How To Choose The Best Digital Tools For You

This post originally appeared on Edudemic

best digital tools
As I look for entry points in working with school leaders just getting their feet wet with digital tools, I sometimes struggle to pinpoint the best place to start. I guess it is because there are so many useful tools out there that my colleagues could utilize to help them to change their workflows for the better. However, the important thing is not the tool at all.
The important thing is that educational leaders are modeling the fact that they too are continuous learners who are striving to employ the most relevant resources that they can access to do their jobs.
In tackling this dilemma, I have decided to look at a few of the functions that school leaders perform and provide a couple of tools that can not only assist them but also help them model the integration of digital tools into their daily routines. Again, I am looking to stay away from a specific solution and instead list some of the options that are available for particular tasks. Choices are a good thing, so let’s embrace the fact that we live in a day and age where we have them!
When first getting started with digital tools, the most important task for school leaders is communication. Whether it is with staff, students, or parents, school leaders need to be strong communicators and provide their stakeholders with the appropriate information at the appropriate time. There are also different levels of communication that we deal with here. Are we just putting out information on upcoming events or are we telling our story and providing people with asynchronous opportunities to share in events and presentations that they cannot get to in person due to their busy schedules?
In an era of transparency and connectedness, we have the ability to tell our story every day of the school year instead of waiting for media coverage of something going on in our school. Why wait for that negative news item that brings the media swarming to your school when you can inundate people with the positive things happening on a daily basis. When people Google your school or district what do they find? What is the first impression they get from a digital walkthrough?
These are the questions that you need to answer for yourself as you start to think about the tools that you want to choose to communicate and the information that you want to communicate. Here are some of the types of communication we do in our district and how we do them:
These are just a few of the countless ways that school leaders can communicate, collaborate, and engage with stakeholders in whatever the topic of the day is in their school community. It’s not critical that educational leaders use all of these resources, but it is critical that they start to get comfortable with some of them.
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Answering Questions About iPads In Burlington

English: iPad with on display keyboard
English: iPad with on display keyboard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have gotten a lot of inquiries about iPads in Burlington since deploying over 1,000 iPads at our high school in the fall of 2011. As we continue plans for a February deployment at our Middle School and work with pilots at our elementary schools it is interesting to reflect on the questions that we get from other schools and how some of our answers/solutions to issues change over time.  In addition, it is important to note that our answer to a particular question may not be the best answer for another school or district. 

The most important point in all of this is that educators and students in environments that allow the use of digital resources have the ability to connect and share best practices.  This culture of sharing is both valuable and fulfilling, and the best part is that immersing yourself in it can help everyone become more successful. 

Anyway, here is a list of questions I got this week in an e-mail from a fellow administrator in another district. I thought I would share the questions and answers here in the hopes that others could benefit from the responses and expand on them.

1)      What are the iPad’s used for?

It varies from one classroom to the next. In some classrooms they use them for note-taking, word processing, and web searches. Our Foreign Language Department has been able to do away with their former language lab due to the fact that the teachers now feel like they have a language lab in every classroom. 

2)       How many iPad’s are used for how many students?

We have one iPad for each student at the high school (just over 1,000 total). We will be 1:1 at the middle school in February (800 more students). We also have one first grade classroom at each of the elementary schools in a pilot and a fifth grade classroom at Pine Glen in a pilot. 

3)      Are the iPad’s used for administrative purposes? If so what? 

Administrators utilize the iPads to access our student management system and we plan on using them extensively when we implement the new evaluation system next year. 

4)      If apps are used, what subjects use the apps and what apps are the most educationally sound?

We use too many apps to list here and allow high school students to personalize their iPads by adding their own apps and having their music accessible. In regards to “foundation apps,” we promote the use of Evernote, Dropbox, Explain Everything, Google Drive, Notability. You can check out a number of reviews by our IT Staff and our Student Help Desk on these two websites: and

5)      If the iPad’s are used for textbooks what textbooks fi the iPad the best? How are books put on the iPad? How are iPad’s with textbooks distributed the second year (when books are loaded)? 

We do not use the iPads for textbooks. We are in the process of pulling together our own on-line resources, utilizing a company called Net Texts.  At this point, we  feel strongly about not purchasing traditional textbooks or buying e-versions of textbooks from the textbooks companies. We would prefer to support our teachers in the curation of content that they can more readily revise each year.

