Massachusetts district’s advice: Focus on learning, not technology

“Once the students stop producing outputs of knowledge for only the teacher, their level of engagement and commitment to excellence increase dramatically,” Florek said.

Educators and administrators in the Hampshire Regional School District in Massachusetts try to avoid discussing technology—instead, they aim for technology to integrate seamlessly with classroom instruction and administrative processes.

With successful initiatives such as a lease-to-own laptop program and partnerships with local colleges to offer graduate credit for professional development, the Hampshire Regional School District is forging ahead in its goal of making technology an integral part of all operations—and for this reason, we’ve chosen the district as our “eSchools of the Month” for October.

Here, IT Director Kim Florek discusses some of the district’s most important goals—and how technology is helping the district achieve them. (Editor’s note: To nominate your school or district for our “eSchool of the Month” feature, and to read about past winners, go to

How do you use technology to advance student learning?

We are building 21st-century learning environments in all of our buildings. Our goal is not to talk about technology, but to talk about how we can best provide access to resources that enhance the curriculum, while at the same time engaging our students by using modern-day tools. Over the course of several years, we have upgraded our bandwidth, invested in our wireless infrastructure, outfitted most of our classrooms with Epson interactive projectors, and installed ELMO and Avery document cameras. We’ve also moved away from the traditional computer lab and have been outfitting our schools with mobile Apple Mac laptop carts and iPods/iPads. Several years ago, we also initiated a lease-to-own laptop program for middle and high school families in our district that has been very successful.

Equipment alone does not enhance student outcomes. The key to using what we have to enhance learning is rooted in teacher professional development (PD). Over the years, we have been committed to providing rich PD opportunities for our staff. In fact, several times we have partnered with higher education to offer graduate credits for our teacher PD, as well as an actual master’s program in technology.

While we are seeing an increase in the ways teachers are using technology to teach the curriculum, we are also seeing more students using technology to express the curriculum. One such example is a middle school cross-curricular unit called “Compassionate Math,” in which students combine mathematical statistics with a worthy third-world cause to come up with a persuasive advertising campaign. Students work in groups using Macintosh laptops to research a third-world country. They then use Microsoft Word to record facts and create scripts; use Excel to input data to create persuasive charts; and create photos, videos, and audio that are imported into a PowerPoint presentation, along with GPS data and map overlays. The teachers work with the library media specialist, who assists students in validating internet research, proper citation, and the technology being used. At the end of the project, students present their advertising campaign throughout the day in the library media center, where faculty and staff come by to listen.

Have you noticed an increase in student performance and/or motivation as a result of this technology use? If so, how?

As a rural school district, technology and the internet have opened access to the world! Teachers are using Skype to connect with published authors, scientists, and other classrooms around the globe in real time. Technology has also given students an authentic audience for demonstrating what they have learned, because they can publish to DVDs and the internet. We have seen that once the students stop producing outputs of knowledge for only the teacher, their level of engagement and commitment to excellence increase dramatically. We have seen student reword, redo, and labor over video projects because their families and peers will be the final audience of their work. Furthermore, once their work is electronically published, they tend to watch it over and over again. The repetition of revisiting content long after the unit is complete is a new phenomenon made possible by the technology.

How do you use technology to streamline school administration and aid in decision-making? How have you benefited as a result?

We have several district-wide administrative applications to support school business functions. We have a web-based budget and procurement application (BudgetSense) that both teachers and administrators use to streamline our purchase order process; a web-based student information system, PowerSchool, to schedule classes, store grades, and offer a parent portal so parents can see their child’s attendance and grades; a transportation system to schedule and manage bus routes; and an online library catalog (Alexandria) that is accessible from anywhere. All of these systems have, at one point, replaced less efficient ways of doing things and aided in decision-making processes.

Our district was awarded a highly competitive grant from the Massachusetts Governor’s Office this past year in recognition of the initiatives we wanted to put in place to promote cost-saving efficiencies. Specifically, we are in the infancy stages of building a rationalized technology services model with all of our schools. The core technology components of the grant include: (1) implementing a SIF-enabled solution so we can eliminate the duplication of data entry between systems (PowerSchool, VersaTrans, Alexandria, etc.); (2) data analysis of busing information to create more efficient, and less costly, bus routes; (3) migration from a fee-based eMail provider to Google’s free Google Apps for Education; and (4) implementation of an integrated, district-wide web content and classroom management system to increase home, community, and school communication.

What ed-tech project are you most proud of, and why?

We have done many great things, all focused on improving educational opportunities that are centered on students. It’s hard to pick one, so I need to list two:

(1) Our laptop lease-to-own program has been very successful and has put technology into many students’ hands. It also changed the culture of our middle/high school. Prior to students using laptops throughout the day for research, note taking, and projects, those activities were confined to the bell schedule. However, today those activities can be done throughout the school day, as well as at home with a mobile laptop. Learning can take place 24-7.

(2) The aforementioned state grant. In the end, our students will benefit from these cost-saving efforts, as well as gain exposure to Web 2.0 tools (via the integrated classroom management system) they will encounter in college.

What have been your biggest ed-tech challenges and why? How have you overcome these?

The biggest challenge in integrating new classroom technologies into teaching practices has been time. Teachers have limited “free” time, so finding time to learn and integrate the use of technology is challenging. Teachers need time to explore the technology and redo lesson plans.

I don’t think we’ve overcome the time challenge, so it still exists today. However, to keep the idea of tech integration going, I try not to talk solely about technology, but about curricular goals, and it seems to be working. Technology is less thought of as an “add-on,” and instead is viewed as a means to an end. With the new State Frameworks on our heels, the infusion of technology that is woven throughout the standards will drive this even further. My hope one day is that our conversations never mention the word “technology”—that it just “is.”

Also, all of the “Tech Teams” we have in the district are made up of curriculum leaders, who are not necessarily technology-savvy people, so we can start to build the bridge between technology and curriculum.

What’s your best ed-tech advice for colleagues?

Keep your focus on the students and their learning outcomes, instead of the technology itself.

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