The Centricity platform lets teachers become more engaged with students.

The Centricity platform lets teachers become more engaged with students.

As the technology requirements of teachers, staff, and students at Glassboro Public Schools evolve, we often find the answers to our needs in our existing Schoolwires Centricity web site and community management platform. Almost any application you can think of–from easy web site creation to podcasting and calendars–is built into the platform. And if an application is not yet available, it is likely that Schoolwires has it scheduled for a future release. Schoolwires solutions are always evolving with us as our district’s needs change; helping us to tackle our next challenge.

Our district implemented Centricity in 2005 in support of a larger initiative to integrate technology into teaching and learning. At the same time, we issued laptops to all our teachers and installed two computers in every classroom.

Right away, the Schoolwires platform provided our teachers with the tools they needed to start engaging our students more. Because of the efforts of our IT department and the fact that Schoolwires is so easy to use, we’ve seen a huge acceptance of technology in the past two years. Our teachers have gone from asking, “Why did you give me this laptop?” to saying, “Don’t take it away from me,” when we need to perform maintenance on the laptops. Today, our teachers and administrators are looking at technology as a way of reaching out to kids and getting them involved in learning in a different way.  It’s been really neat to watch the growing adoption of the technology.

The two main reasons for Centricity tools’ widespread implementation and success are its ease of use and its grassroots adoption, which often go hand in hand. For example, our high school history teacher turned in her laptop halfway through the first year that she received it. She said she didn’t see how it could be useful to her and she didn’t want responsibility for it. Then the district implemented Centricity and offered classes to teachers in the summer to train them on how to build teacher web sites and incorporate interactive functions like podcasting and blogging.

After the history teacher heard the excitement of other teachers and saw how they were using the applications to engage their students more, she asked for her laptop back. Now she is integrating visuals and sounds into her web site and is experimenting with blogging and podcasting. At first, she absolutely did not want to have anything to do with technology, but now she is a teacher who has really gotten into it and keeps the content on her web site fresh. So the ease of use, along with the excitement of students and teachers who are using the tools, continues to pull everyone along.

Within the Centricity platform, teachers can easily build their own web sites using tools that look and feel like Microsoft Word and eMail. Once they have established their web sites, they can easily integrate other tools like podcasts, blogs, photos galleries, and more. Students visit the teacher web sites over and over to view their homework assignments, find learning resources, and engage with their teachers and other students. More technologically-sophisticated teachers can make use of powerful capabilities like HTML source editing, JavaScript and Flash support, and even custom .asp programming integration.

Today, most of our teachers are using the Centricity platform to engage their students more during the school day and to extend learning after school hours. For example, many teachers are using blogs for writing assignments. This is occurring not only in English classes, but also in math, science, and other courses. Teachers find that students put more effort into their writing when they know the material will be viewed by others on a blog. Some teachers are podcasting. One English teacher creates a podcast of the chapter books the class is studying.

By providing these Web 2.0 applications in a secure environment, Glassboro School District is engaging its students with the online tools that are already integral to their social lives, but is doing so in a safe environment. We don’t allow our students access to wikis, web sites, or other social networks outside of our district platform.  But by incorporating these Web 2.0 tools into teacher web pages, we are infusing technology into the classroom in a secure environment and we are engaging with the students more.

With most other systems, you have to buy separate applications like blogging and podcasting a la carte. Although many Web 2.0 tools are available as freeware, they each require individual maintenance and their lack of integration into the Schoolwires platform would make it difficult for our IT department to pull together this type of system into an integrated framework. In addition, Schoolwires continues to add functionality, such as a calendar function that can be exported into other calendars. So our users can import the district calendar into their personal calendar on their computer or cell phone. This and other functions really add to the value of the product.

Synergy and Assist

To broaden the value of our platform even more, Glassboro implemented Synergy and Assist in 2007. The integration of these two solutions into the district’s familiar Centricity platform furthers ease of use and adoption. The Synergy file sharing solution gives staff, teachers, and students the power to securely store, organize, and access digital files online at any time. Previously, we used thumb drives for our file sharing needs. Synergy is available right within the teacher web pages so it is easily accessible to users. From within their teacher’s web site, students can view homework assignments and then deliver their finished work into the secure drop box upon completion. The integration of Synergy to the Centricity platform makes it even more powerful, and the solution is very secure. We considered using an FTP site, but that would have opened a whole new set of security problems.

Like other applications in the Centricity platform, the usage of Synergy is building organically as more and more teachers and students use it. We have some teachers who are early adopters who started using it soon after we went live. Then their students started asking their other teachers to use it. The evolution of usage of the applications has been really a grassroots build up, rather than an edict given out by the administration. I know that usage of Synergy will continue to grow as news of its value spreads among teachers and students.

The district uses the Assist service request system to track all technology work orders. Teachers and other staff members can use their network login via LDAP integration, so it is very easy for them to access Assist. They click on a drop box and then enter their work order. A workflow automatically routes their request to the IT staff.  Then they are automatically kept updated on the request’s progress.  For example, a teacher will receive a notice when his or her request to have a printer fixed has been received by the IT department, and later another notification when it is being worked on. Also, building principals have access to all work orders for their buildings so that they can prioritize requests. Previously, we used a home-grown, web-based Access database to track service orders.

