survive-crisis

How to survive an ed-tech crisis


5 reasons one district bounced back from a one-to-one crisis

survive-crisis

When North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools had a tablet charger melt inside a student’s home in October 2013, it could have marked the end of the district’s $16 million effort to give every middle school student a digital device.

Instead, district leaders reacted quickly and decisively, suspending the program until they could ensure the safety of every child. They also negotiated for higher-quality devices and other concessions from their tablet supplier, Amplify, and they kept the community informed at every turn.

With these improvements in hand, Guilford County relaunched the program last fall, which is part of an overall $35 million effort to personalize instruction—and so far there have been no major problems. Middle school teachers are redesigning their instruction to create more personalized learning environments for their students, while parents report a high level of satisfaction with the program.

In successfully rebooting its one-to-one computing program after an initial setback, Guilford County has achieved what other districts with high-profile tablet missteps, such as L.A. Unified, have not been able to do.

Here are five reasons why Guilford County was able to rebound so quickly from its ed-tech crisis.

Next: Like it or not, transparency is key

Be proactive, not reactive.

The melted charger was the last straw, but many students had experienced cracked screens and other problems before that point.

Instead of waiting for community backlash before the pulling the plug, however, Guilford County leaders took command of the issue. They decided to pull back and make changes right away, before their hand was forced.

“Any time you do a large-scale deployment of technology, you expect a certain amount of breakage,” said Nora Carr, chief of staff for the district. “But this was beyond acceptability.”

Their quick response was critical to keeping stakeholders’ support.

Commit to transparency.

Another reason Guilford County maintained support for its ed-tech initiative was that district leaders were forthright and transparent throughout the process.

Once they decided to suspend the program, they used their automated messaging system to call all middle school parents and explain the situation. They also called a press conference, and they didn’t shy away from answering tough questions.

What’s more, as negotiations with Amplify unfolded, they continued to keep the community apprised of the situation.

“We tried to keep the information flowing,” Carr said. “Even when we had nothing new to report, we would assure the community that we were still working to fix the problem.”

Parents appreciated the district’s candor.

“While we were of course disappointed (that the program had been suspended), there was still confidence in the district’s plan,” said Winston McGregor, executive director of the Guilford Education Alliance and the parent of a middle school student.

“I was present for a variety of events with community leaders, where the superintendent or other senior leaders were frank and honest, and willing to address questions—and I think that was really well received.”

Fix the problem—and learn from your mistakes.

Guilford County asked its tablet provider, Amplify, to supply more rugged devices that wouldn’t overheat.

“We looked at the pros and cons of restarting with a different vendor,” Carr said. But that would have taken even more time. And it proved unnecessary when Amplify—eager to save face—was responsive to the district’s needs.

The company found another tablet manufacturer and used tougher Gorilla Glass for its screens.

“We had specified durability in the RFP process,” Carr said. “Letting students take their devices home was a key part of our initiative, to help bridge the digital divide. The tablets had to be able to hold up in students’ book bags as they traveled to and from school.”

Turn a challenge into an opportunity.

Guilford County’s attorney negotiated for other concessions from Amplify as both parties sought to resolve the problems.

For instance, Amplify agreed to pay back the district more than $850,000 for lost staff time, training, and other expenses from the 2013-14 school year. To offset that year, the company added another year to the end of Guilford County’s contract. And to facilitate the program’s relaunch, Amplify agreed to place a support staff member at each of Guilford County’s middle schools for three months.

“We felt good about the negotiation and where it ended up,” Carr said.

Build a reservoir of trust.

Perhaps the greatest lesson from Guilford County’s experience is the need for districts to establish long-term trust within the community.

Guilford County has worked hard to build a reservoir of trust among stakeholders, Carr said, by committing to open and frequent communication and listening to parent feedback. That supply of good will served the district well when officials needed to draw from it to get through the crisis.

If the district hadn’t established a prior reputation for honesty and capability, Carr said, “it would have been much harder for us to recover.”

Dennis Pierce is a former editor-in-chief of eSchool News. He is a freelance writer who has been covering education and technology for nearly two decades. He can be reached at denniswpierce@gmail.com.

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