Online course control in education

School CIOs offer hands-on coaching and build compatibility to ensure seamless operation
By: | May 25, 2016

Any public district transitioning to an integrated digital curriculum needs time, patience and support from top leadership.

Let’s face it, digital content—from the Khan Academy to streaming videos to adaptive learning applications—has enveloped K12 education. While some district leaders have only begun replacing printed learning materials with the new technology, other districts are going entirely digital.

The switch isn’t easy, says Lenny Schad, CIO at Houston ISD. And not many districts have the infrastructure or willingness to take on such a disruptive project, he adds.

Houston ISD, one of the largest systems in the nation, launched its digital transformation strategy more than three years ago using the itslearning LMS platform as the system driving and supporting their Power Up HUB. Eliminating high school textbooks is a key element of the plan.

“It’s a massive undertaking—you’re changing the entire culture of the district” Schad says. “Fundamentally, the classrooms, instruction and resources have remained the same for decades.”

The culture change needed to embrace districtwide adoption of digital curricular resources and involves all levels of a district, from the curriculum office to the technology office to the superintendent.

In Newburgh Enlarged City School District in New York, for instance, district instructional technology specialist Joseph Catania is rewriting 1980s-era job descriptions for computer lab staff members. He wants them to be more than tech troubleshooters as devices and digital content become pervasive. “The new roles will integrate staff into the classroom alongside teachers” he says.

Set standards, ensure security

In order for digital transformation to become systemic, all parties must work from a consistent standards-based framework. “What I didn’t want is for there to be a HISD digital textbook methodology and an Orange County digital textbook methodology, for example, so it would be impossible for vendors and textbook providers to use” Schad recalls.

“We have over 1 million pieces of content” Schad says, pointing out that digital resources come into Houston ISD classrooms from publishers such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Discovery Education and Pearson, as well as Knovation, Khan Academy and open-access sources.

A resource for help with the digital transformation is the IMS Global Learning Consortium, an interoperability standards organization with 350 members, including education technology suppliers and leading districts like Houston. As a result, the vendor and publisher community are beginning to adopt IMS as well, Schad says. (See sidebar on page 72.)

Protecting students and the data they generate will be a priority during the digital transition. Giving each student their own login ID number ensures they have access to only age-appropriate content, Schad says.

“You can’t have a kindergartener or first-grader having access to the same information a high school student does” Schad says. “So age-appropriate controls on textbooks or websites must be in place, and your teachers have to have common sense on what to give certain students access to.”

Convenience and competency

Florida, like some other states, requires high school students to take at least one virtual course. This drives tech teams to give students easy access to digital content created by districts, the Florida Virtual School and third-party vendors.

In The School District of Lee County in Florida, a single login leads students to a dashboard that displays all, not just some, digital content, says Dwayne Alton, director of IT support.

The platforms from vendor ClassLink open the door for teachers to give mini-assessments to gather real-time performance data. Students then receive digital content personalized to their learning levels, ranging from remedial to advanced.

“Five years ago, we had to create custom interfaces for every program we used” Alton says. “IMS is helping us remove those barriers. Now we can go to vendors and demand IMS standards, such as interactivity and single sign-on, or we won’t do business with them.”

Even pre-K students at Jeff Davis County Schools in Georgia access online course content with 1-to-1 laptops. Subsequently, the district has overhauled professional development so teachers and staff get practical, hands-on experience using new devices and software, Chief Information Officer Keith Osburn says.

For example, if the district introduces an app that allows on-the-spot math assessments, Osburn creates a lesson plan that requires teachers to use the new testing tool while he offers coaching.

‘Consumer Reports’ of digital content

As the demand for digital learning materials grows, teachers from 60 districts in Ohio have teamed together to develop content for online courses that meet state standards. Teachers from participating districts can access Ohio Blended Learning Network content and tailor the text, videos and assessments for common courses, such as ninth-grade English and Algebra 1.

Districts have also oriented the content toward more specific needs, such as online-only credit recovery, flipped classrooms and home schoolers.

“Teachers have created content for thousands of years, but they’re not used to creating for a blended environment” says Christopher Deis, technology director for Marysville Exempted Village School District in Ohio, which is part of the network. “It’s one thing to purchase a tool that can help, but as an administrator, the challenge is helping teachers create in a realm they never had before.”

Marysville teachers now review and rate digital content through an Ohio State University pilot project. The site,, will launch nationwide next school year. “This will be the ‘Consumer Reports’ of digital content for teachers” Deis says. “It trains and empowers teachers to look at digital content and analyze whether it’s a good fit for the classroom.”

How to gain more one-on-one time

Administrators hoping to smooth the digital transition may find the most innovative solutions by making what’s already in the classroom more efficient, says Tres Tyvand, director of blended and online learning at Bend-La Pine Schools in Oregon.

Three years ago, Tyvand’s three- member team managed online courses for a district with 17,000 students. To enroll in an online program, students had to schedule one-on-one appointments at the district office to discuss options and to design customized and personalized plans. Students and parents often showed up without an appointment and waited for hours outside administrator doors.

Tyvand analyzed her team’s daily interactions to understand the repetitive tasks that guzzled time. She created an online form for student information, an online calendar to schedule appointments and 25 email templates to answer the most common questions from students, parents and teachers.

Now, with a more efficient enrollment process, Tyvand’s team has time to visit schools and work with the 2,700 students taking the district’s online courses.

The staff uses PEAK, a learning management system created by FuelEd, for administrative tasks such as enrollment and assessment. “Administrators must now be comfortable with a variety of complementary applications” she says. “All these platforms will never be fully integrated, so we need to get used to multitasking and using a combination of products together.”

Online education vendors

Apex Learning provides blended and virtual learning opportunities and standards-based curriculum in a variety of subjects, including Advanced Placement.

Blackboard offers a broad portfolio of K12 technology solutions for online courses, blended learning, p

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