The software also benefits the entire IT staff. The fact that it is web-based allows us to view the work orders from any building. Additionally, it saves me time with my staff because I have one central location to track everything and we can prioritize service requests across the district. It has been a great product and it is something that we use every day. In the future, Glassboro intends to use Assist for facilities work orders and transportation requests as well. We really like the fact that Assist was created specifically for the unique situations schools must manage. Already, Schoolwires has incorporated the functionality required by the State of New Jersey in 2010 for electronic work orders.

Stronger engagement with broader district community

The Centricity platform’s value extends well beyond the staff, students, and teachers of our district. It is also helping the district keep our parents and broader constituent base more informed and engaged. Prior to implementing Centricity, we had several individual school web sites that were managed by different staff members. Each page had a different look and feel. There was no standardized navigation or content, and often there were broken links. Our web sites were a presence but they had no real resources or value for anyone.

Development of the web sites and content management were done by several teachers who received stipends totaling $8,000 a year for their efforts.  Although they did an adequate job, there was no uniformity. Also, content updating was sporadic. When I saw the Schoolwires platform and how easy it is for anyone to create a web site and post content, I immediately recognized its power to help connect our community and to bring 21st century teaching tools to the classroom.

Eventually, our administration and school board also saw the power and authorized the purchase of Centricity. Now we have made it possible for all 320 of our employees to be content providers. As a result, we constantly have fresh and updated content on our sites. Yet the look and feel and navigation are all consistent because all content providers are using the same standards and templates established by the district.

Our main district page provides a wealth of resources and information. Users can access our weekly Bulldog bulletin, the New Jersey State school report card, the superintendent’s web page, news and events, announcements, the district budget, and much more. They also can eMail their concerns and participate in surveys that ask for their input on important district discussions. Parents can log in to the Parents Page and view their child’s progress book, lunch menu, transportation information, and much more. We frequently refer parents to the web site for additional information on specific incidents. For example, we did a phone tree when we had a bomb scare at the middle school recently. When we made phone calls, we directed everyone to the web site for more information. In addition, each of our five schools has its own web site with information specific to events and activities at each building. The fresh and comprehensive content across all our sites brings parents and other visitors back to the site repeatedly, a fact that is confirmed by the data we track through our web analytics software.

The web site is effective not only because of its wealth of resources, but also because it is available 24/7. Most parents are not available to interact with the district during the school day. Instead, their interactions occur in the early morning or evening. They can go on the web site at their convenience and get the information they need, as well as electronically reach out to teachers and administrators. And now we are seeing the same increasing demand for new applications from our community that we have seen within the district. A parent will say, “My son’s teacher is posting photos from the classroom, why doesn’t my daughter’s teacher’s web site have that?”

One of our next initiatives is to use the Centricity platform to conduct paperless board meetings. The district began looking for a solution and I indicated that we already have this capability in Schoolwires. We can create a private area for board members to sign in and access a file library with their agenda and supporting documents. Once again, we had a need and Schoolwires already had the solution for us in the product we had already invested in–Centricity.

We can provide a secure environment for the school board members because of Centricity’s capability to assign roles, and then limit access to information based on those roles. This is very powerful. In addition to school board members, the district has assigned roles for staff, teachers, administrators, parents, students, secretaries, coaches, and aides. For example, the athletic director has a special section where he can provide forms and private information that is available only to members of his staff. And even if a district does not create roles, they can still limit access to information just by requiring people to register. For example, we don’t want the general public to see our building maps and fire exit strategies, but we want teachers to have access to that information.

The Centricity platform and related solutions are also enabling the district to reduce printing and paper costs. For example, Synergy has also allowed Glassboro to get rid of thumb drives and to post lengthy documents online. We are also putting many public documents, like registration and athletic sign-up forms, online. In addition to saving the district money, it is also more convenient for parents to fill out the forms ahead of time and then send them in.

Overall, our Centricity platform, complemented with the functionality of Assist and Synergy, has allow Glassboro Public Schools to replace its isolated systems with one unified solution that offers enhanced functionalities and robust communications tools. The overall solution has absolutely strengthened communications with our district constituents, and provides our teachers with the 21st century tools they need to engage our learners.
George Weeks is director of technology at Glassboro Public Schools in New Jersey.  His duties there include managing the technology department and overseeing all aspects of technology planning, implementation, maintenance, and training throughout the district. He initiated the creation of the Glassboro Municipal Area Network Consortium between the Board of Education, Borough of Glassboro, and Rowan University to provide low-cost internet services via private fiber ring and SNiP Internet Services, resulting in a 50 percent increase in bandwidth and an annual communications savings of $16,000. In 1999 Weeks completed his Master’s degree in Computer Information Systems at the University of Phoenix.  He also holds undergraduate degrees in Programming and Computer Science from Pace University. Visit the Glassboro Public Schools web site here.

Contact Weeks at gweeks@glassboroschools.us or at http://www.linkedin.com/in/georgeweeks.