Influencing Chaos

EdTech, Learning, Platforms & Data, PreK-12

Sandy Maynard

Educational Technology has for decades struggled to change the learning landscape for students. We have had moments where we felt “this is the technology that will be the tipping point that transforms learning”. However, only recently has the use of technology in the classroom started to reach a ubiquitous level that could be transformational. It is a great time to be in education to finally watch this change. We are at that sweet moment in time where many factors are coalescing in such a way we can invoke the change needed to create engaging and relevant learning environments for students. Cutting edge hardware, collaborative software, relevant applications, robust infrastructure, skilled staff, and a supportive community converge at the same time. However, the speed of this convergence comes with some chaos.

Chaos is defined as, “complete disorder and confusion”. We each see chaos differently. The desired outcome is to influence, or manage chaos so everyone moves beyond their current comfort level to some level of acceptance of change or disruption. Many times we struggle with our need to have all the answers before we can move forward. But, in our fast-paced mode of exploring and creating, or creating and exploring, are the cornerstone of how many great companies were built. In education we have been reluctant to compromise on movement made without thorough fact finding and research. We pose questions such as, “do we conduct professional development before we have all the equipment?” or, “do we get the equipment in place then implement professional development?” Of course, having both at the same time is desirable, but it doesn’t always happen given funding limitations. When new technology is introduced but professional development lags, or is limited, staff live in momentary ambiguity of skill development. They must balance between how to learn and teach at the same time. That uncomfortable place can have a person teetering as they traverse the fine edge of excitement to learn and chaos to deliver.

Our district has been able to change the landscape of learning- for both students and staff, because we were able to live, if just for a moment, in that ambiguous state. That place where questions did not have an answer, and not all learning linear. That place where staff explored and discovered alongside students. Where we became excited at how the reliance for student devices allowed for dynamic and engaging instruction to take place.

Chaos #1: Can you forecast the connectivity needs of all users, including younger ones, so network access is flexible, safe, and secure?

We embarked on this journey over two years ago when Washington State announced mandatory online testing starting as early as 3rd grade. We identified that it would be essential for our 3rd & 4th grade students to learn not only typing skills, but the skills to think and type in order to develop online essays as required by the test. With limited funds we conducted a pilot and purchased Chromebooks for 1,500 3rd and 4th grade students. Fortunately, our network was slated for a redesign to be more robust as we anticipated a need to grow capacity due to our “Bring Your Own Technology” initiative. Our network blueprint included installing wireless access points in each classroom. It was also critical to the overall network design to create a safe and secure network, yet make it simple enough for elementary children to access. That foundation allowed for the creative development and growth in our network design so the youngest of users could access electronic systems with ease. Be prepared to create an environment that is nimble, yet robust, so even the youngest student can participate in the new learning.  Plan beyond the use of today because growth comes swiftly.

Chaos #2: Can teachers learn while simultaneously teaching student to use new technology?

Looking back we can be proud of those 3th & 4th grade teachers, standing on the edge, as they quickly adapted to classroom management skills while at the same time developing lessons that engaged student in the use of new technologies. Talk about living with ambiguity; they were modern pioneers exploring how to learn from students that are much more tech savvy. The initial professional development comprised of a formal three hour training that included the concept of how to gain the knowledge from students that are adapt in the use of technology and informal training that continued throughout that year in our professional learning communities and peer teacher support. The momentum of teachers collaborating around the discovery and use of apps increased and the energy of that work was apparent. Assignments started to look more collaborative as groups of students shared in using Google tools and working in a more project-based environment. Spend the majority of the professional development time of the philosophy of how to create an environment where the student is the teacher and the teacher if the learner.

Chaos #3: Can staff understand there will be benefits, not yet known, that will outweigh the need to know the completed process?

