– Bryan Bullock, Ohio School Board Association (OSBA) Communication Coordinator
Light is pouring in the long windows in Kara Farquhar’s classroom and students are gathered in small groups around tables. The students are transfixed on the laptops and touch-screen devices they’re using to simultaneously collaborate on Web-based projects.
They speak quickly and excitedly to each other as they discuss what they’re doing, how they’re problem-solving.
They’re completely immersed in their work. Farquhar moves from group to group, helping students with questions and asking questions herself.
“I’m more of the facilitator than the teacher in this class,” said Farquhar, a science teacher at Bridgetown Middle School in Oak Hills Local (Hamilton). “They teach me more than I teach them.”
The pilot class is part of an effort designed to get Oak Hills students in every building involved in the implementation and expansion of the district’s technology initiatives. Seventh-grade student Logan Cox said he couldn’t be happier in Farquhar’s tech-centered class.
“I love technology — I feel like it makes it easier to learn in class,” Logan said. “The stuff I am learning (about technology) I will take and use the rest of my life.”
Oak Hills has worked with its community to develop a long-term vision for the use of technology in the district and has spent years working to make 21st century learning tools a part of every grade, every class, every day.
The district has online classes, blended learning, wireless access in every building and a bring-your-own-device-to-school policy. Oak Hills, which recently was featured in EdTech magazine, has established itself as a leader in using education technology and is actively working to help other districts learn from its experience. Superintendent Todd Yohey said the Cincinnati district of 7,700 students gets visitors from other districts each month inquiring about high-tech initiatives.
“As soon as we start talking about what we’re doing, you often hear people say ‘Oh, our district can’t afford that,’” Yohey said. “My rule is that everything we do has to be cost neutral or save us money. That doesn’t mean the savings is immediate, but it has to generate savings over time.
“We’re not rolling in the money. We’re a very conservative district and we haven’t been on the ballot for 15 years.”
Yohey, a third-year superintendent at Oak Hills, said the excellent-rated district has had to come up with creative ways to pay for technology initiatives and overcome natural barriers to change.
Creating a vision for technology
“A lot of our initiatives begin with community engagement,” Yohey said. “We start with parents, students, community members, and local business and higher education representatives, then we build a framework.”
Every three years, Oak Hills brings its stakeholders together and outlines its goals for the next three years in its “Vision for technology and eLearning.” The document provides a broad outline of topics ranging from electronic communication with the community to the availability of Web-based resources in classes. It is available online at http://ohlsd.us/elearning.
Oak Hills Local Board of Education President Janice Hunter said the vision is vital in guiding the district’s use of technology.
“It’s about being proactive and having a plan for the future, not just reacting to what you’ve done in the past,” Hunter said.
Hunter, who has served on the board 11 years, said Oak Hills’ previous superintendent, Patricia Brenneman, was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the district’s technology use today. Brenneman led Oak Hills for 18 years and passed the reins to Yohey when she retired.
Hunter said the district has increased its focus on technology in recent years to keep up with a rapidly changing, interconnected world.
“Educational systems have to find ways to keep up with the changes in technology or they can’t fully educate their students,” she said.
Tracy Cole, Oak Hills director of technology and eLearning, said it takes a large team of administrators, teachers and students to translate the district’s vision for technology into reality.
“It used to be that computers were taught in labs independent of other classes,” Cole said. “We have worked to make technology a part of us, not apart from us. We now try to incorporate technology into everything we do.”
To do that, Oak Hills has a core team of administrative staff in the district that gathers regularly to discuss technology. The team meets monthly with assistant principals from each building who are in charge of eLearning and technology, among other duties.
“We also have eLearning consultants (eLcs), teachers in each building who provide a voice in that building, help with professional development and provide ongoing support,” Cole said.
The district uses email and other forms of electronic communication to share new apps, ideas and tech trends internally, and staff use social media to broadcast efforts to the outside world.
Technology in the classroom
Oak Hills students play an important role in helping teachers and schools take full advantage of the technology at their disposal. Cole helped create a pilot program last school year called eKIDs (eLearning Kids in Demand) to turn small groups of students at each of the district’s three middle schools into “eLearning consultants.”
The program was expanded to other Oak Hills buildings this school year and, due to its popularity, may be expanded further next fall. Students receive credit for the class and follow a curriculum designed to teach them about technology, as well as presentation skills and leadership qualities. Students in the eKIDs program become experts on the devices, software and Web-based applications the district uses.
“Every semester they do a community event,” Cole said. “In the fall, they do the TedxYouthDay event and they participate in live streams across the country. In the spring, they plan, organize and put on a large-scale community professional development for parents with students in grades K-12.”
Students in the eKIDs program use their knowledge to provide tech support and expertise in their school building. Teachers can fill out a request online for an eKIDs student to help them fix a computer problem or provide one-on-one training about a topic.
“The kids learn how to use programs, they create tutorials for the teachers and they actually go into the classroom to teach programs to other students,” said Farquhar, an eKIDs instructor.
She said eKIDs students are piloting the use of new devices, creating apps and discovering new programs to use in class. The students, Farquhar said, are excited and eager to develop their expertise.
“I like being a leader and having people ask me questions,” said Allison Schaefer, a seventh-grade student in Farquhar’s class.
The computers and devices available throughout Oak Hills vary by building. Select elementary schools are piloting the use of iPads and middle schools are using laptop carts and, in some cases, iPod touches. The district has adopted an “anywhere, anytime, any device” philosophy on education technology. It launched a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) initiative at the high school three years ago, which allowed students to bring in smart phones, tablet computers or whatever device they own.
“We were looking at a 1:1 program at the high school, but we realized there was no way we could afford it,” Yohey said. “We decided it would be significantly cheaper to just let them bring in their own devices and fill in the gaps.”
