Dennis Frye – Alamance-Burlington School System
In most school districts, in order for any new technology plan to achieve true success, the student experience—what they learn in the classroom and how they’re taught to engage with the world beyond—must be paramount.
At its core, the initiative being undertaken at North Carolina’s Alamance-Burlington School System (ABSS) is really no different. The approach, however, is unique—and potentially transformative.
In collaboration with the state’s Department of Public Instruction and the Friday Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping schools become “future-ready organizations,” the team at ABSS spearheaded an ambitious professional development program designed to teach school leaders how to more effectively integrate technology into the classroom.
That, says Executive Director of Technology Dennis Frye, is having a tangible effect on the district’s 22,700 students.
“It’s about teaching teachers how to be students again, which in turn helps them become better teachers,” says Frye, who joined the district in 2014. “By authentically experiencing the technology, they’re better able to weave that into their current course planning. It re-establishes expectations across the board.”
In recalibrating its tech protocol around the twin pillars of professional development and innovation, ABSS is able to give its students a more personalized learning experience—one Frye says can better prepare them for the unique challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.
Back to school
In order to bring teachers more fully into the fold, however, the district’s “building leaders”—principals and assistant principals—needed to be empowered to spark that change. Beginning in 2015, the Friday Institute conducted a series of bimonthly sessions aimed at highlighting best practices for effective tech integration.
Utilizing blended learning, which combines digital or online teaching with traditional classroom pedagogy, these workshops are designed not just to encourage technological adoption, but to codify it, specifically through real-time updates of school planning documents.
“It’s modeled in such a way that they’re both learning the technology and how to implement it,” Frye explains. “Some of it is done face to face, while other components can be conducted remotely.”
One of the program’s foundational lessons involved familiarizing participants with ABSS’ new Canvas learning management system (LMS), a cloud-based platform that allows teachers and administrators to seamlessly communicate and organize class materials. Through the Friday Institute, building leaders were taught how to encourage teachers to leverage the technology to its full potential.
“We could create a unit plan template inside of Canvas which can be developed from a learning-model framework,” Frye explains. “Two-thirds of North Carolina’s school systems are using Canvas, and that consistency is key to analyzing the state’s educational performance.”
Leaders were also introduced to a variety of online tools and personalized learning strategies—interactive screens, testing platforms, even course-specific software programs—aligned with what Frye calls “research-based, high-effect-size pedagogy, with the aim of getting them to recognize and encourage effective technology when they see it.”
At the end of the two-year program, building leaders were asked to participate in organized “learning walks” of other schools, to get a first-hand look at how some of these tools are being utilized. What they see, and what they’re inspired to create, is an environment that champions personalized learning.
In the lab
At Graham High School, ABSS’ growing emphasis on STEM curricula—short for science, technology, education and math—is on full display. For years, the school relied heavily on outdated, analog methods of teaching: paper models, paper manipulatives, video clips and the like.
Now, thanks to a combination of increased funding and redoubled IT efforts, Graham is seen as a paragon of ABSS’ tech transformation.
“What we’ve done is set up a pathway of biotechnology that students can continue into either a community college or a four-year school,” Frye explains. “We feel it’s the perfect program for Graham.”
In addition to things like updated laboratories and a new outdoor learning center, the school now features an augmented reality (AR) sandbox, allowing students to create complex topography models.
Moreover, Google Expeditions lets teachers take students on immersive AR journeys through everything from world monuments to ecosystems and interstellar objects, while LEGO EV3 Robots give budding engineers the perfect vehicles—literally and figuratively—to learn about the trade.
With LED cordless binoculars, touch-screen data collectors and molecular analyzers connected to the cloud, cutting-edge tools abound. And with a student-to-Google Chromebook ratio of 1:1, Frye says Graham has become a towering template for what’s possible throughout ABSS.
“In more ways than one, Graham is the future,” Frye says. “As we continue conducting walkthroughs of schools, teachers and principals look at what’s going on there and say, ‘We need to do that!’”
Risk and reward
With each student laptop-equipped, teachers now have unprecedented access to classroom performance. Not only can they use real-time interfaces to determine who’s falling behind; they can also aggregate the resulting data to gain a clearer understanding of how the curriculum works—or doesn’t.
For Frye, teacher buy-in remains a critical piece of ABSS’ sprawling IT puzzle. That’s why the district’s work with the Friday Institute represents an ongoing campaign, and not a one-off crash course: helping teachers effectively manage the risks of new technology, rather than merely surviving them.
“The mantra of our school leaders has become, if it doesn’t work, we’re there to support you,” Frye says. “We’ll organize a walkthrough at another school. We’ll send someone out to teach you how to use the tools. There’s nothing wrong with failing forward, as long as you’re not afraid to take those risks.”
The rewards, after all, are more than worth changing for.
“Our building leaders impact the teachers, our teachers impact the students, and our students impact the world,” Frye says. “It’s a pretty inspiring ripple effect.”
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