When students in Florida’s Broward County Schools returned to class earlier this year, chances are they hardly noticed the hard work school information technology (IT) and instructional staff logged over the summer to get the system’s 262 school buildings ready for their return.

But even amid catching up with friends, decorating lockers, and finding their way from class to class, there was one element students couldn’t possibly have overlooked: the school system’s supply of shiny new laptop computers–all 40,000 of them.

The computers are the centerpiece of an ambitious four-year, $68 million technology refresh program designed to provide students and teachers with the tools they need to be successful in the 21st century–what some already have dubbed the era of the digital learner.

As with any large school district, Broward County officials couldn’t just walk into a local electronics store and purchase thousands of new machines for students. The transition–or refresh process, as it’s commonly called–was the culmination of months of planning, intense technology pilots, and bridge-building between IT and instructional staff.

Broward’s experience, though complex, provides a host of lessons as educators across the country confront the daunting task of upgrading their IT infrastructure to achieve technology’s promise.

“The district has to have a vision and it has to work toward that vision,” said Jeanine Gendron, Broward’s director of instructional technology. “Unless you have a plan in place, it’s difficult to get where you are going.”

For Broward, the nation’s sixth-largest school district with more than 270,000 students, the problem was akin to convincing four football stadiums full of screaming fans to cheer for the same team.

From drawing up a sound technology plan, to reaching out to parents, to helping teachers and students adapt to changing learning environments, a lot went on behind the scenes to prepare Broward schools for the upgrade. District officials say it was that effort that will lead to a full return on their investment.

Out with the old…

Before the county could even begin to think about replacing its old technology, administrators first had to devise a plan for the future–or what Gendron called a “roadmap” for success.

Given Broward’s long history of technological and instructional innovation (see “eSN Special Report: Reinventing School IT Infrastructure“), school officials wanted to find new technology solutions that would allow instructors to carry that tradition into the 21st century.

That thinking paved the way for the Digital Learning Environment Study. Now in its second year, the program was designed to help school administrators evaluate new instructional technologies and teaching methods before rolling them out to the entire district.

Broward County Schools received a massive delivery of laptop carts to start the 2005-06 school year. (photo courtesy of Broward County Schools)
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Gendron says the four-school pilot, which included such innovations as wireless laptops, digital textbooks, and other one-to-one digital learning devices, was launched to help administrators establish synergy between the district’s technology plan and “instructional practices that transform teaching and learning in Broward County.”

Translation: Officials wanted to create a test-bed where they could experiment with different approaches, to harness solutions that best matched the district’s and its students’ needs–or, as Gendron put it, to “remodel the classroom experience.”

Though administrators still awaited an analysis of the program through its first year at press time, Gendron said the initial results–which included such benefits as increased student attendance, greater parent involvement, and a general enthusiasm for learning–were enough to convince board members, parents, instructors, and other stakeholders to move forward with the refresh effort.

Once the project was approved, district officials began the difficult process of devising a strategy to swap out 40,000 outdated computers for their more versatile laptop replacements.

Broward officials first had to get a handle on how many computers were already in play throughout the system, room by room–and just how many of them needed to be replaced.

In a smaller school district, the job might be as easy as dispatching a team of auditors to count each machine by hand. But in Broward–a district with more than 100,000 computers–officials needed something a little more practical, said Angela Coluzzi, the district’s director of network integration.

To help automate what otherwise would have been a daunting process, Broward joined up with Utah-based LANDesk Software, a producer of security and management solutions for large enterprise systems, including schools. With the aid of LANDesk’s Security and Management software suites, district officials were able to conduct the massive audit from a remote location, deploying the software to every machine on the network–and zeroing in on outdated computers.

Because Broward is a dual-platform district, meaning it supports both Macintosh and Windows-based machines, Coluzzi said the goal was to find a tool that would let officials flip-flop between both operating systems, without the hassle of room-by-room installations–not to mention the time it would save training staff on a single solution.

“In some cases, we showed them how to do things they didn’t even know they could do,” said Dave Taylor, LANDesk’s vice president of worldwide marketing. Aside from creating reports assessing the various machines connected to the network, the software also enabled Broward IT staff to update security measures across the district remotely. Whether technicians need to apply patches, protect computers against viruses, or lock down certain machines to keep curious students from hacking into sensitive files, he said, all of this and more now can take place from a single location.

Plus, the district has access to around-the-clock and on-site support, in case any problems should arise with the software, he said.

A seamless transition

But while the district’s relationship with LANDesk has proven important, school system officials say the key to any large technology swap lies in the ability to carry out the plan seamlessly, without disrupting the flow of classroom instruction.

To ensure that things continued to run as smoothly as possible in Broward, administrators ordered the machines–30,000 Apple iBooks and 10,000 Dell Latitudes–in the form of pre-packaged mobile, wireless carts.

Rather than send technicians into the classrooms to install software and ready the infrastructure, Broward had the machines imaged with all the necessary applications prior to their arrival in the school system. That way, Coluzzi said, students and teachers had only to turn them on and get to work.

As for internet access, each cart came equipped with a wireless access point, enabling students and teachers using the machines to hop online without making any permanent changes to the school’s existing infrastructure.