6)      Do students/administrators type on the iPad? How are documents printed from the iPad’s?

There have been no significant problems typing on the iPad. We did not provide cases for all of the iPads, but instead got a neoprene which was donated by the Burlington Chamber of Commerce with some ads from local businesses. Some students chose to get cases that included a bluetooth keyboard while some choose to touch type right on the iPad. Another group uses the voice-to-text to dictate the rough drafts into the iPads and then makes the changes from there.

7)      What are the biggest positives from a student learning/administrative  point of view? 

One of the biggest positives has been the fact that staff has had to rely on students in many cases to help them learn how to use the iPads and some of the resources we now have access to. I believe that it has helped us become less of a teacher-centered school and more of a learner-centered school where we are all learners together.

8)      What are the biggest negatives? 

I think the concerns are that we address misuse of digital resources and have conversations about balance. We are not promoting an “all iPad, all the time” environment. Thoughtful lesson-planning means integrating appropriate resources whether they are technology-based or not. 

Questions about How the iPad’s Are Deployed

9)      Do the iPad uses depend on regular wireless access? How much of the building/school system is wireless? 

We have wireless throughout all of our school buildings.  There are certainly ways to utilize the iPads without wireless access, but I think the infrastructure of a school or district should be upgraded before the integration of wireless devices.

10)   Are the iPad’s bought or leased? 

We pay for our iPads through a three-year lease to own program. 

11)   Who handles iPad repairs? How are the iPad’s re-charged? 

We have a student help desk which is the front line of handling iPad issues. They are supported by staff who can step in and resolve issues that they cannot.  However, the issues that the schools are unable to resolve are very few. In regards to charging, students recharge the iPads at home after school. Because the iPads are not used every minute of every day, they can go multiple days without being recharged.  Charging of devices has been a non-issue.

12)   What training was done for technology staff? For teachers? 

We spent a great deal of time leading up to the deployment sharing digital resources with staff and offering numerous sessions on resources that we thought that they would find most useful. We have given staff a great deal of time to get together informally as well to share what is working and what is not. Again, having the help desk available throughout the school day allows staff and students to get questions answered and learn about resources in which they are interested.

13)   Are the iPad’s networked in any way? What hardware/software is used in networking? 

All of our iPads access our school network. We currently use a browser from Lightspeed Systems that ensures that the student iPads go through our server and our filtering whether they are in or out of school.

14)   How is software loaded on the iPad’s? How is the software purchased? 

At the high school level, most of the apps utilized are free apps that students load themselves.  At the middle and elementary levels the apps are loaded by the IT staff via a synching cart. Pay for apps that are bought by the school are done through the volume purchasing program.

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Excuse Me Commissioner Duncan, We Need More Than Stuff To Fix Our Problems

WASHINGTON - MARCH 1:  Secretary of Education ...
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
 (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

I read an interesting article by Associated Press writer Josh Lederman this week which highlighted the comments coming from Education Secretary Arne Duncan in regards to the need for all schools to quickly move away from printed textbooks.  While I am a supporter of moving to more modern resources in our schools, the rationale for the move coming from Mr. Duncan seems to be misguided to say the least.  

Check out the following excerpt:

“It’s not just a matter of keeping up with the times, Duncan said in remarks to the National Press Club. It’s about keeping up with other countries whose students are leaving their American counterparts in the dust.
South Korea, which consistently outperforms the U.S. when it comes to educational outcomes, is moving far faster than the U.S. in adopting digital learning environments. One of the most wired countries in the world, South Korea has set a goal to go fully digital with its textbooks by 2015.”

I am gravely concerned that the focus here is on technology rather than the quality of teaching and learning that is being reinforced under our current system which places too much of a focus on standardized testing.  While technology can help support good instruction, technology alone is not going to cause the change we need. Before we can adopt meaningful “digital learning environments”, we need to talk about the factors inherent in productive learning environments.

