Mimio Global Press

A Technological Sea Change in Rockport

K12 Tech Decisions

ROCKPORT, MASS. – April 15, 2012 -- In one year, the tiny school district has gone from chalkboards to teaching with interactive whiteboards and mobile devices. Can the evolution continue?

Rockport Public Schools (RPS) in Rockport, Mass., is the quintessential small-town school district: 1,000 students, grades K-12, attend the town’s lone elementary, middle and high schools in two adjacent buildings on a cozy tree-lined lot less than a mile from the rocky Atlantic coast.

When Monty Hitschler joined RPS as the district’s Director of Technology last fall, he stepped into a small school system on the cusp of a big transition. Interactive whiteboards had previously been installed into a handful of elementary and middle school classrooms, but that was just a jumping off point for the rapid transition that lay ahead.

Using federal stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), RPS this year doubled the staffing of its IT department from one full-time and one part-time position to three full-time staffers. And with additional monies from a local non-profit and the Town of Rockport, the school system also invested heavily in new classroom technology while changing the official and unofficial policies towards mobile devices and Internet usage.

The changes are coming fast and furious: Teachers at almost every grade level are giving their lessons with interactive whiteboards, and students are using tablets, laptops and cellphones to participate in class. Outside of class, teachers and students are staying in touch through the Internet.

“We have been addressing anything and everything that could possibly be electronic [or] technology related,” Hitschler said. “We are trying to skip a few steps and get to 21st century learning… as fast as we can.”

The entire town of Rockport stands to benefit from the tech blitz: This summer, the town’s first fiber Internet cable will be run through the school, and the town will piggyback off of it from there.

It will be just the latest step in this rapid sea change.

“Monty’s been here six months now, and in those six-plus months I’ve seen more change than the four years I was here and the three years I was out,” said Mike Montgomery, a 2008 Rockport High School graduate who works on the RPS IT Helpdesk.

Equipment and Network Upgrades

Rockport Elementary and Middle Schools were already using Mobi interactive whiteboards and tablets – funded through a grant from the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation – in several of its classrooms when Hitschler arrived, part of what had previously been a scattershot approach towards education technology.

But the high school had limited technology: desktop computers, overhead projectors and, of course, chalkboards.

Hitschler and his new staff hit the ground running, using money from The Educational Foundation for Rockport, a local non-profit, as well as debt exclusion funds from a town override to convert chalkboards to whiteboards and to install hardware and software from Mimio to make those whiteboards interactive, while putting laptops into the hands of teachers as fast as they could.

They also started piloting the new Apple TV as an interactive whiteboard substitute in two middle school classrooms.

In short, the goal was to upgrade all of the technology as quickly as possible.

“It was important to address everything, whether that be backup systems, availability of tech, modernizing systems,” said Hitschler.

On the back end, Hitschler’s three-man band worked with what they had. They decided that the existing hardwired network, while balky, would suffice for the time being.

“The wired network is only 100 meg, based on 20-year-old wiring, a lot of which was done in-house,” said Hitschler.

Because of the limited capacity, the school system’s wireless network is still restricted for use by faculty only. Meanwhile, Hitschler’s staff has updated and consolidated the servers (dropping from 11 to seven) in an effort to free up storage space while beginning a shift to web-based products.

So far the network strategy has worked, but this summer’s laying of the town’s first fiber cable will be a welcome improvement.

“We’re going to be relying so much on the Internet from now on that the connections have to work all the time from now on,” said Hitschler. “It can’t be a case of you come in and flip a coin and wonder if it’s going to work. But for the most part [the existing network is] stable. It’s just aging.”


Cultural Shift

All of the moves that Hitschler has led have been aimed at developing an open, embracing attitude towards technology. YouTube used to be restricted, now it is not. The use of cell phones during class use to be forbidden, now it is not.

This move towards openness and fluidity means that students are encouraged to bring their own mobile and computing devices to school. It’s not yet an official Bring Your Own Device or Bring Your Own Tech (BYOD, BYOT) policy, but it’s moving in that direction.

“Laptops, iPads, cellphones – anything they can get they bring in, and we’re trying to support a BYOD environment sometime in the near future,” said Mike Montgomery, a 2008 Rockport High School graduate and computer technician at RPS.

When TechDecisions visited Rockport last month we saw a high school biology class taking tests with pairs of students sharing mobile phones and iPads to answer questions.

As Rockport High School and Middle School Principal Philip Conrad sees it, technology is going to be such a dominant force in the lives of his students that embracing it is the only logical solution.

“I just got my lunch, came up from the cafeteria,” Conrad said. “One student was reading her English book on her iPhone; the other student was looking up info on the Internet on her iPhone for her biology homework. That’s the way we want the kids to be using their phones. We don’t want to be walking by and see them texting somebody who’s in class. That’s the next frontier, I think: is teaching the kids what the proper time and place is to be using their devices.”

Outside of class, teachers use EdModo, the online learning management system, as a communicative platform that allows them to post lessons and instructional supplements for students to use.

All of this change has been a big transition for teachers, but the beefed up IT staff has helped to implement the new technology and to support teachers whenever needed.

“That’s the key, is making sure [the teachers] feel supported, not just ‘Here’s something, and try it out,’” Conrad said. “And that’s always important, to have somebody there who can help them with it. And by adding the two [IT] people, we were able to do that.

The benefits of this technological revolution speak for themselves, said Whitney Swanberg, an eighth-grade social studies teacher.

“They really like it,” she said about her students. “They’re in front of a screen all day anyways – at home, on Facebook, whatever – so being able to do the same process in school really helps them remember more and be more interested because it’s what they’re used to doing.”


In the Long Run

The future of Rockport’s technology path is up in the air. The school system is fortunate to have an exclusive technology fund from the Town of Rockport that they’ve been able to draw on, Conrad said, and they will have that for one more year. But those funds will only cover the cost of equipment. The ARRA funds that paid for the beefed up IT staff expire at the end of the school year.

“Unfortunately, those were one-time funds that are going to dry up,” said Conrad. “The funding for the [IT staff] piece is either going to have to be brought into the regular budget or lost… [and] I think that’s one of the reasons we’re pushing to do some things faster than we might, because we’ve got the people here who can implement it by the end of the school year instead of maybe implementing it over the first two, three months of next year because we may not have those people with us. So, yeah, it’s very concerning.”

If they can stay the course, a new website is already in the works and Hitschler hopes that the future will include a wireless network for students and a major shift to cloud-based services.

If they can’t, this technological transition might come to a screeching halt.

“If it turns out we don’t have the money and it’s just Monty [on the IT staff], it’s not going to go anywhere,” Montgomery said.

Conrad, for one, hopes the wave of change can continue, because he can barely imagine what the landscape will look like for his sixth-graders by the time they graduate high school. When asked if he could choose between the education he had as a child and the way his students learn, he chose neither.

“I think I’d wait 10 years and do it with whatever’s going to be out there next,” he said. “I think that’s going to be even more fun.”

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