Doors to data

For a school district with more than 300 applications running on more than 600 servers, the ability to have a single source of entry for unified access to all of that information was a dream of Broward County’s Education Technology Services division. Broward officials wanted to have “one web site [where] you could log in as a teacher, student, parent, or administrator and see the things you need to see,” says Vijay Sonty, the district’s CIO.

But as things stood, throughout the district there were resources “all over the place,” explains Chuck Stanley, director of technical support services. “It took someone with a few years of knowledge to find out, This is where I go to find information about [school] boundaries, this is where I go to find information about specific students.'”

Different data silos existed, which gave rise to redundancies and inefficiencies. First, a user had to find the silo that contained the information he wanted. Then, he had to sign in separately, with a different password, for each different application.

Together, the Broward tech team created a vision of a portal called the Knexus Workplace for Education. Knexus, defined as the merging of knowledge with technology, would be a management access system that would unify Broward’s applications, information, and diverse databases through a single portal.

The portal would give district administrators the ability to customize the gateway for the information they needed to support No Child Left Behind goals and effectively manage their schools.

Content and applications would be tailored to specific job requirements to meet the needs of all administrative personnel.

But the team also wanted to include teachers and students in the initiative. So they created a second portal, called the Broward Enterprise Education Portal (BEEP), which would give teachers, administrators, parents, and students log-in access to current and relevant resources and information focused on student achievement.

The two portals currently exist separately, but in the coming year, during the initiative called Knexus Phase 2, the portals will be combined.

Transforming the workplace with Knexus

Working with IBM, the team developed a pilot called WebSphere Portal Extend v5.1. The pilot included 30 targeted users, including principals and guidance counselors. In March, the first phase was completed, and 2,000 administrators, principals, and guidance counselors were given access to all the information.

The Knexus Workplace was created to have multiple levels of integration for easy information access; anytime, anywhere access via any device; customized interfaces for different roles and stakeholders; support for open standards and interoperability; and ease of integration with various SAP enterprise applications.

Now, administrators can gather reports and information, under a single sign-on, about issues such as:

  • Failing students–Users can generate a report on all the students who are failing in a particular year, for example. If they want to look at specific student information, users can then click into a tool called Virtual Counselor that shows all the information on each particular student–grades, absenteeism, previous schools, and so on.
  • Students at a particular test level–Guidance counselors can identify groups of students who aren’t meeting graduation requirements, so these students can be called in for extra help, for example. Or, they can look at groups of students who will be graduating, so those students can be called in for career counseling.
  • Teachers by school year or by subject areas–This is useful for principals who want to pinpoint teachers whose students’ learning gains are below or above a certain level. If below, the teachers might be targeted for additional classroom support or professional development; if above, they might be tapped to serve as mentors or staff leaders.
  • Predictive flagging–Users can look at groups of students over a 10-year history to look for trends and to ensure that certain types of students do not get pigeon-holed into a specific type of class, simply based on one characteristic of their history.
  • Standard policies–As school policies and procedures shift, users can look them up in a single source to keep abreast of changes.

Stanley says he often hears from administrators who now use Knexus on a daily basis. Ricardo Garcia, principal at the Nova Middle School, says of the system, “I have found myself surprising many of my clerical and administrative staff by having information in hand without asking them to locate it for me. First of all, I don’t have to waste a lot of my time trying to locate it, and on the other hand, I don’t have to occupy other people to find it for me.”

Phase 1 of the project is currently complete and is being scaled up to support all administrators. In the coming year, Phase 2 aims to tie in teacher, student, and parent components through BEEP.

Phase 3 will add an SAP enterprise resource planning environment for business and operational applications, and Phase 4 will open Project Knexus to external business partners and the community at large, where the One Broward program is planned to offer wireless broadband access at no charge.

Creating and integrating BEEP

As with the information for administrators, information for teachers was “scattered all over the place,” says Jeanine Gendron, director of instructional technology. “We wanted to consolidate all the tools available to them through a single sign-on, then tie the curriculum together, the lesson plans, the professional development.”

BEEP–which was created with help from Riverdeep Interactive Learning, using a highly customized version of Riverdeep’s Learning Village portal system–now includes resources such as teacher training videos and more than 7,000 lesson plans. The lesson plans are created by a pool of 200 curriculum specialists, and everything they create goes through a juried process to ensure it’s up to the correct standards.

The videos are a part of the Digital Education Teacher Academy, or DETA, which is a program in partnership with the Teaching and Leadership Center of Florida Atlantic University to provide professional development for educators on integrating technology into the curriculum. As educators take classes to learn how to integrate technology into their teaching, they can compete with other teachers, sending digital lesson plans via the Virtual Technology Recognition Project. Winners are chosen for special recognition at a district-wide technology event each year.

Winners also receive prizes, such as iPods, donated by technology vendors. One teacher was struggling with control in his classroom and was put on a professional development plan, says Gendron: “He went through a DETA class, he began integrating technology, and now he’s a leader in the school and [in] teaching other teachers how to integrate [technology].”

She adds, “We had one course, and teachers clamored for a second.” The district pays the tuition for teachers who go through the DETA program.

BEEP gives teachers tremendous flexibility. They can create their own lessons and units, draw upon the lessons and units in the lesson-plan bank to use as is, or copy and save the lesson plans and then adapt them for their own needs.

Further help is offered to educators via a Virtual Counselor, which can be used to discover where students are in terms of grades; educators then can use the lesson-plan bank to customize teaching units in order to meet learning goals.

Daily statistics on the use of BEEP have been very high. “We have 10,000 regular users,” says Gendron. “Their feedback has been very positive. Teachers said their planning time has been cut down, it’s a wealth of ideas, their instructional strategies repertoire has been expanded, and they’re excited.” –JN

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