Drew Lane – Shawnee Mission School District
In “Inception”, the 2010 sci-fi thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the protagonist is forced to navigate a series of dreams, each more involved than the last.
While that might seem like a strange analogy for an IT initiative, Drew Lane insists his school district shares something in common with the special effects blockbuster.
“What we’re doing is improving tech literacy by adding more and more layers,” says Lane, the executive director of information and computer technology at Shawnee Mission School District in Kansas. “It’s about encouraging a true digital transformation for our students.”
It began in 2014, when Shawnee Mission launched a partnership with Apple to provide mobile tablets to all students and teachers in the district—close to 30,000 in all.
As the devices became more and more integral to the student (and teacher experience), Lane and his team looked for ways to provide a more authentic learning experience—to mimic what students might experience in the real world.
To that end, in 2016 Shawnee Mission broadened its partnership with Cisco to include a customized Digital Education Platform (DEP), which in turn connected the district’s devices to a secure network, while adding unified voice and video.
More importantly, the new DEP allowed Shawnee Mission to lay the groundwork for a new, integrated digital learning environment.
By augmenting the company’s existing virtual meeting space (WebEx) with the more modern Cisco Spark, Lane and his team helped develop Shawnee Mission’s first ever Spark Board, an interactive platform featuring telepresence and collaborative solutions including interactive whiteboard capabilities. (Think of an old fashioned chalkboard, but digital and rendered on a screen at the front of the class.)
Now, rather than relying exclusively on a traditional classroom orientation—rows of forward-facing students with an instructor at the front—teachers can break the class into smaller groups of three to six, giving each “cluster” its own collaborative assignment.
As students use their tablets to interface with the assignment, the teacher acts as a roving facilitator, providing guidance to the groups as needed.
Not only does Spark allow participants to keep track of what they’re doing day by day (what Lane calls “longitudinal ability”); it can also communicate with other classrooms, enabling teachers to collaborate in real time.
During a recent visit to a sixth-grade class, Lane marveled at how intently students were listening to a professional architect, who was being piped in remotely through the classroom’s Spark Board.
“It struck me as a perfect analog for the world in which these students will work and live,” Lane says. “So you start to see how these layers of learning get built.”
Spark Board also allows teachers to more easily embed the content students need to know.
To illustrate this capacity, Lane uses the example of calculating cylinder volume. Instead of relying on the age-old method of “tell and practice”—memorizing the formula for the singular purpose of repeating it on a test—Shawnee Mission uses interactive applications that visually show how the equation works, contributing to what Lane calls “embedded learning.”
In the case of its virtual desktop initiatives, that learning has never been easier. With the help of IP Pathways, an IT services company headquartered in nearby Overland Park, Shawnee overhauled some of its data-intensive labs—such as engineering and CAD design—to be available anytime, anywhere, lending real-time access to programs that used to require advanced scheduling.
Not only do such upgrades help ease the burden on the IT department; it allows Lane and his colleagues to dedicate time and energy to areas requiring “a more personal touch”—like Spark Board.
“Working with clients across sectors, you tend to see a lot of innovation on the commercial side, but Drew and Shawnee Mission are innovators,” says Jay Muehlbach, account manager at IP Pathways. “Having my own child in the district, I’d seen firsthand the impact these and other initiatives can have in preparing kids for the future.”
While college and career readiness are at the core of Shawnee Mission’s IT overhaul, initiatives like Spark Board are about more than developing hard skills.
“What we keep hearing is that today’s students lack certain interpersonal skills one needs to be successful professionally,” Lane says. “As more and more business is done remotely, we believed it was important to provide students with a more authentic experience.”
For Lane, there’s a misconception of modern technology as being inherently isolating. In reality, how classrooms are structured can mean the difference between amplifying those antisocial tendencies and fostering a more creative, dynamic environment.
“When you’re starting with a collaborative platform,” Lane says, “that’s when you see the true power of 1:1 devices unleashed.”
Because Spark Board works with most devices and systems—from Android to Apple’s iOS—students can progress through grades without having to learn a new system. What’s more, syncing with Spark Board allows them to work with peers and teachers beyond the four walls of the school.
Since rolling out 1:1 digital learning, Shawnee Mission has seen an increase in both student performance and attendance. Teachers note poor classroom behavior has lessened considerably.
It’s not just the students who are benefitting, either. Lane believes the effects of tools like Spark Board are mutually reinforcing: the more teachers see the power of collaboration among their students, the more likely they are to embrace that technology in their own roles.
The district is even working on ways to get parents more involved, allowing them to see what their kids are working on—even during school hours. What’s more, the DEP makes it easier for kids to complete homework when they’re out of school.
In the event an assignment proves too difficult, a teacher can engage the space in real time and either help the students solve the issue or tell them to wait until tomorrow, thereby eliminating any stress or anxiety.
For Lane, the resulting dynamic—where layers of learning are continually added and refined—doesn’t simply foster better students.
“If we can provide opportunities for students to experience passion about math, or fine art, or whatever it is, it’s easier to ask them to work harder in other areas,” Lane says. “That’s how you develop the kind of well-rounded skill set that’s in demand.”
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