The Rockford School district in Illinois never had solid plans for a 1-to-1 computing initiative. In fact, when Susan Uram, the district’s educational technology director, asked one principal about giving it a try, the response was something like, “’No way! Kids carrying around devices all day? Are you out of your mind?’”
But when the pandemic hit, Rockford and thousands of other districts around the country had little choice but to scramble to find enough laptops, tablets, and hotspots to offer virtual instruction to its students, many of whom were already behind their peers elsewhere in the state in reading and math.
Right off the bat, the district bought 14,000 laptops and another 7,750 iPads, plus additional orders of a few thousand devices. Over the course of the past two years, the roughly 27,000 student-district has gone from having about two devices for every three students to roughly one per kid.
The hardware arrived at what felt like lightning speed. But transitioning the district’s instruction to a 1-to-1 environment has been slow, painstaking work that will continue into next school year and likely beyond.
That’s partly because circumstances forced the district—which serves mostly students from low-income families—to make a sudden shift without time for careful planning.
“There was no choice in it. There was no discussion about what the systemic impact was going to be on the teachers and their instruction,” Uram said. “We can’t go back in time, but I think that that’s the next layer of discussion. There [are] teachers who feel like ‘I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t want [1-to-1 computing].’ But the district tells me I have to.’”
Rockford is part of a much larger trend. Eighty-five percent of educators said their district has a device for each individual student at all grade levels to use in class, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey of 1,063 educators, conducted in late March and early April. Nearly half said students in all grades can take their devices home, while nearly another third said that only middle and high school students are allowed to do so.
The devices are making an impact. About half of educators surveyed said the availability of the new technology has changed teaching and learning a lot, while nearly another third said the devices have brought at least some changes.
But in many places, including Rockford, the transition remains bumpy.
Uram and her team are working to help teachers realize that 1-to-1 computing “doesn’t mean all screens, all the time. It doesn’t mean we’re throwing away our pencils and crayons. It just means that we now have an opportunity to leverage a tool and expand learning in a way that we couldn’t before.”
I think the easy part is getting devices. I don’t think that’s hard. The thing that keeps me up [at night] is: What are we doing to support our teachers in understanding how to teach with technology, how to integrate technology within their own world?
The quality of ed-tech professional development varies widely
Professional development to help teachers figure out how best to use technology to enhance instruction has been a big focus for districts that dramatically expanded their fleet of devices in response to the pandemic. More than 80 percent of educators surveyed said their districts had offered that training and almost half described it as high-quality. Almost half said it was “mediocre” or worse.
Part of the work for Rockford: Finding educators who can serve as tech mentors to their colleagues.
The district has long had teachers who served as Technical Support Specialists, receiving a stipend from the district in exchange for some tech work. For years, these teachers were essentially an extension of their school’s IT department. They ensured, for instance, that overhead projectors had working lightbulbs. But even that fell by the wayside, and by 2018, the district didn’t have a clear mission for these educators.
After Uram stepped into her job—a new role for the district—in 2018, she refocused the work on helping other teachers use tech to enhance instruction, as opposed to lending a hand with a broken Chromebook.
Once the pandemic hit, Uram steadily boosted the number of support specialists from seven across the district’s 41 schools to 30 this school year. She’s hoping to significantly increase that number, at least temporarily, as Rockford works to find its footing with 1-to-1 computing.
Taming the ‘Wild West’ of free software
The district has also worked to pare down the jumble of software programs teachers adopted when Rockford quickly pivoted to digital learning. Many companies made their programs free at the beginning of the pandemic and teachers across the country took advantage of those offers. But some of programs teachers tried weren’t aligned to Rockford’s curriculum. And some teachers didn’t realize the district could be liable if student data wasn’t properly protected.
“It was the Wild West,” said Jason Barthel, the district’s chief information officer. “It’s no fault of the teachers by any means. They’re gonna use what they can to make sure that they’re able to teach effectively to their students.”
The problem was that the district didn’t have a defined process for approving new digital tools. “There was an assumption that I can just, you know, bring this to my classroom, and I can do it or bring it to my principal and my principal can approve it,” Barthel said.
Rockford worked to help teachers better understand laws governing student data, in part because Illinois recently overhauled its privacy legislation. And it revamped the process for choosing digital programs, accelerating work begun back in 2018.
Teachers were told, “if you’re going to use a software, it needs to be aligned with curriculum, it needs to be approved and accessible. From an IT perspective, we [need] to know where the student data is going. We were able to really, really take [out] a lot of these free apps that we didn’t even know were being used,” Barthel said.
Instead, the district has concentrated on a few tools that Uram and her team have vetted. That helps the district provide more-focused professional development and collect data to see if the programs are working as they hope.
Other districts are grappling with the same challenges. Before the pandemic, only about half the students in Kentucky’s Jefferson County School District, which includes Louisville, had a device assigned to them. Principals had a lot of discretion when it came to how much laptops and tablets figured into teaching and learning. Some schools were 1-to-1. In others, students used technology primarily in the computer lab.
Now the district has gone 1-to-1 for every school, buying about 76,000 devices and 12,000 hotspots, largely with help from federal funding.
William Pierce, the district’s executive administrator of digital innovation and program management, is far more consumed with making sure that teachers are prepared to make good use of the devices than he is about how the district will find money to replace them once they wear out.
“I think the easy part is getting devices. I don’t think that’s hard,” Pierce said. “The thing that keeps me up [at night] is: What are we doing to support our teachers in understanding how to teach with technology, how to integrate technology within their own world?”
Students need help understanding how to use new technologies to learn academic material
And even though many students had lots of experience with new technologies and some probably spent half their days on Snapchat or playing Fortnite, students didn’t immediately grasp how new laptops and tablets could help them learn, Pierce said.
Given the urgency to start virtual schooling, “a majority of our students were effectively handed a Chromebook and told, ‘Hey, go learn with this,” he said.
Now, the district is launching a new digital citizenship curriculum that will cover questions such as: How do you take care of a device? How do you use it appropriately?
In Rockford, Uram and her colleagues are using a similar strategy, creating a curriculum that gives teachers a sense of what students at each level should master when it comes to technology. For instance, should a 3rd grader with a Chromebook understand how to copy and paste an image? What should 2nd graders know about publishing an e-book? How do you explain to students that they can’t just copy text from a website, plop it into an assignment, and consider it their own work?
“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, well, they’re digital natives. They know how to do it,’” Umar said. “We have to be a little more mindful.”