An Interesting Day in Burlington

On Saturday, March 11th I attended the first New England 1:1 Summit. Created by Burlington Public Schools, it was an event for educators (teachers, administrators and IT staff) to come together to discuss the challenges, payoffs and practical questions facing implementing and managing a 1:1 education environment. To some, 1:1 is a relatively new form of education reform centered around offering technology to students at a one to one ratio. It is not a replacement for the classroom teacher but it is a way to go beyond worksheets and quizzes. The execution of 1:1 has been enhanced and made easier by devices like the Apple iPad, the device used in Burlington Public School’s 1:1 program.

During Summit registration, t-shirts and swag bags were handed out and a QR code and bit.ly address was available for easy downloading of the Summit session schedule. Students and BPS staff were available as well as a Summit concierge,

with his own Twitter account, and reminders to tweet your thoughts through out the day with the hash tag #ne121. A student DJ even played in the auditorium while attendees filed in. Students play a large part of the 1:1 success at BPS and they staff the majority of the BHS Help Desk team. Even going to other schools to help with projects. This was such a novel idea and all of the student workers were extremely professional, helpful and nice.

The Summit started with a keynote address featuring Burlington Superintendent Eric Conti, District Director of Technology Integration Dennis Villano and staff from the district’s Information Technology team including System Administrator Bob Cunha. Interestingly enough, Burlington High School’s Principal Patrick Larkin was at the National Association of Secondary School Principal’s 2012 Conference in Tampa, FL where he was accepting a Digital Principal Award. (He Skyped into the Summit during the closing session.)

During the keynote address we heard how Burlington revamped its Technology Plan with an emphasize on “getting out of the business of saying No“. Previously Burlington was on a “bulimic diet” brought on by a $5-6M infusion in education spending from local corporation Sun Microsystems. As things caught up with them, the town needed to return to the budget table and spend an estimated $1.5M town-wide in a complete network overhaul. Without infrastructure in place, nothing else could be possible. Enterprise grade hardware was priced, spec’d out and installed. With thirty iPads or more in one classroom your wireless equipment simply needs to work. ( The network overhaul was a few years ago while the iPad 1:1 implementation has been running for about seven months.) This however is one of the challenges in education technology, everyone needs the resources to get their job done. Administration needs to know what their IT department requires, the IT department must be properly equipped and the teachers, students and parents need the training and understanding to use the technology at its best. I could see that team work and an understanding of everyone’s role is one of the things that makes 1:1 work at Burlington High School. Throughout the Summit it was emphasized that 1:1 was about the educators, not the device.

I was also intrigued by how Burlington High School focuses on digital citizenship. Rather than completely sheltering students from technology and social media, BHS uses it as a means to teach students responsible behavior and to stay informed and educated about technology and media. I see this as having long term benefits to students.

After the keynote session I stayed in the auditorium for an in depth session on the infrastructure and management of 1:1 by the Burlington IT staff. Tools from Lightspeed Systems and Jamf Software are what help the BHS staff manage their iPads and filter their web service. Lightspeed, Jamf and others were available in the library for a small expo.

I was sad to miss two other first sessions, one a round table talk on 1:1 implementation and the other “Reflections on a 1:1 environment ten years later”. The sessions that I joined in were more like sales presentations than real discussions although that wasn’t the fault of the presenters. (SOPHOS Security and HUB Technical) I found during HUB Technical’s presentation on virtual desktop software I was itching to ask out loud the question, “Should we really be pushing Windows 7 on an iPad?” One is made to be used with a mouse and keyboard and the other is meant to be used with a touch screen. One of the sessions which caused for a lot of retweeting featured a panel of BHS students answering audience questions on their experience. The biggest benefit from the iPad was “You no longer answer, ‘I don’t know’.” although at other times the iPad brought out in the students “app overload”. In between sessions I checked out the small expo in the library where I got hands on experience with the Google Chromebook. A great 1:1 option if your district is taking advantage of the free Google Apps for Education for student/staff email and document collaboration. I also talked to the previously mentioned Lightspeed Systems and Jamf Software. Course Notes was also there, a new app being developed by two guys from Cambridge, MA. I also discovered not all styluses suck as I was able to try out some nice models from Kensington.

What is most interesting about events like this is the networking with other professionals. During lunch (with amazing catering by b.good) I sat with someone who was moving from an educator role to a technology director role at the high school he worked for. At another time, at the student run snack bar where some of us were politely quizzing the students on their experiences, I struck up a conversation with an educator on the modern text book experience of college students. (Summary: Who needs ’em?) I was also able to name drop Fraser Speirs, a technology director from Scotland who’s institution was one of the first to do an iPad 1:1 implementation. His blog is required reading, really.

During the closing session BHS Principal Patrick Larkin joined the auditorium via Skype where he shared one of his favorite anecdotes. If Ichabod Crane was to travel from 1820 to the present he would be confused and scared of much of the world but he would feel right at home in a classroom. BPS also announced a new initiative coming this Summer, the Massachusetts Digital Publication Collaborative. A way for teachers and educators to develop and publish their own digital course without being restricted to just one textbook. The school is currently developing a workflow and distribution method hopefully with help from the Massachusetts Department of Education.

I had a great time at Burlington Public School’s first New England 1:1 Summit and hope to return again in the future. Thinking back the one thought that really struck me was how, excuse the word, normal the high school was. This wasn’t an empty education concept of what schools will be like in five years. There weren’t millionaire investors anywhere handing out oversized paper checks. There was simply a dedication of a great group of people, and a community as whole, to do the best for education in their own schools. In education you often hear naysayers ask “Do we really need all these equipment, tools and gadgets? Back in my day I was taught with a chalkboard and a notebook.” The truth is this isn’t about maintaining the minimum but it’s about evolving education to meet the modern day capabilities.

Please remember to check out the BPS EdTech team’s website. There’s a wealth of great information to read there.

(As I sit here waiting to click Publish, I nervously check for typos or grammar mistakes as I know educators will be reading this after I tweet it. Sorry, I’m just an IT guy.)