A small southern school district makes its way forward into the 21st century
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
As the Technology Director for 3,400-student Alma School District in Alma, Arkansas, Thad Nipp wants more for his school: more interactive classrooms, more devices, and a more hands-on approach. In this conversation about vision, methods and what works in his district, Thad shares how getting there is vital — but considering the technology-infused environment surrounding schools — it’s also a very natural transition. Directing technology into his school district, therefore, has become a main mission of his, one that so many school leaders can relate to.
Victor: Could you tell me about your long-term technology vision for your schools in Alma, in particular some of the things you are doing with Student Assessment and BYOD?
Thad: We really want a more hands-on approach. A more interactive teaching experience you might say. Looking ahead, we would really like to see the possibility of a device in the hands of every child from ages 6-12, initially. Whether the device is a school provided or part of a BYOD initiative, we’re not sure but that seems to be the way we should go. The ability for the teacher to administer an assessment or assignment at any time and get the results almost instantaneous without having to find an open slot in a computer lab schedule is ideal and our goal.
Victor: As Technology Director, you have devised a method to extract student and teacher data from your SIS database; what benefits have you seen from the hours spent to figure this out?
Thad: Well it has had quite a few advantages. I wrote the script to help automate the creation of student accounts for our multiple programs. One of the programs this impacts is Learning Station. We are able to keep our other services in sync with live data, including our testing/assessment through LearningStation.
Victor: Alma School District had previously used traditional testing methods — these can take days or sometimes weeks to produce reviewable, actionable results. Can you tell me about the solutions you have implemented to overcome this?
Thad: Our schools used a lot of Scantrons, fill-in-the-bubble-style sheets; it was tedious because we had to scan them to grade them and then also had to worry about the kids bubbling in their name and ID number correctly. We took the kids name/ID information out of the equation by pre-slugging our Scantrons with that information, but it still wasn’t enough. Finally, we got with LearningStation and they came up with multiple options for us to use that solved a lot of our issues. We had the option to use our interactive whiteboards along with learning response systems, we could sit at a computer and enter it, or we could use another one of their solutions, Plain Paper, which so far has been our most used. It gives us the ability to keep the same testing feel with the ability to scan them in immediately to get real-time results. This helps provide that data-driven decision making that educators are seeking today.
Victor: Where have you seen this have the largest impact with teachers in the classroom, as well as the testing and assessment process?
Thad: I know that our Math and Science departments have used it a lot. To keep track of student improvement, our teachers use the diagnostic assessments created using it. The teachers and our math specialist use the results to adjust lesson plans in real-time, which again is part of that data-driven decision making. With it, we can use provide the assessment schedule without the process impacting much instruction time.
Victor: You are currently in the implementation stages of a BYOD initiative in Alma; how will this impact the technology culture in your schools? Will this change the way teachers deliver information or tests to students?
Thad: BYOD will make a huge impact, in my opinion, on the technology culture in our school. Hopefully, the biggest impact will be on printing and paper. We really spend a lot of money on printing. So, if we can start delivering and retrieving our information electronically rather than in paper form, we could free up funds to implement new technologies. The Plain Paper solution works great for us but to be able to use Learning Station’s web interface instead of printing out bubble sheets could have a positive impact on our current expenses and budget.
Victor: On a broad scale, what are some of your thoughts on education these days?
Thad: I really see education right now in a transitional period between older traditional implementation to a new wave technology based form of delivering education. It’s a lot like the first swim of the season. A lot of schools test the waters by trying one or two things but no one just takes the plunge and goes all out. Sometimes initiatives fail due to conflicts with traditional methods that are still in place. We just seem to be wading in until we are adjusted and sometimes we back out because it’s not comfortable yet. I think when we get there the water will be fine and our new implementation will help education by leaps and bounds.
Victor: What transformative impact do you see technology having on education in the next few years?
Thad: I think it will have a huge impact, from the adoption of eBooks to just the fact that so much of what we do is web based. The tools that are used for learning are no longer restricted to the walls that we call school. Or more appropriately, the way we define school is changing. The resources for teaching and the ease of distributing are expanding due to technology and will continue to grow. Technology is not here to replace the teacher. Technology is here to enhance the material a teacher presents. This generation of student, generation-text, is driving the transformation of technology in education.
Victor: Anything else you care to add or emphasize?
Thad: Technology has always been a field that changes rapidly. Technology in education is beginning to translate that rapid change in the classroom. Technology is so much of our daily life that it seems a natural transition for it to be part of our educational life, too.
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