Bethann Orr, Director of Educational Technology at Barnstable Public Schools, shows some of the newly added connectivity capacity at Barnstable High School. Orr and the schools have been executing on a multi-year approach to technology that includes strong infrastructure as a base to successful classroom deployment. Photo by Teresa Martin.
To BethAnn Orr, Director of Educational Technology for Barnstable Public Schools, the region's largest school district, everything comes down to infrastructure: fiber, bandwidth, cloud computing, wireless, and a device in each student's hands.
Without infrastructure, your project is going to fail, she says firmly.
But, with those five elements, schools can dream--and succeed.
BPS ready to rock
Now, after years of quiet development, Orr says Barnstable Public Schools has those elements--and positive technology changes are afoot.
In June, the Town of Barnstable launched its fiber network, a project 12 years in the making. The Barnstable Fiber Optic Network (BFON) connects the town, including the eight school buildings, with high speed fiber cables.
That, coupled with the Cape region's new fiber middle mile network and the school's own deployment of wireless infrastructure, creates the base upon which the district's plans can begin to go live.
Struggles with a garden hose
Barnstable High School's building - and 2,000 occupants - consumes bandwidth. Lots of bandwidth. In fact, it is the town's third largest bandwidth user, after the hospital and the mall.
Over and over again issues faced by the school have ultimately come back to a lack of bandwidth. For example, staff blamed older hardware on the slow performance of the X2 student system, a piece of software for managing student information. The system came to a screeching halt around 2 pm every day, leaving users frustrated and angry.
Turned out that all the new hardware in the world wouldn't have made a difference - data couldn't move because a surge in mid-afternoon use of connected devices overwhelmed the school's limited bandwidth capacity.
That's just one small example why Orr advocates so strongly for infrastructure first.
"Without the right infrastructure it is like trying to put out a fire with a garden hose when you really need a fire hydrant!" she says.
Which is precisely why Orr spent the past few years working closely with the town to invest and deploy infrastructure elements, including fiber and enterprise level wireless networks, which efficiently handle volumes of data far beyond your home WiFi router's capacity.
With the brand spanking new BFON connecting all the school buildings ... and the purchase of 100 mbps of connectivity from CapeNet, the region's new open access network provider ... and the ongoing capital investment of $200,000 toward wireless infrastructure within the district's eights school buildings by the town, the game has changed.
Targeted tests of tablets and cloud applications began last year, and are expanding this fall, forming the basis for a 2014-15 district wide change.
"I think of the process as putting pieces out on a table, moving together toward one bigger whole," Orr says with great energy.
Hyannis West - a unique school with 90% free and reduced lunch, has been an early recipient of the upgrades. "This school, out of all, is the first one ready first for 1:1," says Orr.
Trials are already underway at the middle school level. Last year, for, example, the 7th grade deployed 600 iPads. Due to short-term constraints, the iPads were used in a "cart model" - that is, students had to check out a machine to use during class rather than using the same tablet as their own across all classes.
Despite this, the trial proved to teachers how powerful a device in a student's hand can be - and it whetted everyone's appetite for more.
In student hands
Staff visited Burlington, Millis, Weston, and other districts that have rolled out a 1:1 strategy in which schools provide a standard tablet, as well as schools like Cape Cod Academy who use a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy, in which students bring their own tablet devices and integrate into the school network.
In Barnstable, specifically, says Orr, the time is not yet right for a BYOD approach.
"It does not address the digital divide in the classroom,"she said.
Instead, Barnstable plans to extend the 1:1 model, buying and putting the device into the hands of students - and families.
Orr talks excitedly about the idea of a "family cohort", where the families of students learn and take advantage of the device as a parallel learning community.
The district hopes to begin a lease or loan program for the 2014-15 school year, a program that will get an iPad into the hands of every incoming seventh grader and the student will use that tablet through 12th grade.
Learning versus teaching
But a device alone - or even a device coupled with the right infrastructure - won't be enough to bring forth the learning that technology promises. Finding that promise also involves a conceptual shift.
In that shift, the focus moves from getting computers into the hands of a teacher and driving teaching skills to getting technology into the hands of students and driving learning skills.
In other words, it isn't about the teacher: it is about the student.
This shift mirrors a larger national trend, one that emphasizes communities of learning and creating the learning skills that students carries with them throughout life.
In this model, technology becomes one more tool in the learning kit. The tablet becomes a delivery channel for all types of instruction and it augments and extends both teacher and student.
Student-driven learning, which supports the new curricular standards, sees technology as the norm, integrated into everyday learning, and not as an exception or some standalone specialty class.
That leads to Orr's second set of five elements: the five elements where technology meets the learning road.
Research. Manage. Collaborate. Create. Publish.
Each of those processes requires critical thinking skills, content skills, and technology skills. Together they form the core of the learning experience.
As Barnstable schools deploys its technology vision, it is also deploying a vision that uses an understanding of and facility with these skills to create learning.
"We believe in giving students tools to build and use these five key skills," explains Orr.
For example, this fall students in grades 5, 6, and 7 will learn about digital citizenship, digital literacy, and how to both learn and be safe within a digital framework. They'll grow into their own digital academic voices, understanding a digital learning environment and the tools within it.
Full school collaboration
Teachers, meanwhile, will be working with Google Docs and living a digital collaboration and publishing reality, while also sharing their own digital best practices with each other.
Both students and teachers will be working with iPads throughout the school year, continuing to use them for both learning and teaching, and growing their understanding of the tablet as an academic device.
Technology staff will continue to implement the strong wireless networks needed to support the 1:1 model and research and expand on other enhancements, like the potential for e-books instead of printed textbooks.
In the 2014-15 school year - one short year away - it all pays off as the individual 1:1 model kicks off. As it does both the underlying infrastructure and the human learning cohort will be ready to run with it full tilt.
"We will be ready to leverage a digital curriculum," says Orr with confidence. "We'll be ready."
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Teresa A. Martin has worked at the intersection of technology and content for more than 25 years. She served as a CEO and COO of technology companies in Silicon Valley and metro Boston, authored three books on web and online technologies, and launched several start-ups. Connect with Teresa on Google+. Read more about Teresa...