What I learned from three days at Discovery’s DENSI 2015 Conference

Last week I had an education adventure.  Pretty different from the regular educational conference that I attend, the DENSI 2015 Principals Summit was ambitious in its design and very creative in its execution.

For me, the most important thing Discovery worked very hard on was to develop a community of administrators.  This is so unique.  No one seems to consider how isolating the job of a principal is and how important it is for us to have time together to learn from each other and build connections.  Discovery facilitated that and that is not an easy thing to do.  

Without pressuring us too much, they gave us the opportunity to talk to each other and strike up new relationships.  For me this is huge.  My last conversation with another admin just as I got ready to return to Canada was a good indication of the spirit of DENSI.  She simply said, ‘I really enjoyed having you here, thanks.’  Something very simple, but an affirmation from someone I didn’t know just three days earlier and a really positive affirmation that doesn’t happen all that often in our home districts.  

I think we all learned that it sometimes easier to be appreciated when you are with a group of strangers that you might feel in your own district.

There is no question that Discovery wants you to take advantage of their services, but there is nothing wrong with that.  They are actually interested in how they can offer better digital content – something that we are hungry for in our schools right now.  They talked a lot about digital transformation and as we move in this direction, we really need them as our partners, just like we need Google, Apple and other leaders in educational technology.

It was mentioned briefly at the conference, but it something that is becoming increasingly true and very important for administrators.  If we want to really be innovative for our kids, we need to make more alliances with businesses and not wait for our districts to take the lead.  Our needs are too great and the resources at the district level have been stretched too far.  

Rather than complain about this situation, I say – accept it and move on.  

I want Discovery Ed as a partner with my school, just like I want Google and a whole host of private funders and associations so that we can truly offer an enriched program for our kids.  This alliance with businesses will allow us to create in ways we have never imagined before.

That’s what I learned, and I have been energized by the experience.  Now, all we need is to see much more of Discovery here in Canada – you have a lot to offer us, but you need to spend much more time with us to create the energy that exists right now in the States.

Thanks again Discovery, the best three days of learning I have had in a really long time.

 

Questions to ask when considering a 1:1 program – how do we respond at our school?

We are on the cusp of starting a limited 1:1 program at our school.  As we prepare, it is important to consider al sorts of questions – as we prepare, I want to consider answers to questions asked by Ann McMullan in the article:

The 10 questions to ask before you start your one-to-one program

McMullan shared 5 start factors that are keys to success for one-to-one programs:

  1. Start with “Why?” What are instructional goals you hope to accomplish?
  2. Start small, think big. “Find some of those teacher leaders and let them try out the devices,” she said. “Find out what the issues are with the network. But do think big; it becomes an equity issue very quickly.”
  3. Start with teachers first. It’s critical.
  4. Start the conversation across all departments.
  5. Do start: Go for it. Failure is part of the learning process.

We have been getting closer and closer to 1:1 especially at the junior level all year.  The key point for us is the teachers.  We have a group that is willing to experiment and learn.  We have had several group PD sessions during and after the school day to work on our understanding on how various apps – especially Google Apps can improve student learning.  We have had great results with Read and Write and are learning how to give more effective feedback with Kaizena. We are learning more about digital portfolios.  We are also learning new ways to deliver PD to staff.  For our last PD venture, we invited a teacher from our partner school to spend the day with teachers and classes to work on digital portfolios.  Having an experienced teacher with us in the classroom made a huge difference.

The conversation continues.  Within the next ten days we should have enough Chromebooks for all the junior (grade 4,5,6) students.  Each student will receive a machine and will be expected to bring the Chromebook home every night.  Our partner school is following the same process.

According to McMullan, here are the top 10 questions schools should ask themselves, and the order they should ask them in:

  • What is the mission of the district and how does the one-to-one program align with it?

We are very fortunate to work in a district that is flexible and open to change.  Years ago, the school board created the conditions for innovation by providing every school with a reliable wifi network.  Each year, we receive more devices from the school board.  For a small school like ours, it is now possible to take the final leap to make sure that every junior student has a new Chromebook to work with.  We also were early adopters of Google which has been huge for us.  Every staff member and every student has their own Google account.  Everyone has equal access to all Google apps.

  • What are instructional goals that will be supported by a one-to-one program?

We have examined our School Improvement Plan to see what goals already exist that can be supported by our 1:1 program.  We have been putting an emphasis on feedback for the past few years.  Kaizena is a very effective feedback tool that if used properly and consistently will advance our ability to give effective feedback to our students.  We also have a very high ELL population.  Apps like Read and Write can be very effective in assisting ELL students move ahead with their reading comprehension and writing skills.  This applies as well to students with learning disabilities.  When distributing our machines, we have focused first on our LD and ELL students.  We have observed some significant gains in their learning based on their day to day use of the Chromebook.

  • How will all major departments, selected administrative and teaching staff, parents, and other stakeholders be involved in the planning and implementation of a one-to-one program?

For us, the key ‘departments’ for implementation have been resource (Learning Disabilities) and ELL (English Language Learners).  Our resource and ELL staff have worked with teachers and students to teach them how to use the Chromebook.  Resource especially has become a center of innovation where students have been well trained on how to use apps.  They in turn have taught their school mates how to use the same apps

  • What device will best meet the mission? (“Notice, that’s not the first question,” McMullan said.)

This depends on the grade level.  We have more iPads at the primary and kindergarten level and more chromebooks at the junior level.  Now however, we are finding that we need more Chromebooks in the primary classes so students can get acquainted to Google apps and how to use their Google accounts.

  • How will the one-to-one program be financed and sustained?

Sustaining the program will be interesting.  We think that once we have made the initial investment, our regular IT allotment will be used to replace older or defective equipment.  The key factor is making the initial investment.

  • What IT systems need to be in place to support and maintain our one-to-one program(s)? (Here, McMullan shared an anecdote about one district that purchased 20,000 Chromebooks, only to have them sit in boxes because there was no wireless access in classrooms).

We have the wireless access and this system will actually be enhanced and strengthened in the near future.  All machines purchased through the school board are supported by IT technicians employed by the board.  As more schools go 1:1 the board may need to look at more IT support, but at this point we are able to access IT support to assist us when we need it.

  • How will district and school administrators and board members be prepared to lead and communicate the vision?

There is value in starting small.  The current implementation plan involves only two schools.  I am not convinced tat 1:1 should be implemented across the entire school board.  You definitely need a willing staff and school leadership willing to take the 1:1 leap before you even consider moving in this direction.  The human factor is easily the most important thing to consider before going 1:1.  Staff and school leadership need to be working together and share the common vision that going 1:1 will improve student achievement.

  • What ongoing professional development strategies will be provided?

This is probably one of the biggest questions.  On-going embedded PD is crucial.  The PD has to continue throughout the year and it can’t depend on teachers ‘volunteering’ to learn more about the newest app.  It is crucial that 1:1 implementation be a major component of the School Improvement Plan and that the school’s PD budget (release time) be devoted to staff development.  It is also important that staff be consulted – always – on what they need to learn next.  This shows basic respect for the adult learner and ensures that staff will buy into the learning plan for the year.

  • What processes will be in place for making adjustments as needed?

Good communication is the key.  The principal must be open to the ideas and thoughts of staff and staff need to feel supported enough by the administration so they can talk freely about how the program is going.  As mentioned earlier, the human factor is the most important, we need to keep in constant contact with each other and learn together.  There will be bumps along the way, but teachers are good at change; all we need to do is manage it carefully.