Empowering Student Learning with Tech

How Todd Wesley and Lakota Local Schools are expanding the role of technology in the Ohio townships of West Chester and Liberty Township.

Intro

Somewhere at the intersection of technology and student learning lies a new breed of K-12 leaders. They’re focused on evolving approaches and outcomes that directly support student learning, wellbeing, and life preparation surrounded by a supportive community of learning.

Gone are the days of K-12 technology leaders speaking only to internet speeds, cabling, programming, support stats, how many devices in their district, blended learning, and buzz words. For the past few years, we have been at the dawn of a new era of student learning, where technology isn’t the magic pill that drives instruction, it supports its transformation towards meeting the needs of every child.

At Lakota Local Schools in the Ohio townships of West Chester and Liberty Township, new leadership ushered in new priorities for the almost 17,000 student district’s technology team to support an inspiring new strategic plan.

“When our new superintendent arrived, he went on a listening tour for over a year, gathering input from all of our stakeholders, and as the needs began to take shape, it became very clear the exciting expanded role technology would play in our district’s future,” said Todd Wesley, Lakota’s Chief Technology Officer.

Vision

“The feedback culminated into the creation of a new district strategic plan with four key focus areas: 1) personalized learning for students and staff, 2) future-ready technology, learning, and experiences for students, 3) a true cross-district sense of belonging that we are all in this together, and 4) financial sustainability, something we have taken pride in through our sustainable approaches.” Wesley set out to build a new vision with his colleagues and teams to execute the instructional technology areas of this plan, and the #WEareEMPOWERED initiative was born.

“EdTech today is the marriage of technology and curriculum in support of student learning. This required all key players at the table, from digital and professional learning to curriculum to principals to teacher leaders. Our goal from the very beginning was to ensure student personalized learning remains at the core and to build out from there. While there is a large role for technology, this is not a technology only initiative. This is about personalized learning experiences for our students, empowering their ideas, interests and self-expression, and empowering their learning through purposeful technology, along the way,” he said. “We don’t see this as a technology, curriculum, school, department, etc. initiative. We are all building the starting line and the track for the future of student-centered education at our district. By taking the labels off, there has been a real sense of community in this journey and we all come together to celebrate the amazing things our students and staff are doing as part of this initiative.”

Vision

“The feedback culminated into the creation of a new district strategic plan with four key focus areas: 1) personalized learning for students and staff, 2) future-ready technology, learning, and experiences for students, 3) a true cross-district sense of belonging that we are all in this together, and 4) financial sustainability, something we have taken pride in through our sustainable approaches.” Wesley set out to build a new vision with his colleagues and teams to execute the instructional technology areas of this plan, and the #WEareEMPOWERED initiative was born.

“EdTech today is the marriage of technology and curriculum in support of student learning. This required all key players at the table, from digital and professional learning to curriculum to principals to teacher leaders. Our goal from the very beginning was to ensure student personalized learning remains at the core and to build out from there. While there is a large role for technology, this is not a technology only initiative. This is about personalized learning experiences for our students, empowering their ideas, interests and self-expression, and empowering their learning through purposeful technology, along the way,” he said. “We don’t see this as a technology, curriculum, school, department, etc. initiative. We are all building the starting line and the track for the future of student-centered education at our district. By taking the labels off, there has been a real sense of community in this journey and we all come together to celebrate the amazing things our students and staff are doing as part of this initiative.”

Execution

WEareEMPOWERED is made up of three key areas.

First, innovative instructional approaches rooted in research and support of personalized student learning. Led by the district’s Director of Professional and Digital Learning, dedicated Innovation Specialists  (known as “Team Inspire”) work directly with Lakota’s 900+ teachers to provide ongoing, embedded professional development. As well as support and assistance in the core areas of successful personalized learning such as support for instructional technology.  “Instruction continues to shift almost as much as technology, so providing these dedicated supports for our teachers is critical to their success, as well as our students’ success.”

Second, through district-provided devices, students and staff have access to key digital learning components. These include the Canvas learning management system, Google and Microsoft productivity suites, digital learning and assessment tools, and art, music, and video creation tools to expand student expression opportunities. “While there was much excitement around going 1:1 for all our secondary students in just 4 months, there was almost as much excitement around the opportunities these tools would offer our students and teachers for years to come!” Wesley said. “And by implementing a new app and website selection process, we are able to vet the data security and alignment before our students and staff put them into practice. Equally important, by leveraging free programs for schools, collaborative discounts, and purchasing in bulk, we were able to design the program in alignment with long term funding sources to ensure sustainability. Furthermore, our 1:1 program was shaped so that after junior high, the devices are repurposed for our K-6 schools, created at least a 2:1 ratio for our younger students, expanding that sustainability K-12 and ensuring or increasing our ROI.”

Third, the WEareEMPOWERED initiative provides innovative spaces at each school to drive innovation. The Media Centers at each school were reimagined as Innovation Hubs. “These are the biggest instructional areas of our schools, and while books are still an important staple of learning, these spaces now include so much more for our students and staff. We now have flexible furniture, video conferences, 3D printing, Virtual reality stations and green screen video production areas, along with tech support,” Wesley added. “These spaces have been a huge hit with our students and staff and the flexibility has allowed for endless events, multi-class learning and individual creativity as well as studying. This space will continue to evolve through student and staff voice and innovations in learning and technologies and we look forward to adding more options!”

These three areas have combined to lead purposeful transformation that will continue to take shape with the feedback that Lakota has received from students, staff, and parents. “With student and staff voice being such a big part of this initiative, we have been very pleased to receive the responses we have in just the first year. The vast majority of our student, staff, and community feedback has been very positive, and the new opportunities created for our students have been amazing to watch flourish. But even when we receive constructive criticism, it’s very helpful since it represents something critical to one of our stakeholders, and that is just as valuable,” said Wesley.

Lessons Learned

With any large initiative, there is always room for improvement. “We didn’t get this right overnight. It took several passionate discussions by dedicated staff and countless planning sessions with key members of our district, regardless of their department, title or school and several pilots. By creating small pockets of actual teachers and students innovating instruction, with or without technology, allowed everyone to see it in action and experience it in small amounts. Ease into it, if you will, which seemed to decrease the stress of change. It also allowed us to identify what worked and what didn’t and fine tune as we scaled up.

“My biggest suggestion to other districts looking to transform their approach without getting caught in the technology first, technology vs. instruction traps, etc.…leave the past at the door, start with a clean slate. Define your why as a district-wide team, define clear action items and funding at all levels. Work in teams, not department silos, to design new processes and approaches. Continue to collaborate and most importantly, support each other. Working directly with our curriculum team, our principals, our teachers and teacher leaders, our support staff and our executive team to see this come to life has been very rewarding…we have amazing people supporting this vision!

“I would also be remiss if I didn’t include the great resources we used to building and execute WEareEMPOWERED. Organizations such as ISTE, Future Ready Schools, Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, CoSN, area and national school partners, and our Twitter PLNs have been amazing resources.

“Lastly, communication and clear messaging have been extremely important. We developed a brand, logo, social media and community communication strategy, and most importantly a T-shirt. I’ve seen students, teachers, administrations, support staff, teacher leaders, parents, volunteers, and national education influencers and leaders all wearing our WEareEMPOWERED T-shirt…It’s been an amazing journey–been there, done that, have the T-shirt. And there will be plenty more cause we’re just getting started!”

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