Maintaining Our Digital Environment
Every time global technology changes it is a challenge for schools. It was in the 1840s when the telegraph, railroad, steamship, and newspaper changed how information moved and schools responded with chalkboards and slates and newly designed classrooms. It was in the 1890s when film appeared and images began to fill the newly arrived textbooks. It was in the 1950s when television pushed schools to use many more films and filmstrips during the day.
Now we are responding to a massive change in how information moves around the world. In the past 25 years information has gone from scarce and expensive - requiring textbooks which assembled information in packages and teachers who "instructed" - to almost free and overwhelming - which requires open sources of data and teachers who help students filter and assess.
We have worked hard to create this change for our students, developing the infrastructure - the network and connections to support student learning - and to acquire the devices and software which give our students the tools they need. We have pursued the best practices, and most efficient practices, by studying the whole world of technology and education.
What do we buy?
We try to support our students while respecting the Albemarle County taxpayers who support all of us. We do this by combining a number of strategies into one plan. Unlike some well publicized school systems we do not pay extra to have computer companies manage devices for us. Instead we buy the devices our students use and support them with our small internal staff, along with student interns and student help desks. Unlike some well publicized school systems we are not a "branded" system, locked into purchasing from a single manufacturer, rather, we can buy the best device for the best price.
Currently our One-to-One initiative supplies our students with Windows 8 laptops chosen for speed, dependability, and ruggedness in use by children. These laptops are remarkable values, purchased at a price about one third of that paid for One-to-One devices selected in other school systems. They also support a large range of Open Source software solutions which expand options for our students at no cost.
Yet we build on that base with other devices which support other learning needs. Android tablets, Apple tablets, Macintosh computers all fill specific needs within our system and all expand options without over-extending our budget.
How do we pay for it?
We work with limited funds every year, and we try to be the most responsible custodians of taxpayer funds that we can be, but as global learning technologies change, our schools must change.
We use multiple sources of funding, including federal "E-rate" support, to help us. And we shift funding that was formerly used for 19th and 20th century technologies. In addition as we move towards a "near-paperless" environment, we can move substantial funds from the costs of printing.
It is important to know that even with the move to "One-to-One" computing the overall technology acquisition budget has not changed. We have taken advantage of newly available discounts, and careful shopping for the best values in equipment, in order to provide our students with the best devices at the lowest possible costs.
Nothing really works for our students unless their devices connect to the global internet, and connect dependably with high speed service. This requires support for a complex set of systems that provide connection capabilities in every Division learning space, that offer a large enough "pipeline" to the internet from every school, that gives students and teachers the ability to securely store their work through "cloud" servers not dependent on costly local devices, and that - in the near future - will help our students have broadband service at home where commercial services are not available.
Some of this infrastructure you can see - the WiFi Access Points in every classroom for example or perhaps the fiber optic cable we are installing to connect our schools - and some you cannot - the bandwidth provided by server access or the online storage through free and purchased tools.
Soon 4G-LTE devices will begin communicating from county towers in the 70% of our Division land area not served by broadband. It won't be visible but it will change the game for many of our students.
In Each School
Maintaining student laptops is a critical component of our Digital Learning Project and presents an opportunity for students to develop lifelong skills around technology and responsibility. All middle and high schools are staffed with a full time Client Service Specialist tasked with supporting staff and students around their use of technology. Processes are in place at each school to make sure students have access to a working laptop even if their assigned laptop is being serviced in an effort to minimize learning time spent without a device. With that said, our goal is to keep a student’s assigned laptop in their hands as much as possible. A guiding philosophy of the Digital Learning Project is that students feel a certain level of responsibility over their assigned laptop and be given the system rights to personalize and maintain their own device. This leads to a stronger sense of ownership and many opportunities for students to learn how to successfully make choices in a technology rich environment and maintain a working laptop. Students participate in learning activities at school focused on how to care for and maintain their laptops, how to take basic troubleshooting steps, and how to be a model citizen when using technology. In most cases, students attending schools participating in the Digital Learning Project have the exciting opportunity to join the school’s Student Led Technology team, which is very much focused on growing student skillsets around problem solving and customer service.