"The greatest challenge we face with ed tech and with evolving education is human," said Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), at the group’s 13th annual K-12 School Networking Conference in Arlington, Va., earlier this month.

Krueger was referring to the importance of innovation, teamwork, and strong leadership in achieving successful school technology programs–and this theme was repeated throughout the three-day event, held March 10-12.

As highlighted by many conference speakers and sessions, successful 21st-century school programs must be engaging to students, must be assessed properly and adequately, and must be championed by knowledgeable staff.

The conference kicked off March 10 with a look at one district in particular whose ed-tech programs reflect these characteristics.

"It truly takes a knowledgeable team to do what we’ve accomplished," said Jennifer Bergland, chief technology officer for the Bryan Independent School District in Texas. Bergland’s district received CoSN’s TEAM Award for exemplary leadership in educational technology.

"We are thrilled to have the opportunity to highlight the outstanding work of the technology team at Bryan ISD," said Krueger in presenting the award. "What began as a small-scale initiative a decade ago has grown into an innovative, district-wide team effort that has significantly transformed the way the district operates. From using technology to enhance classroom instruction and learning to streamlining administrative functions, Bryan exemplifies the meaning of teamwork."

A key factor in Bryan ISD’s success is coordination and cooperation from administrators at the top all the way down to the classroom implementation level. Anecdotally, school leaders note that the district’s technology programs have helped to boost student achievement, as students are more engaged in learning, spend more time on tasks, and there is a reduced need for external discipline.

"We are fortunate to have a visionary team of technology specialists who recognize that today’s students are bright, inquisitive, and ready to be challenged," said Mike Cargill, the district’s superintendent. "It is important for us to create an environment in which students and staff can readily access information. As educators, it is an exciting challenge to stay abreast of advances in technology."

Seven key habits

The leadership theme continued in a session titled "Seven Habits of a Highly Effective School Chief Technology Officer." During this session, Ed Zaiontz, executive director of information services for the RoundRockIndependentSchool District in Texas, and Leo Brehm, director of technology for the SharonPublic Schools in Sharon, Mass., told the audience that being an effective school CTO begins with a passion for the job-and continues with the adoption of several key habits.

"In this job, you have to produce results and create value," said Zaiontz. "Besides providing leadership and vision, a customer-focused business mind, and a knack for planning and budgeting, you have to also take charge of process management."

For Zaiontz, process management includes everything from running communications and IT systems, to education, training, and implementing ethics and policies.

"On top of all that, you have to know how to build an effective team and staff," said Zaiontz.

Although a good CTO has to manage and lead a successful team, he said, there are some measures to keep in mind during operation:

* Use data-driven decision-making skills.

* Produce results … and create value.

* Always keep the focus on students and instruction.

* Remember that plans and policies need continuous improvement.

* Manage for innovation, not what you already have in place.

* Be flexible and adaptable.


Brehm told the audience that he prepared a list of qualities and states of mind that every school district CTO should try to master, in order to "not only make operation run more smoothly, but also inspire educators to embrace technology."

For Brehm, success comes from adopting seven habits:

1. Know your own personal strengths and weaknesses, as well as your schools’.
2. Say "yes" often–otherwise, educators and other leaders will be hesitant to come to you with another new idea. If you can’t say "yes," then at least try to say "no, you can’t do that, but try this instead."
3. Plan for the ever-changing plan. "Right now, our newest plan is two weeks old, but it’s been two days since I’ve checked … it’s probably changed already," said Brehm.
4. Keep the larger vision in mind. For example, don’t automatically think every child should have a laptop, because not only is this too expensive for most schools, but it will probably be replaced with a lightweight, cheap, handheld device, like a modified iPhone.
5. Communicate a consistent message. Do this by sending newsletters or eMail messages to staff and colleagues to let them know you’re still on course and still have an optimistic view of the situation.
6. Offer effective and consistent IT support.
7. Embrace your role as the change-maker. Understand that your role is not to keep what’s already in place functioning, it’s to make things even more efficient.

"Being a successful CTO is being able to balance the curriculum and the technical side. Without the technical aspect of what can realistically be implemented, it will never enter curriculum effectively. However, if you never try to implement new tech strategies into the curriculum, new skills won’t be learned for the 21st century," concluded Brehm.

New tech strategies

As Brehm suggested, part of being a successful school technology leader involves trying new strategies to engage students and improve instruction. And sometimes, these strategies can be controversial.