Oak Hills High School uses laptop carts to get technology into the hands of students who need it. It also partnered with a Cincinnati company, Datacom Specialists, to provide refurbished laptops and service plans to students for heavily reduced prices through a program called Computers for Kids (http://datacom.myshopify.com).
Yohey said students, no surprise, love being able to use their smart phones and personal devices in school. They utilize them in class to use educational apps, conduct research and access class-specific resources, among other purposes. It is up to the teacher’s discretion when and how students can use their devices. The school’s wireless network restricts access to inappropriate websites and an acceptable use policy instructs how devices are to be used. Websites such as Twitter and YouTube are not only allowed, but also used in class.
“We’ve experienced very little misuse,” Yohey said. “Our old policy was no cell phones, and now that they can have them in school they really miss them if you take them away.”
Oak Hills plans to expand its BYOD policy to its elementary and middle schools.
The district is using technology to make its classes more relevant, applicable and engaging to students. The district created a Music Tech class at its high school last year. Students use electronic keyboards and professional recording software to learn about song composition, music theory and sound production. The class was so popular, the school added additional courses this year and created a Music Tech II class. The new courses have helped drive total enrollment in all music classes — both traditional and high-tech — up 75% in two years.
“The kids love the class,” said Music Tech teacher Grant Anderson. “They’re learning to make genres of music they like to play and listen to — whether that’s rock, hip-hop, dubstep or chiptunes — and have some fun doing it.”
Anderson showcased the innovative class at the 2011 OSBA Student Achievement Fair at the Capital Conference in Columbus. Anderson, an eLearning consultant at the high school, is part of the team working to infuse technology in every Oak Hills class.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is give students an edge with the 21st century job market so they can have the tech skills they need to succeed,” he said.
The digital learning revolution
ELearning — in some form — is a part of nearly every class in Oak Hills.
“Most people hear eLearning and think it is synonymous with online learning, but it’s broader than that,” Yohey said. “ELearning is a metaphor for everything that we’re doing involving technology, student learning and teacher instruction.”
All Oak Hills teachers in grades six-12 offer companion websites for their classes. The sites, which are securely accessible by students, have minimum requirements, including a syllabus, class handouts, important class links and forums for questions and discussions, among other features. Some teachers choose to include more resources. By the end of next year, all K-12 teachers in the district will offer companion websites for their classes.
Zach Vanderveen, Oak Hills eLearning coach and course developer, said the companion websites have helped encourage student learning to continue outside school walls.
“It’s wonderful not to have to stop the learning at the end of the school day,” Vanderveen said. “We see discussion and engagement go on after school as students continue to learn online.”
Oak Hills teachers use Moodle, a free, Web-based learning management system, to create their companion websites. Students can use the same resource to submit assignments online.
Starting in November, the district began using Google Apps for Education in place of Microsoft Excel, Office and PowerPoint. Cole said the Web-based Google Apps — which are free — will save the district more than $80,000 annually and offer a number of advantages for schools. Because Google Apps hosts documents via cloud storage, it means they can be accessed online and securely anywhere. Also, students are able to work collaboratively online on the same document and teachers can view what they’re doing in real time.
Cole said it was a somewhat challenging transition for teachers and students due to the learning curve that comes with anything new. Oak Hills gave teachers a year to get used to Google Apps before making the transition and provided technical support to facilitate the move.
“It’s like taking a new drive to work,” Cole said. “You have to think about it rather than being on autopilot, but after you do it a few times, you get used to it.”
Oak Hills students are also being exposed to new methods of instruction. The district currently offers three classes that are entirely online — Spanish, Mandarin and health — and plans to offer three additional classes next school year.
Yohey said the online health class was created after three Oak Hills health teachers retired at the same time.
“It started as an idea to reduce costs on staff,” he said. “Beginning with this year’s eighth-grade class, the only option for their health credit is online. Students have five years to complete it, including summers.”
Yohey said the district has been able to further reduce personnel costs and expand 21st century learning opportunities for students by offering “hybrid” classes, also known as blended learning. Hybrid courses have students learn in class two days a week, learn online two days a week and participate in study hall one day a week, when the teacher is available via office hours.
Oak Hills High School currently offers five hybrid classes, including engineering, sociology and world history, and has plans to offer additional courses next school year.
Learning from and helping other schools
Oak Hills has received state and national attention for its technology initiatives over the years. This winter, Yohey was one of 10 administrators nationwide to be named a Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award winner by eSchools News. He was the only award recipient from Ohio.
“That was really an Oak Hills award; it wasn’t about me,” Yohey said. “It is really our staff, teachers and students who are doing the things we talk about and plan with technology in mind.
“We have very innovative minds throughout the district. People who are not afraid to take risks and think of creative ways to address issues, provide instruction and collaborate with colleagues.”
Cole said Yohey has challenged staff to learn how other districts are using technology and share what Oak Hills is doing. She referred to Oak Hills as “an open-source school district.”
“Every time we have an initiative, we’re trying to document the process to have a framework we can hand to another district so they can learn from our successes and mistakes,” Cole said.
Oak Hills has created a “portfolio” of its technology initiatives and made them publicly available online at http://ohlsd.org/portfolio. The website includes the district’s acceptable use policy for technology and information about its BYOD initiative.
The district is in the early stages of an initiative with Datacom Specialists to provide services to other districts, including hosting, support and professional development for schools interested in using Moodle.
Cole said Oak Hills has a variety of new technology initiatives in the pipeline.
“We are working to create all our online tools in a mobile format, and we’re just getting ready to push 3-D virtual world professional development opportunities for our teachers,” she said.
“We have a lot on the horizon.”