Technology (Enhancing + Engaging + Connecting)

7 Tips to Ensure Your District Is 'Digital from Day 1'

two men looking at technologyTechnology should never be an inhibitor to teaching and learning. Time during the school day is so precious. It cannot be squandered on tasks such as ensuring students are enrolled in the appropriate systems and able to access them.

By committing to having your school or district “digital from day 1”—meaning all staff and students have access to all the technology they need and it is fully operational—you eliminate distractions and enable students to begin learning from the moment they enter the classroom. That’s easy enough to say, of course, but getting it done can be a little more challenging. Here are a few tips to help ensure your staff and students have the tools they need the moment they arrive.

1) Get buy-in from teachers and parents.

In the Washingtonville Central School District, in New York, we found that crafting a shared vision for teaching and learning was the critical first step towards day-1 readiness. To aid in crafting a vision for technology, we conducted a robust survey of parents, students in grades 3 through 12, and teachers. Defining a vision supported by goals and expected outcomes makes purchasing technology that will have the greatest impact on the largest number of students easier. The technology and tools you eventually settle on are merely the vehicles you’ll take to your destination. The vision shows you where that destination is and provides the roadmap.

Take a walk into the schools you support. Talk to your teachers and students about their frustrations with technology not being usable on the first day of school.

In South Carolina’s Pickens County School District, we focused on bringing the teachers in on selecting the learning management system (LMS) because they made it clear the LMS really mattered to them. We went through a request for qualification process, where vendors came in and presented a demo. As part of that, we paid for substitutes so teachers from each school could come in and participate. They walked through the demo, got to ask questions, and received demo accounts so they could explore the different options for a while. They didn’t have final say, but their vote was included as a percentage of the final selection. They understood the process was fair and included their input.

We also did a lot of work with our parents when we first started moving to digital resources more fully. A big reason they bought in was that their students wouldn’t be coming home with these big bags of textbooks anymore. But we still had to show them that all the resources were acceptable for their children, and were easy to use and access.

Every year, we still work on bringing parents in to talk about things such as online safety, various aspects of the resources that we have, and the direction we’re moving with technology.

2) Make sure your network is ready.

A fast, stable, and robust network is not just nice, it’s a must-have. If the Internet goes down in a digital district, your teachers—and student learning—really are stuck. Your network and wireless environment are also essential to sustaining any new initiatives you introduce.

At Pickens, we addressed this challenge by leasing a dark fiber network that will increase our bandwidth 100-fold. We also worked with a consultant, Education Partner Solutions, Inc., to design a fault-tolerant network. Now, even if our fiber gets cut, there’s another route the traffic can take so we don’t experience any downtime.

3) Get your funding squared away.

By far the greatest of the challenges in becoming digital from day 1, and perhaps the hardest to overcome, is paying for this shift. Use E-rate funds as much as you can. At the Cedar Hill Independent School District (CHISD), in Texas, we used E-rate funds to vastly improve the density of our wireless network environment and greatly increase the district’s internet bandwidth.

Additionally, it’s useful to create budgets for account creation/provisioning software and buying or creating a single sign-on (SSO) tool. Ideally, budgets would also cover a dedicated employee for the import and export of employee and scholar demographic information, including names, birthdates, classes, periods, and ID numbers—along with yearly renewals and programming updates. In Pickens, we have a digital resource specialist who works with our OneRoster processes and troubleshoots issues for teachers.

To make sure it all runs smoothly, a clear process with realistic timelines for hardware and software purchasing must be developed and communicated to all district leadership. A good order tracking system is essential, as well.

4) Hire or train tech-savvy staff.

Making sure you have an adequate technical staff, both inside and beyond the IT department, to implement and support all initiatives, is also absolutely essential. Keeping everyone properly trained on all digital resources and their updates is a real challenge.

The cost of any technology, whether it is hardware or digital content and tools, is far greater than just the purchase price. Providing adequate, ongoing support to technical staff, teachers, administrators, and students cannot be overlooked. Districts must make investments in teachers who can fill the role of a technology integration coach.

5) Provide automatic account provisioning and SSO.

Automatic account provisioning from your student information system (SIS) is vital. Whether you are using Active Directory, Google, or use both as we do at CHISD, having accounts created the first day that staff and students arrive is essential, as is having a single location for all digital resources.

The biggest challenge is ensuring data is accurate from the SIS and human resources. Inaccurate data hinders automatic account provisioning and prevents users from being assigned to their proper groups.

ClassLink is the SSO portal we use to keep all resources in one place. Its Launchpad makes it easier for teachers and students to find and login to everything they need, and also allows us to add and remove applications when necessary, while only granting access to those who need it.

Whatever SSO you select, it’s important to create policies for registration and enrollment to help keep data as accurate as possible. Districts must adopt policies that clearly define the rostering and single sign-on requirements a vendor must adhere to before the district can purchase it. Ensure that acceptable use agreements are signed at the beginning of the relationship—and that they are enforced.

6) Choose the right resources.

To be digital from day one, a district needs to choose high-quality digital content and resources that can be implemented as smoothly as possible. When researching digital content and resources, check to see if vendors comply with the open standards set by the IMS Global Learning Consortium. These standards, which have been adopted by thousands of educational technology companies, were created to help provide educational institutions with a seamless user experience, while also lifting the expensive burden schools face integrating products into their systems.

7) Offer up-front and ongoing training.

Without training, these initiatives will not be used. You may have your network and all the tools your teachers wanted in place, but if they don’t have adequate training in using all that new technology, they’re likely to get frustrated and use something else.

One measure of the success of your PD is how many teachers log in per year. In Pickens, our logins have grown from 7,300 on average our first year with ClassLink to more than 18,000 on average this year. In Washingtonville, our monthly logins increased from 36,000 in 2017 to 50,000 in 2018.

Being digital from day 1 requires planning and communication throughout the district, but the payoff is giving your teachers one less thing to worry about as they prepare for the school year. They’ll become more likely to integrate technology into their lessons when they know they can count on it being ready to go.

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management June 2019 issue of Spaces4Learning.