That’s certainly the case with cell phones in schools. During another conference session, panelists discussed whether cell phones present an opportunity, or a distraction, for schools–and conference attendees learned that schools in at least one state, North Carolina, have embraced cell phones as tools for instruction.

The argument over whether cell phones should be banned from classrooms "is an intense one, and it’s one that’s going to be brought up more and more, as more students use cell phones to communicate," said Sheryl Abshire, CoSN board chair.

Abshire gave an example of one school that experienced a cell-phone crisis. Several students started using their cell-phone cameras to shoot pictures in the locker room and then post those pictures on social-networking web sites. Because of the outrage of one parent and a few "older board members," as Abshire put it, "a restrictive policy was put into place that experienced a massive backlash. So the policy was revised to [allow] students … to carry cell phones, but they must not use them in locker rooms or in the hallways."

On the other end of the spectrum, four high schools from three districts in North Carolina–chosen for their high-speed broadband access, their composition of at-risk students, and because they were willing to take on the project–are part of a pilot project to include smart phones in every classroom. The project is called K-Nect.

Sponsors include QualComm, Digital Millennial Consulting, Microsoft, and Adobe.

"We received one million dollars in funding," explained Frances Bradburn, former director of the instructional technology division of North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction. "I know a lot of you think you could have put one million dollars to better use, but let me explain why we did this."

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, the number of people using cell phones now exceeds the number not using them–and Americans have become more dependent on their cell phones than on conventional phones. The ubiquity of this technology, coupled with recent advancements in cell-phone technology and the units’ comparatively low price, make cell phones intriguing instructional devices, panelists said.

"Five years ago I visited Asia and saw a little boy on the subway," said Abshire. "I thought he was playing a game, because he was moving his fingers around so fast and barely looking at what he was typing. I asked him what he was doing, and he replied, ‘Talking to my brother at home.’ I asked him how old he was, and he replied, ‘Six years old.’ I looked around, and every young child to adult had a cell phone. And this was five years ago!"

For Bradburn, the decision to pilot a cell-phone program was a strategic one. North Carolina has a high dropout rate, and the thinking was that perhaps students, who like to use cell phones, might be motivated to stay in school.

North Carolina also has a large digital divide, with many students who do not have internet access at home, Bradburn said. Yet, these students still manage to have a cell phone–a device that could be used for one-to-one learning.

"Our goals were to create a 21st-century, tech-literate environment; help students with math concepts; and, of course, raise test scores. We also imagined that we could test the efficiency and viability of cell phones in education, as well as get kids thinking about STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] careers in the long run," said Bradburn.

The phones used in these four North Carolina high schools are made by Microsoft and have all basic office applications included. Students are using the phones to calculate Algebra 1 equations, create videos to post on blogs for other students to observe while solving math problems, and receive answers to blog posts.

Every phone, which Microsoft calls a pocket-PC, is based on a Wi-Fi platform, and students’ internet access is regulated by the school and a CIPA-compliant filter. (CIPA stands for the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act.) Students can talk only during certain school-regulated hours; they can access the camera function only during school-proposed hours; and all conversation and activity can be monitored both by the students’ teacher and a general filter.

"Kids are beginning to talk math with these smart phones. No one’s ever treated them like they’re special and deserve this. They love it," gushed Bradburn.

One story she told involves a boy from one of the three high schools. He was sick for most of the school year and in the hospital. His mother said the only thing that kept him going was that he could use his smart phone to communicate with his peers in class and keep up with his homework, which was posted on the web for him.

"He got through it because of this phone, because he was interested," said his mother during a screened video.

"So far, we’ve seen higher engagement levels and no results of abuse," said Bradburn.

When asked where the pilot will go from here, Bradburn explained that she hopes student test scores will improve, that this will inspire another one million in funding, and that the students who have their smart phones now will be able to retain them next year in geometry.


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Exhibitor news

America’s Digital Schools, a yearly report on the state of technology in schools by the Hayes Connection and the Greaves Group, will be published in April with support from Market Data Retrieval, the two firms said. This year’s focus is on the key factors that drive change in schools today. Topics will include one-to-one computing, online assessment, interactive whiteboards, learning management systems, student devices, and internet bandwidth. Large school systems and state education departments interested in volume purchases may inquire at info@ads2007.org. Educators are eligible for a 40-percent discount on the report ($599). Companies and consultants may order before March 30th to receive a 20-percent discount ($799).

