How Digital Technology is Changing Delaware Schools
What does a 21st-century classroom look like?
Technology administrator Geoff Weyer (left) works with students Rachel Heisler and Josh Gates on the new 3D printer at Tatnall School.
Photography by Ron Dubick
Delaware’s classrooms are undergoing a digital revolution. At Tatnall School, Probeware is used to measure physics-y things while 3-D printers manufacture pieces of student-designed robots. In Cape Henlopen School District, the English language arts curriculum is totally digital. Sibelius software allows students to write sheet music at Sanford School’s new Mac-powered music lab. Teachers in Brandywine School District have 3-D projectors that enhance their lectures.
Students in all of Delaware’s public and private schools have access to iPads, Google-powered Chromebooks or both. The ratio of digital device to student differs by district, grade and subject matter. Some are 1:1 but others have determined that 1:2 or 1:3 works best. But ratios are no longer benchmarks of advances in digital learning. What matters, educators say, is the pedagogy behind them.
BRINC Consortium is at the forefront of developing a digital strategy for Delaware’s public schools. Formed in 2012, BRINC is an acronym of its original members: Brandywine, Indian River, New Castle County Vocational Technical and Colonial school districts. Caesar Rodney and Appoquinimink joined in 2014-15. Red Clay signed on for the 2015-16 year.
For decades, the school districts competed with one another for students, grants and other forms of funding, and they still do, but when faced with the challenge of creating the 21st century classroom, they decided to join forces to form a pan-district plan based on shared goals and resources. “We were thinking globally,” says Lori Duerr, assistant superintendent for Colonial. “Instead of competing to gain the technology edge, we decided to get there together.”
BRINC’s GPS is pointed toward personalized learning. The theory is that by using tablets, laptops, the Internet and an array of software programs, students learn at their own pace and pursue educational niches that interest them. Jud Wagner, supervisor of instructional technology for Brandywine School District, calls personalized learning a “major pedagogical shift” that is creating 21st century classrooms. “We need to move away from a one-size-fits-all classroom,” he says. “The goal is to engage students of all ages and learning levels in academics.”
3-D printers manufacture pieces of student-designed robots.
If that’s Classroom 2.0, many educators already have a plan for its 3.0 version. Personalized learning could segue Delaware into competency-based education. In that model, students would be able to take final exams when they are ready to and advance grade levels when they demonstrate proficiency in a subject. They wouldn’t necessarily graduate earlier, but they could take more classes while they are in school.
Competency-based education would not be for gifted learners only, proponents say. Students with learning differences can benefit hugely from specially created software programs that teach them material in ways they can best process it.
How would this work in classrooms? That’s where the curriculum comes in, says Appoquinimink superintendent Matt Burrows. “It’s about teacher-powered collaborative learning,” he says. For example, teachers can break students into small groups and give them an iPad loaded with an assignment and support materials. Teachers then move among the groups to monitor their progress and provide personalized instruction.
It’s called a flipped classroom, which means that students have the lesson plan in their hands. The goal is to empower and inspire students, says Lori Roe, Cape Henlopen’s supervisor of instructional technology. “We want students to select and curate their own content based on the lesson plan,” she says. “We want to provide them with the tools to construct their own learning.”
BRINC’s first venture was a 2012 proposal for the Delaware Department of Education’s Specific and Innovative Improvement Practices grant. SIIP winners are normally awarded $150,000. BRINC’s united districts appealed for $600,000, and got it.
But bringing Classroom 2.0 to fruition hasn’t been as simple as flipping a switch. The first order of business was deciding on a learning management system, the educational version of a content management system. After eight weeks of testing and comparing, BRINC opted for Schoology. It was adopted by the four original BRINC districts in the 2013-14 academic year and is now used statewide. The LMS allows teachers to share curricula with students and teachers in other classrooms, schools and districts.
Infrastructure, namely bandwidth, quickly became an issue. All those wireless devices need juice to keep them running. The state created secure lines and allotted 10 megs to each district—which they outgrew almost instantly. Daniel Farley, director of support services for the Caesar Rodney district, has spent every day of the past three years focusing on wiring, bandwidth and switches. Devices slowed during state testing, which is now done online. Teachers complained about getting the eternal spinning wheel because of slow buffering.
In a technologically perfect world, elementary and middle schools would be at 100 megs, high schools at 1 gig. Somebody’s got to pay for that. Farley says it was costing Caesar Rodney at least $1,500 per month, an expense that not all districts planned for or can afford. A digital divide is developing, Farley says. “There are haves and have nots,” he says. “The poorer districts unfortunately can’t afford to upgrade as quickly as richer districts. They are limping along and doing what they can.”
In February 2016, the Department of Education submitted a budget requesting, among other technology initiatives, $3 million to increase bandwidth in school districts.
“The hope is that the state will absorb that cost for us because it’s a universal problem,” Burrows says. “It’s about technology parity for all of the state’s schools.” But administrators aren’t waiting for the budget to pass. They can’t. Many high schools upgraded to 1 gig last summer, and they’re working toward getting elementary and middle schools up to 100 megs. The upgrades are paid for by a hodgepodge of funding, including “borrowing” from district budgets. “Sometimes we rob Peter to pay Paul,” Farley says, “because if it is a matter of priorities, then having the wireless devices work is No. 1.”
Infrastructure is also an issue for private schools. Upgrading is a bit easier for them, but the challenge is to do so efficiently. Geoff Weyer, systems and network administrator for Tatnall, recently rewired the school with 10 gigabit fibers. “We did that with an eye to the future,” he explains. “We’re not using that capacity right now, but we don’t want to replace our infrastructure every few years.”
Another critical issue is human tech support. Appoquinimink will have 3,000 devices next year. Burrows isn’t sure who is going to fix them when they break. “It’s a huge problem statewide,” Duerr says. “We’re hoping that the state therefore provides funding for the hiring of additional support personnel.”
It’s easy to see how folks who have been teaching for decades might be a bit resistant to newfangled methods, but that’s not the case, Duerr says. For its professional development courses, BRINC brought in teachers of all ages and disciplines. “The goal wasn’t to find teachers who were tech savvy, but to find teachers who were great with curriculum and developing,” Duerr says. “They became our champions of change.”
It’s much the same at private schools. Though funding is less of an issue, schools aren’t handing out tech devices like Halloween candy. “I didn’t get a 3-D printer just by asking for it,” says Joshua Gates, a science teacher in Tatnall’s upper school. “Teachers and the administration agree on what kids will learn, then we figure out how to get them there. It’s also about choosing wisely—because we can’t jump at the latest thing—and about sharing teaching strategies to make the most of what we invest in.”
Appropriate technology is the term Sandy Sutty uses to describe Sanford’s approach. Sutty, Sanford’s instructional technology coordinator and upper school librarian, says that, when teachers demonstrate need, they are given latitude to work with the devices and software that best execute their curriculum. “We’re lucky to be able to bring in technology when it’s needed,” she says. “Being nimble is an advantage.”
Administrators say that teachers and parents are in favor of digital classrooms and personalized learning. Colleen Hoban, the technology teacher in Tatnall’s lower school, says websites, phones, in-class cameras and other devices allow for more communication between parents and teachers. “It’s not just report cards and graded tests anymore,” she says. “Technology allows us to bring parents inside the classroom to see what their kids are learning. Of course, sometimes the kids have to teach their parents how the devices work.”