and use them in their technology tool crib. Parents can connect in school lobbies, libraries, or in the parking lot waiting for their kids. We see ourselves as a place where information is available and tool use is learned.

Talk to Parents

How much screen time is too much? What about filters? Why is this important? As with faculty, we help parents understand that we live post-Gutenberg, and the ways of learning and communication have changed. Too much of anything is too much, our kids don't stare at screens all day in school, and we'd love them to be outside playing at home. But make sure that your children have as much unstructured play with friends offline/outside as they do online. We help parents consider filtering their home internet service, or shutting down WiFi at night, or simply limiting computer use to family spaces, but we also know that the best filter comes from being involved with our children. We keep the lines of communication open, and we hope that we're modeling a balanced life for our students.

Worry About Behavior, Not Technology

We really don't have "technology discipline." We see no difference between online bullying and on-paper or verbal bullying. We see no difference between damaging tech stuff and damaging any other school property. If we wouldn't take books away from a child who let a book get wet, we won't take contemporary tools away from a child who made a mistake with his or her digital device. For our children, these tools are how they communicate and learn, and if we act as if that's true, the rules become much easier to understand.

Spend Wisely

We moved from three students per computer to 1:1 without any increase in our technology budget. We've done this by choosing devices carefully and negotiating prices. We pay less for robust Windows 8 devices than many schools pay for tablets and Chromebooks. We don't buy service contracts, because our tech staff and our students do the repairs. We don't pay for computer setup, because our student interns image and reimage over 10,000 student computers every summer. We ask parents to donate old smartphones when we need alternate-size devices. And we buy only Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suites -- all other software and apps are open source or freeware. Our goal is to spend our technology money on the student, letting us do much more with less.

Trust in Children and Childhood

Yes, this is a catchphrase, but it's vitally important. We trust our children, and in turn, they usually do the right things. And this underlies all that we do.

This blog post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from Albemarle County Public Schools.
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marissabruno's picture

As technology gains dominance in every day life, both academically and otherwise, I think that integration of technology is key in preparing kids for the world ahead. I love that this school district has a 1:1 computer program, and I love how they trust their children with their own devices. To take it a step further, this school district allows learners of all types to be able to thrive with their devices by providing multiple learning and note-taking platforms standard on each computer. I really believe that this is where education should be headed with how quickly technology is advancing.

Leahlovesdogs's picture

I think this is really awesome. I do also believe with a system like this you have to be careful to make sure students are still collaborating with other students and the teacher. The future i'm sure will hold 1:1 technology for all schools, as it should be. It's really impressive that all students were given internet access as well, all should be for all.

Philip G. Pulley's picture

I think districts need to do more of this as opposed to the locked down approach many take. I am finishing my doctorate in education with a focus on educational technology, was cleared for presidential access in the White House Communications Agency, and did two person control of nuclear weapons in the army. At my school I don't even have the ability to update Adobe Reader. If we really want to teach students to use technology responsibly we need to let them make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes. Instead we often hobble the 99% for the 'sins' the 1% might make. The result, instead of transforming education with technology we end up domesticating technology to the old ways of teaching and instead of a text book and paper worksheets we just have PDF versions; nothing has changed. Congrats to Albemarle County Public Schools for teaching students to be responsible instead of just telling them to be responsible.

E.Kocourek's picture

The exploits of the Albemarle School District are attracting the attention of educators in Czechia. But all Czech schools are serfs of the all-powerful Ministry of Education. Is there some article on edutopia describing interaction between the school district and state and federal institutions? It seems to me that the Albemarle School District is enjoying quite a lot of freedom - is that usual or exceptional in the U.S.?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

It's hard to say, really. The differences from state to state (and district to district within a state) can be pretty significant. In the broader continuum, I'd put them more towards the progressive end- they have a bit more freedom than average. This article (not on Edutopia, sorry) provides a pretty good overview of how the whole system fits together.
The short version is that, while there is a Department of Education at the federal level, states and local districts/schools have a lot of control over teacher's day-to-day practice.

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

I think the real key in Albemarle is that the district-level leaders provide the autonomy to their teachers. This is probably the exception, but it doesn't need to be. They still do everything that they can to meet all of the legal requirements from their state and the federal government, but they're much more willing to look past some of the strictures that many other districts place on themselves in how they interpret some of those directives from above.

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