While it is clear that other countries have moved ahead of the United States in the integration of technology into their schools, it is also clear that we cannot catch up by just buying stuff and dropping it into our classrooms. Here is an excerpt from the Times of India that shows the thinking necessary to support the successful integration of technology into our classrooms:

“We did not implement the idea in a rush. We trained our teachers first and then we moved on to the students. We also talked to the parents and got them involved. The teachers have their own iPads and they create digital content for the students ,” informed GR Sivakumar, principal, DPS Surat.

iPad vs Textbooks
(Photo credit: Abstract Machine)

Plenty of examples of technology purchased hastily

We need not look far for examples of institutions in our country making the move to digital textbooks without doing the training necessary to support staff in utilizing these resources with students.  A recent study conducted on e-book usage at the college level highlighted this a couple of weeks back.   I hope I am wrong in thinking that the feelings of the students at these colleges will be the same feelings that many/most students in our public schools will be feeling do to the lack of resources dedicated to supporting staff in implementing digital tools.

“…the functions that make e-books more attractive to students than print books weren’t being fully maximized by faculty. Features like annotating texts, collaboration tools and the ability to share notes with other students weren’t being used or modeled by the professors. And if educators used the e-books like a print textbook, that’s what students did as well. “

The bottom line here is if we are going to spend the money on digital tools and continue to conduct business in the same tedious manner, we would may as well buy writing slates to pass out to all students and install inkwells on their desks.  Then again if we did that, we would not be ready to have our students take our country’s newest standardized test (PARCC) online in 2014-2015 as we are being asked.

So the good news is that the technology will allow us to administer standardized testing to our students hundreds of times during their K-12 experience

Anyone else feeling sick to their stomach?

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Leadership Day 2012 – Reevaluating The Plan…

A look back to look ahead…

As I gather my thoughts for this year’s Leadership Day blog contribution, I thought I would take a look back at my posts from the past two years to evaluate my efforts. Back in 2010, my post Leadership Day 2010 – Two Of My Goals For This Year focused on connecting with my my administrative colleagues in Massachusetts and getting out and showing them the ways in which digital tools could help them to connect and collaborate within their schools, their communities, and beyond.

In last year’s post, Leadership Day 2011 – A Few Thoughts,  I focused on the following quote from Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From:

“Some environments squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly. The city and the Web have been such engines of innovation because, for complicated historical reasons, they are both environments that are powerfully suited for the creation, diffusion, and adoption of good ideas.” 

The main point again was that school leaders need to take the lead due to the fact that public schools tend to stifle new ideas.  I concluded with the following words:

Of course order to do this we need to get more school leaders on board using them.  As has always been the case, our schools need to teach literacy, citizenship, and responsibility.  However, the playing field has changed and we now need to embrace the digital realm as well.  If we do not accept this, we will shortchange both our students and ourselves.

As I think about my focus on school leaders and teachers over the past two years, I feel fortunate to have made so many connections with passionate educators who have started to embrace the power of digital resources to engage students in meaningful ways.  However, I also have been frustrated at the limited movement I have seen among educators in adopting resources which I see as beneficial in the creation of more relevant learning environments for students.

This year, I propose a change in focus, or better yet, an additional focal point in the effort to create learning environments that will better prepare our students for the growingly complex world that they will enter when they complete their formal education. It is time to go all-in with that group of people that many educators tend to avoid…the parents.  We need to engage the people that care most about our students and engage them in a meaningful dialogue about the schools their students need.

Parents play a key role in our move to create more engaging classrooms.

We need to have real discussions about the fact that the classrooms that our students enter are amazingly similar to the ones that their parents and grandparents entered decades earlier despite the fact that the world outside of those classrooms is in many ways unrecognizable from the world   of school children at those times.

There is no group that cares more deeply about the education of our students than their parents. However, it is up to us to show parents some of the new resources that were not available when they were in school. Even more important is that we show parents how to use these tools that are sometimes perceived negatively by those who have never seen them used constructively. 
For quite some time schools have lamented the fact that parents do not physically show up at school for these types of conversations, but fortunately time and place is no longer a hinderance with the plethora of digital tools we can draw from to get more people engaged in te dialogue. We  (school leaders) are the only ones holding us back from this endeavor at this time.  
The tools are there to connect and there is plenty to discuss, so let’s have it! I look forward to sharing our movement in Burlington with anyone interested.

Here are a couple of reference points that will help us lead this conversation:

What Qualities Do “Bold Schools” Share? – from Will Richardson

 Race To Nowhere resources

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