Don Johnston has announced a partnership with Bookshare.org to provide a free text reader for students with print disabilities. This free text reader will allow students to access more than 36,000 books from the Bookshare.org library in electronic format. This partnership will serve an estimated 1 to 3 percent of the total K-12 student population, specifically those who receive special education services and qualify under the 1996 Chafee Amendment, the company said. The Read:OutLoud Bookshare.org Edition text reader offers embedded reading comprehension strategies and instructional supports that align with state standards. The text reader software, which works on Windows-based computers, includes audio feedback, electronic highlighting, and note-taking features that allow students to capture their ideas effectively. A Mac version will follow in 2009, the company said.

Editure, a creator of K-12 digital learning portals, demonstrated MySuite, a 21st-century virtual learning environment for both elementary and secondary students that is being used to enhance learning and teaching for more than 4 million students and teachers worldwide, the company said. The MySuite portfolio of web-based modules equips teachers with a web-browser interface that makes it easy to integrate technology into the learning environment, Editure said. The solution reportedly works with the resources, administrative applications, and curricula that schools are using today. Features include MyDesktop, MyClasses, MyPortfolio, and MyMail.

Gaggle.net demonstrated its safe, web-based internet communication system for students, in which the teacher is reportedly always in control. The solution allows educators to feel confident about giving their students access to eMail and other internet tools, the company said. Gaggle offers secure eMail accounts, digital lockers, blogs, message boards, profile pages, and chat rooms for students and teachers. Messages that appear to contain offensive language, questionable domains, banned file types, or pornographic images are rerouted automatically to the student’s teacher or administrator for review. The solution is fully customizable, and administrators can decide which words, phrases, file types, and domains are inappropriate for students. Students can access their accounts from any internet browser, which allows them to read their eMail at home, in the classroom, or in the library and can extend learning beyond the walls of the classroom. Gaggle.net is also CIPA compliant.

Infosnap Inc. provides online registration and annual enrollment updates with on-time data delivery to any student information system (SIS). Users can log in and create an account, update information and complete school forms, review and submit work, use Infosnap’s organizer with administrative access to online data, clean up data and deliver it to a SIS, and print out complete forms. Users can customize this process, Infosnap says, and the system can be integrated easily with an existing SIS. All forms can be printed, and users have said the system saves them time and effort.

IST Inc. introduced the Managed Learning Environment (MLE), a student information system solution focused on California requirements, allowing California school districts to fulfill their reporting and compliance requirements. The IST MLE is designed on the premise that all authorized personnel should be able to access accurate, content-specific information from a single, secure central data repository that is comprehensive and always up-to-date. The system provides standard CSIS-compliant reports pertaining to student attendance, test scores, grades, class schedules, discipline, course history, health records, demographics, teacher full-time equivalency, and more. Features include an easy-to-use, web-based interface; a State Reporting and Records Transfer System (SRRTS) for exchanging information; and secure, role-based user access.

MoneyU is an online financial literacy course for young adults that uses an interactive game environment to deliver essential financial skills and knowledge. The company claims that in 10 hours of instruction, it’s possible to learn more personal finance skills than with 30 hours in a classroom. MoneyU is designed for colleges, high schools, the military, associations, employers, adult-education programs, and individuals. It is mapped to standards, features engaging content, and focuses on self-directed learning. Topics include Wise Card Use, Wise Spending, Good Debt, Good Banking, Smart Savings, High Credit Score, Good Planning, and Smart Earning.

Pearson Education promoted its Teach & Learn Cycle, which features solutions for each step of the teaching and learning process–including curriculum, assessments, student information systems, and professional development.

Privacy Networks, a digital asset-archiving company, is offering a free, customized, retention-policy starter kit, which helps organizations become compliant with federal rules and state and local laws for retaining eMail and other digital information. The company’s solutions allow school systems to set customized retention policies based on individuals, groups of users, or the entire organization.

Sprint announced its GPS tracking solutions for K-12 school districts. These solutions allow districts to track and monitor their bus fleets and students–helping them improve student safety and increase driver efficiency. Sprint and its partners, which include ActSoft, Edulog, and Everyday Wireless, work closely with K-12 school districts to develop bus and student tracking solutions to fit any size fleet or budget, Sprint said. The tracking solution uses advanced hardware and software. Districts can retrieve up-to-date information about a bus’s speed, location, and more. The system also allows districts to keep tabs on each student as he or she gets on and off the bus using a variety of scanning methods.

Verizon Business is deploying next-generation IP networks to help educators promote success. With these networks, school districts can support the administrative, academic, distance-learning, and security applications of today and tomorrow, Verizon says. The company’s solutions are eRate-eligible and have been updated to include VoIP (Voice-over-Internet-Protocol telephone) capabilities.

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