Professional Learning

The Digital Superintendent: All Technology, All the Time

This Texas district school has integrated technology into every classroom with great success — just check out the test scores.

August 5, 2003

Superintendent Doug Otto has made technology an integral part of his school district's academic program.

Credit: Plano Independent School District

Doug Otto remembers when he bought his first personal computer in Davenport, Iowa -- an Apple Macintosh, shortly after the Mac made its splashy debut in 1984. He liked its "graphical user interface," which didn't require learning obscure commands to use it. Otto, who had just launched his career as a school superintendent, started out by crafting professional meeting agendas and writing memos to his school board on its small black-and-white screen.

At the time, visionary educators were just starting to figure out how to integrate technology into the classroom. "It seemed most important to get students familiar with technology as a separate subject," recalls Otto. "All kids needed to learn keyboarding and programming. Programming, in turn, could help teach logic and math. I spread that vision everywhere I went in the district. Little did I know how much more meaningful technology would become."

Over the years, Otto refined his vision for educational technology and led innovations in a number of school districts as his career progressed. Today, he leads one of the most wired school districts in the nation -- Plano Independent School District (ISD), a suburban district north of Dallas with fifty-nine schools and close to 49,000 students, 30 percent of whom are Asian American, Hispanic, or black. Under his leadership, Plano ISD has adopted technologies ranging from a fiber-optic network to handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs). Technology is so integral to the district's education program that "we can't teach the curriculum without it," says Otto.

The Power of Light

The Internet is sometimes called the "information superhighway" but, when accessed via a dial-up connection, it's often no faster than a winding country road. Plano ISD has a true superhighway: a state-of-the-art fiber-optic network inaugurated in September 2001 through a partnership with Southwestern Bell. The fiber-optic network can transfer information -- converted to pulses of light -- at 2,488 megabits per second, or over 1,600 times the capacity of Plano ISD's previous network.

The 23,000 computers in Plano ISD's sixty-six school and administration buildings are linked by nearly one-hundred miles of fiber-optic cable. The network allows students and teachers to view a central library of more than 1,000 digital videos, access online curriculum, conduct videoconferences with other classrooms or communities, and exploit the Internet fully from every classroom.

On a smaller scale, the district is experimenting with the use of PDAs to see if putting the latest technology right in students' hands will open up more avenues for learning. High school students are using the handheld devices to learn essential life skills such as goal setting, time management, team building, and money management. First graders are using them -- with an attached keyboard to accommodate their developing hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills -- to work individually with math software and beam add-on stories to each other.

The handheld devices are also a promising new way for parents and teachers to coordinate a child's activities, in terms not only of schedules but also of learning goals. The results are not yet in, but Otto sees handheld devices "as the only way to get a one-to-one computer ratio. We just can't afford to equip all students with a computer."

In another pilot, administrators at one school are using the handheld devices to improve security and keep better track of students' whereabouts. The devices carry information about each student's schedule, address, phone number, and parent contact information, which can be accessed manually or by scanning a bar code on student ID badges.

Vision From the Top

Otto is convinced that disseminating a technology vision for his district is a vital part of his leadership position. "A lot of people have energy, enthusiasm, and good ideas for integrating technology into learning," he says. "But you'll never get total, meaningful implementation unless there is a vision from the top that everyone can look at and buy into and hopefully implement at the classroom level."

"The skills that students acquire doing research, analyzing, and synthesizing and presenting information will stay with them for life," Otto contends. "The world is much more reliant on information and technology, and having the skills to research and present information is critical."

In addition, technology allows teaching and learning to keep pace with the evolving body of human knowledge. "The Pythagorean Theorem is still the same today as it was one-hundred years ago, but math books cost sixty dollars and wear out very quickly," says Otto. "When you turn to areas such as social studies and science, things are constantly changing. Technology provides access to totally up-to-date information -- if the student chooses. There is no other tool that allows them to do that."

Otto's vision and salesmanship help to explain why, over the past decade, voters have approved a series of bond initiatives for Plano ISD's extraordinary technology infrastructure. In a Republican-dominated school district, the bond measures have been passing by a better than 3:1 margin.

In 1999, voters approved spending $14.6 million on new technologies such as the fiber-optic network. But new technology is a relatively easy sell. More impressive has been voters' willingness to approve bonds for more mundane things like replacing PCs according to a set schedule. "We find it is more cost-effective to replace equipment and always buy computers with four-year warranties," says Otto. "That way, we don't pay a dime to repair computers or maintain a repair staff."

"When you depend on technology like we do, if our downtime is just 1 percent, we can't deliver curriculum to somebody," he adds. "We try to keep our downtime to zero."

A Mobile Superintendent Stays in Touch

With all the technology at their disposal, Plano ISD administrators can manage their district with the same tools available to their counterparts in private businesses. Technology has brought new efficiencies throughout the district, from hiring and procurement to scheduling and record keeping. Perhaps nowhere is the impact of new technology more apparent than in the area of communication.

The Plano ISD Web site and e-mail messages have become the preferred way for the district to communicate with parents -- and vice versa. When administrators make a decision, "we get instant feedback," says Otto. "People can tell us what they think right away. They don't have to write a letter or pick up the phone."

Some parents feel that Plano ISD has gone too far in embracing technology at the expense of more traditional teaching and learning. But their most visible means of rallying supporters to the cause is a technologically sophisticated "unofficial" Web site that rivals the district's own. It would be hard to argue with the district's success as measured by achievement tests. In the spring of 2001, Plano students continued to outperform students from across the state on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Scores at every grade level remained above the Texas "exemplary" standard. Nationally, SAT scores of Plano students are among the higher for districts with more than 20,000 students (in 2000, a combined verbal and math average of 1,122 compared with a national average of 1,019). At the same time, Plano's music education program has been voted one of the best in the nation for two years running.

Otto finds himself fielding fifty or more e-mail messages each day, often via the handheld PDA he carries everywhere he goes. "I spend a lot more time communicating with parents and staff members," he says. "I don't know if that is good or bad. The negative is I can never get away from the job. But people want to keep informed, they want to have contact with the superintendent or their principal. So the technology is positive because it helps us fulfill the expectations of the community."

William Snider is a freelance writer and editor.

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