Staff outside of the pilot started to envision the opportunity they would have to infuse this technology into their instruction.  Up to this point, the use of technology by students was orchestrated by a teacher scheduling to check-out a mobile cart of laptops. It could be frustrating when a current news or events unfolded and there was no technology to explore and engage students in research, because their access to laptops were booked for the following week. This resulted in a complete loss of teaching in the moment. Also the infrequent access made it difficult to infuse electronic resources. However, as we saw student engagement increase, for 3rd & 4th grade students, it became imperative to think about all classrooms having access to technology on a daily basis. The initial pilot was obtaining approval and we were leaning toward a broader distributed model.  A decision was made to offer a chromebook to each teacher, for their use. First, they needed to experience what students would experience. Second, it increased buy-in as teachers became reliant on the Chromebook and the Google Apps they were using. Third, using Google Apps for Education and Hapara management tools, the exchange of assignment/homework with students would be different, teachers needed to learn online grading.  At first the desire was low but as teachers saw the collaboration they sought to have their own device. Use the power of the staff to work in collaboration on projects, such as curriculum development. They will experience this new world of electronic collaboration.

Chaos #4: Can all questions be answered before a decision is made?

Some of instruction changes we started to observe can be  attributed to the support of Principals.  Those leaders encouraged teachers to explore how the access this technology could increase individualized learning in the classroom.  Administrators and teacher sought out new applications began to change the landscape of how students were learning. It was no longer a one-size-fits all model, advanced learners had access to resources that pushed them ahead and learners that experienced more challenges were encouraged because they could use applications that paced their learning. When you walked into a classroom you could not tell the difference in individualized instruction but we were starting to see the results with test scores.    

Our new Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson laid out the vision that “We must reinvent instructional practices so students are engaged and feel invested in their learning. We must utilize the technology they use on a daily basis. We will combine strategies and resources to attend to the learning level of each student.” Dr. Johnson, along with a select team, spent time reviewing the research from other districts that were beginning to use Chromebooks as a 1:1 distributed solution. Principals engaged staff in conversations about the use of Chromebooks, dedicated device, could change instruction in the classroom.  Soon discussions centered on whether deployment of the Chromebooks should continue by grade level, staff readiness, or subject areas. Primarily, deployment would take the form of grade level distribution, with 6th and 9th grades being the next recipients followed respectively by each grade thereafter. Ultimately, the goal became that all 7,500 students grades 3-12 would have access to a Chromebook by 2017. Be prepared to share the stories of success. Make the new learning structure part of the everyday conversation so staff can see a future that is developing.

Chaos 5: Can parents and community members understand the pivotal role they play to support moving school systems into highly technological world?

There came a point in that early 3rd & 4th grade pilot where the community jumped in and let teachers, staff and principals know that they were excited by what their children were experiencing on a daily basis. No sweeter words could be heard than when a 3rd grade student tells a School Board member, “Thank you for giving me my own computer, I am so excited – I love it.” To obtain the funding to reach our goal, we had to reach out to the community for financial support, funding from State education was not enough. We met with parents and community groups to share the roadmap and answer those questions we had answers to. We obtained their resounding support in the form of a voter-approved technology levy geared to meet our goal by 2017.  It truly take a village and we were sharing that message with our community groups at every opportunity.

The roadmap is a work in progress since many adjustments to instruction are taking place. The work to align curriculum and modify the use of traditional instructional material is evolving. We will continue to learn as we integrate non-traditional resources into our classrooms. We are showcasing those teachers that have incorporated this new technology to represent a blending learning environment. We incubate teacher discussion forums that look at the teaching beyond today- how will instruction improve next year with more electronic tools and creative strategies. And more importantly we periodically bring in a group of thought-leaders from our schools to ponder how to best utilize these tools and resources so student are excited to come to school each day.   

As we move forward we grapple with many more questions as we explore and learn. We are discovering that chaos drives change, change drives transformation, and transformation is where learning is elevated to a higher level. The element of chaos will not (should not) be removed, it is part of the cycle. As each person pushes through disorder and confusion, learning environments are adjusted so we can engage students in learning that is relevant for them.

For more check out:

Sandy Maynard, CTO for Sumner School District  Twitter, @MaynardSandy.

Sumner School District is one of the first districts Washington State to reach a Chromebook 1:1 deployment for all students grades 3-10. By school year 2016-17 they will have met their goal of “All students grade 3-12 will have a dedicated chromebook for their use.”

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Jose SSLC /

Improvement in technology used for education still needs improvements.