As part of the contract, service providers also agreed to dispatch technicians to dispose of the old machines, freeing school IT staff to focus their energies on the transition, Gendron said.

Officials originally considered buying laptops for every student, rolling the project out as a full-fledged one-to-one computing initiative.

But in June, administrators shelved the massive $275 million proposal in favor of the less ambitious refresh project, citing unconvincing test scores in the four pilot schools where students had received their own laptops.

“It’s expensive,” Broward’s chief information officer, Vijay Sonty, told a reporter for the Sun-Sentinel about the proposal in June, “and we haven’t seen any demonstrable results on the FCAT yet.” The FCAT is the state’s standardized achievement test.

Rather than move ahead with a one-to-one program that would cost taxpayers three times what the refresh project was likely to cost, Coluzzi said, Broward opted to scale back its plans, targeting its use of the technology in hopes of producing more favorable results before pushing ahead with a larger, potentially more controversial project.

With the laptop carts in place, the district now boasts a 6.8-to-1 ratio of students to classroom computers, according to Coluzzi. While it’s not a one-to-one ratio, she said, it puts Broward in a position to move in that direction in the future–when the time is right.

In the meantime, she said, teachers and students still can expect easy access to the benefits inherent in the technology–from wireless web browsing and eMail communications to the integration of digital textbooks and online learning portfolios, among other instructional innovations now being adopted throughout the district.

Teachers and students have praised the upgrade.

In an interview posted to the district’s web site, students in Chip Shealy’s Western Civilization course at Broward’s North East High School said that, to them, using technology in the classroom is second nature.

“Instead of having to flip through the pages of a textbook all day long, you can actually just look up information fast and easy, and it actually saves a lot of time,” explained Kevin, a student in Shealy’s class.

As an instructor, Shealy said the technology not only makes his job easier, it also opens up a host of alternative teaching methods to explore.

“It provides us with a lot of different avenues to approach in terms of learning,” he said of the computer refresh.

That’s exactly the reaction Gendron said officials were hoping for when they approved the program.

At the end of the day, it’s up to the teachers, she said, to take “the vision and put it to action.” Without strong buy-in and support from the people in the classrooms, the program ultimately would fail.

“The biggest challenge,” Gendron added, “is changing the culture … If teaching does not change, technology will not have the impact you want it to have.”

A team effort

To prepare the district’s 30,000 employees for the arrival of the computers, administrators organized training sessions and other informational talks to help employees understand what role the laptops would play.

Too often, Gendron said, schools have a tendency to look at refresh programs and other technology upgrades as the sole responsibility of the IT department. But in Broward, educators took a more holistic approach, combining the efforts of IT and instructional staff to reach a common goal: improved student achievement.

To that end, instructional directors, including Gendron, attend weekly IT meetings and make suggestions for what the district’s next steps should be. “It’s a very cohesive group that makes sure we don’t buy things just to buy things,” she said, “but that we do things right … and share the accountability.”

Of course, with increased accountability also comes greater responsibility.

To help educators make better use of the technology, Broward County officials established what has become known as the Digital Education Teacher Academy, a standards-based professional development program designed in partnership with Florida Atlantic University.

Now in its third year, Gendron said, the academy emphasizes the importance of integrating technology effectively into the classroom and explores ways to help teachers close the digital divide. As part of the program, teachers take courses and complete other interactive projects designed to ease the transition to a “digital learning environment,” she said.

Other efforts to prepare both students and teachers for the technology refresh program include the launch of the Broward Education Enterprise Portal, or BEEP, a new online learning portal that provides information on student achievement, academic performance, and instructional best practices, as well as additional information for parents and administrators.

For teachers, a new online university permits enrollment in more than 100 different online professional development courses. Topics of emphasis include everything from meeting the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act to integrating technology effectively into standards-based lesson plans, Gendron said.

Other resources at educators’ disposal include a web conferencing and digital meeting service from Elluminate and a series of online instructional teaching videos from Atomic Learning.

The idea, according to Gendron, is that once a teacher sees the technology used effectively, he or she will be more comfortable emulating that approach in the classroom.

On the student side, the district also has opened several student-run help desks, where kids can turn to their peers for technology advice and guidance.

But even with all of these tools, Gendron said, there is one thing no technology project can survive without: parental support.

No matter how far in advance you plan, no matter what technologies you purchase, she said, if you don’t have the support of the community at large, your project isn’t going anywhere.

In Broward’s case, district officials prepared for the refresh project by holding a mandatory parent meeting, where teachers reviewed the school system’s acceptable-use policy and technology plan. Only after the parents had an opportunity to ask questions and allay their concerns were officials permitted to begin rolling the laptops into schools.

When deciding “what’s right for the student,” said Gendron, “you need to have total involvement.”

Links:

Broward County Public Schools
http://www.browardschools.com

Northeast High School
http://www.firn.edu/schools/broward/northeast_hs

LANDesk Software
http://www.landesk.com

Apple Computer
http://www.apple.com

Dell Inc.
http://www.dell.com

Elluminate
http://www.elluminate.com

Atomic Learning
http://www.atomiclearning.com