Delivering Education in a Digital World

Fort Worth ISD students immersed in a modern classroom

The way instruction had been delivered with books and teachers lecturing to students was soon to be old school. The task—and not a small one—was to get educators onboard and students and parents engaged with a digital way of teaching and learning.

That was the transformation Kyle Davie, Chief Information and Technology Officer for the Fort Worth Independent School District, was to construct when he took his job almost a decade ago. The district’s capital improvement program vision of 2007 was to transform the classroom into a digital classroom and to make Fort Worth ISD into a digital district.

“Our students were a generation of the digital age who had to unplug when they came into the classroom,” Davie says. “Our teaching styles had not changed from when many of us were in school and generations before us. We were still trying to instruct from that same instructional model of the teacher as the sage on the stage, in that same format, so our kids were not learning. Their brains were not able to be energized or able to absorb the information. They were bored. When you think about it, the kids that are in school right now have never grown up without a computer.” 

How to increase student engagement was the key, Davie says. Fort Worth ISD’s journey into technology began with Promethean interactive whiteboards.

“The Promethean interactive whiteboards were developed by educators for educators,” Davie said. “Their look, feel, their whole being was how to use that tool to improve education in the classroom. We obviously were steered toward that direction just because of their focus.”

Davie’s team took the board members on a site visit to a school in Florida to see firsthand the implementation of their Promethean boards in various grade levels and campuses.

Their biggest selling point was the use in their special needs school, Davie said. “In a nonverbal classroom of students that had cerebral palsy, they were able to use technology to communicate not only with the teachers, but with their parents,” he said. “This is where we realized the technology was revolutionary and where we saw the potential of using technology in the classroom, especially in a special needs group where people said it made no sense because those kids will never be able to truly utilize these types of devices. So, not only did we put it in our traditional schools, but we put it in our special needs schools.”

Davie says their vision has always been that technology is one of many tools that the teacher will have in their toolbox. “Technology will not fix a bad teacher,” he said. “It will make a strong teacher stronger. It allows them to reach and engage those kids. It allows them to stay plugged in and connected. If you greet the student engagement, the probability that they are going to stay turned on to listen to what you are trying to deliver is much greater.”

The goal at Fort Worth ISD is not to put out the flashy, latest and greatest technology, Davie says. Their goal is to deliver the best technology to the kids that is rigorous in content and supports the academic side of the house.

“On the other side of the coin, how do we engage the parent? In the beginning, everyone said that our families don’t have the internet at home, so this won’t work,” Davie said.

The district had conducted an extensive survey of 72 questions at each of the campuses before they rolled out the technology. It was an opportunity for the families to self-report if they have internet connectivity in the home, their comfort level with technology, and how the students are using the technology. The students, parents and the teachers filled out the forms. This is all done on the Web with an algorithm, so the district knows when the responses are statistically significant. “It’s valid data of how a campus is doing,” Davie said. The district looked at the data and could see where families without internet access need help. Sprint gave the district a grant to purchase wireless hot spot devices. Sprint provides the connectivity for the students to give them access to the internet at home.

“We’ve got some great partners in Fort Worth that have stepped up and said they wanted to help our kids be successful, and where there are proven needs, they will make sure that lack of access is not a barrier,” Davie said.

Davie said the district wants to ensure equity across all zip codes. “Every student has the exact same laptop no matter what his or her zip code is. It’s a great equalizer in a lot of ways, and I think that’s what technology has done,” he said.

Superintendent Kent P. Scribner observes students at FWISD’s South Collegiate High School (located on the Tarrant County College South Campus) use technology in the classroom.

Davie emphasized that the district is trying to augment the instructional agenda with technology where it makes sense. “When you’re talking on the tech side of the house, where a lot of people would say technology, technology, technology, our philosophy is it’s got to make sense. You’ve got to have that second half of the discussion where it has to fit in the overall scheme. Otherwise, if you do technology for technology sake, it will not be successful. You can’t put a kid in front of a computer and expect the computer to be the teacher. Nothing will take the place of a good educator. All a computer can do is assist great teachers, bottom line. It will just help facilitate and reinforce great instruction. It will not replace it.”

As to concerns that students read books on the Web instead of reading traditional hardback books, Davie says, “Are we educating for us, or are we educating for the students that are in front of us? We’ve got to be very careful that we are not trying to overlay the way others think the way the kids ought to be learning. The e-books are a way of life for these digital natives. Much of what they do is online. A lot of the college classes do not give textbooks. We are preparing them for college.”

