Rich Boettner – Hilliard City School District
Think about it: How long has it been since you last looked at your phone or other handheld device—or are you reading these very words on it? Do you think you could go 5 minutes? Fifteen minutes? A half-hour without checking your notifications or pinging a friend?
With technology comes responsibility, and it’s a hard lesson Hilliard City School District strives to instill in students, staff and parents alike with its campaigns around digital health and wellness. This is occurring as the Columbus, Ohio-based school system continues to set itself apart with its forward-thinking, tech-centric approach and capabilities around blended learning.
“There isn’t a whole lot out there around digital wellness,” says chief technology officer Rich Boettner. “People need ideas and strategies for ways to be healthy when using their devices.”
Building new skills, breaking bad habits
Based in Columbus, Ohio, and serving roughly 16,000 students, Hilliard
is in the fifth year of its 1:1 program: All students grades K through 12 are provided with iPads for everyday use. To help integrate these devices, Hilliard employs 14 tech coaches—one for each of its high schools and middle schools, and one shared among its elementary schools.
As Boettner explains, these coaches work alongside teachers in the classroom to conceive, develop and deliver lessons that fully or partially integrate technology. Plus, they’re never far away when hurdles arise or a technology reveals its inevitable quirks. “Their job is to help teachers use technology in innovative and new ways,” Boettner says.
For example: The district has begun rolling out coding curriculum for students as early as kindergarten. Elementary schoolers learn coding to control and train Dash and Dot robots, while middle schoolers are becoming versed in Apple’s Swift programming language. Next year, Boettner adds, the district is considering adding classes that teach app development.
“The industry and businesses are telling us that they don’t have enough young professionals who know how to code,” he explains.
Likewise, the district hopes to encourage more young women and minority students to explore the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.
“We’re starting in elementary school to help break stereotypes before they develop,” Boettner explains.
Not to mention bad habits. Hilliard has adopted February as “digital wellness month” to promote healthy mental and physical relationships with technology.
Each week of the month is focused on a different topic, Boettner explains, such as digital citizenship, safety or etiquette. Students learn to be aware of their screen time, as well as the enduring digital footprint they’re leaving with their use of social media. They are also taught to take breaks to reduce eye strain and headaches, as well as how to turn off iOS or Android notifications—and teach others to do so, as well.
Students are sent home with lessons, activities and family discussion questions, too; these focus on the appropriate times to use devices at home (think: not at the dinner table), and the expectations family members have for each other.
“‘You’re looking at your device instead of looking at me and that bothers me,’” Boettner offers as one talking point. “People are aware of the challenges they’re dealing with, even if they don’t always think about them or know how to make changes. We give them an avenue for conversations that can honestly be hard to start.”
Boettner recalls when he started out at Hilliard a decade ago. Back then, each school had carts of laptops that teachers could check out and rotate among themselves—ultimately making technology “an event,” as opposed to a valuable tool.
“Today we live technology,” he says, acknowledging that “sometimes traditional methods are the best way to learn something. Technology should be used as a support for learning—when it’s needed. We’re trying to promote a balance.”
The former music educator has long been ahead of the technological curve. As a freshman teacher starting out 28 years ago, he was intrigued by Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) technology, which allows for the writing, playing, editing and recording of music. However, the school system he worked for had very few computers, let alone any MIDI stations—so he applied for a grant that paid for the installation of four stations in his music room. He was soon asked to lead tech integration classes for his fellow teachers.
He started out at Hilliard as a tech coach; he recognized then, and still understands now, that many teachers didn’t grow up with technology and it doesn’t come as intuitively as it does with younger generations. Then add to that the fear factor, he points out.
“People can be intimidated by technology partially because it’s constantly changing,” he says. However, “we’ve seen a lot of growth in our teachers. Virtually all of them are using technology in some way in their classrooms.”
Going forward, he says, it’s crucial to maintain a dialogue as well as ongoing training for his team and the staff at-large.
“It’s important to me to ensure that I’m building a great culture, that my team feels empowered so they can support the people that they work with and for,” Boettner says. “Communication is a huge element of success.”
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