Fort Worth ISD’s “Dig In” – short for digital innovation –prepares students to succeed in the 21st century, compete globally and be responsible, informed digital citizens.

In the past, technology was considered to be an add-on to education. Now, schools have the ability to introduce coding at a very early age—at the Kindergarten and first-grade levels.

Lisa Durbin is a former teacher and instructional specialist. She serves as Director of Customer Experience for Fort Worth ISD. Durbin brings a 360-degree view of where technology has evolved in the classroom and also a view of the administrative side.

Durbin says the kids are excited about this technology. “It keeps that curiosity growing. With ‘Makey Makey,’ the students can code any object and make music with it. All of this is in all of the schools across our district. They understand what they are doing,” Durbin said. “By providing all these technologies and tools for teachers, the platforms are available to them. So they know about social media. They can make that tool relevant for students and make them responsible on the platforms as well. It is powerful the way students use these technologies to blog and share their learning instantly.”

Durbin says the best thing about technology is it has allowed for student voice and student choice. It opens up a whole different dialog of conversation between students and teachers about what they are learning and how they are learning it. “Students have become self-directed learners. They have become the creators versus the curators.”

As to the teacher perspective, Davie says, “I think we do have a good analogy of speedboat, tugboat, and the rock. You have three distinct groups of teachers. The speedboats really embrace the technology. They go out there and will be the early adopters, the go-getters. Then you’re going to have the ones that say, ‘Yeah, I see it. I’ll hang back. I’ll get to it if it’s successful.’ Those are your tugboats. And then you have the rocks. ‘I’m not going to do it. This will go away,’” he said laughing. “Those are the ones that have to reform their learning styles and let the kids be the ones that drive the transformation in the classroom. That’s what we’ve seen more often than not to be the impetus for the change in the instructional model. With the student saying, ‘You know, Mr. Smith, in all my other classes, we’re using X technology or X program. Why aren’t we doing it here?’ That’s when the teacher feels the peer pressure but not in a threatening manner. The kids are asking to use it and asking the teacher for help. That is the child voice, and that makes the difference.” 

With Makey Makey technology, the snap of an alligator clip transforms ordinary objects into internet touchpads

Fort Worth ISD students use smart robots called Ozobots to learn programming with colors and shapes. They build on it by grade level and add complexity on putting different shapes together and different color patterns. From there, they can start adding more of the cognitive skills, the mathematics and formulas. They go all the way through to middle school and high school levels into full robotics.

“The foundation, the core, basically is putting a pattern of colors together,” Davie said. “You start at a very basic level in Kindergarten, and then you can just do just very rudimentary colors and put colors together. The Ozobot runs on a path. As the child continues down his or her journey with this, instead of having to throw the technology out, you add to it more complexity, and there is a familiarity to it. When you come back and visit it again, you are scaffolding their learning based on what they’ve already seen. They are kind of grounded in it without having to go back to square one. And it’s still a challenge because they are learning something new about it.”

Durbin says one of the important facets of technology within schools is teaching digital citizenship. “As educators, we embrace it. We have to teach them how to be good digital citizens when they are online. We use the concept of digital footprint versus a tattoo. What you do online is permanent.”

“It’s not like in the past when you could shoot a Polaroid picture and throw it away,” Davie adds. “Today, the digital footprint can follow you and haunt you well into your adult years. We have a real talk when they are in middle school and high school. Activities like sexting can destroy your future. Don’t send inappropriate pictures of your girlfriend or boyfriend. It could be the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony. We have that kind of discussion with them because we owe it to our kids.”

The same conversation is directed to parents, Davie said.

“We try to make sure there is not only the digital citizenship for our students,  but now that we’ve done the {laptop} rollouts, the parents need to understand their responsibilities.”

Davie said the district takes the responsible approach rather than the punitive approach. “In real life, if we don’t teach them right, when they get out of school, no one is going to protect them. We hope what we do will prepare them for their futures.”

“Educators first must embrace technology and look for ways to engage students beyond the four walls of the classrooms,” said Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Dr. Kent P. Scribner. “Simply having computers in the classroom is not the answer to improving learning. Students must be challenged in a way that inspires life-long learning.”

Fort Worth ISD is poised to launch the STEM Academy. This technology will be front-and-center, Davie says.

“It is no longer that you stop doing your core subjects like math and science. Technology is within your other subjects. It is just a part of it. As opposed to being separate, it is what we do, and it is the conduit for the way we deliver instruction.”