Michael Realon has a long list of stories that have appeared in the media about his school’s success, including features by PBS, NBC, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and U.S. News & World Report.
But there’s one list that’s longer and makes him prouder: It’s the names of the partners his innovative school has found in the community.
“We’ve had a lot of success because we’ve found great people to work with,” says Realon, academy and community development coordinator at Olympic Community of Schools in Charlotte, NC. Realon has connected with both large and small businesses and other institutions in that region. The support from the business community has brought in about $15 million in cash and donations of equipment and thousands of hours of wide-ranging personal support for the program’s unique model, including smaller high schools within Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools centered around technology-based instruction. Olympic Community Schools are part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District.
While Realon admits that building such support for complex and ever-shifting education technology is challenging, he believes such partnerships are critical, built through a series of well-conceived and persistent steps (see Tips for Garnering Local Support below) and a long-term commitment on both sides.
“Administrators need to know how to be precise about what they need, make the case, and then follow through,” he says.
Realon has been able to partner with smaller local companies and larger national ones (the latest being Bosch Rexroth, which supported a $200,000 Advanced Manufacturing and Technology Center) by showing businesses how the school will benefit them by providing valuable employees or improved community relations, he says. It’s a path recommended by many educators familiar with technology acquisition and by businesspeople who want to support education.
“Companies large and small will help schools,” says Winston Sakurai, upper school principal at Hanalani Schools in Mililani, HI, and a 2016 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year. “It is important to look at larger company foundation pages for grants, some of which may only be a one-time opportunity. And it’s important to cultivate longer-term relationships with smaller companies.”
Sakurai says that with those key relationships, it is critical to have a proposal that they want to support because they believe it is effective and sustainable. “Don’t just go asking for money, but rather have a purposeful plan,” he suggests. “Schools also need to look to the future and have ideas on how to maintain and sustain the technology once initial funding is spent.”
Kevin Custer, founder of ARC Capital Development, which advises tech startup companies about entering the education market, says that while looking for grants for one-time support may pay off, trying to get tech giants to equip a school probably won’t. “If an administrator is wondering if they can get a lot of equipment from Google or Apple, the answer’s a definitive ‘no.’ The calories you burn trying won’t be worth the iPads you will get,” Custer says.
However, Nicholas Indeglio, principal at Downingtown Middle School in Pennsylvania, says that using equipment and applications from the biggest companies is inevitable in schools. This 2017 Digital Principal notes that getting support for purchases may depend on building relationships with local representatives for those companies. He says they are often available at state and NASSP conferences.
Experts point out that tech purchases are more complex than other expenditures for schools because technology is quickly outdated, and busy schools with limited resources and personnel don’t always have someone who understands what equipment is best. That’s just another reason why having local partners helps and you must know exactly what you want before taking steps to get it.
Moving to Chromebooks
Since schools began announcing they were giving every student a laptop, education has been a hot market for tech companies—now even more so as schools implement new approaches such as personalized and flipped learning. Schools are also managing more day-to-day classroom and schoolwide functions online.
In response, the big-name companies that provide the most devices and applications students use every day have begun to wage a conspicuous and somewhat controversial battle for dominance, the most recent being the successful promotion of relatively inexpensive Chromebooks from Google.
“You could get 20 or 30 computers for the school, but you couldn’t get one for every student,” Linn Huang, an industry analyst, told TechCrunch. “And then netbooks came around and blew up in education. A lot of the reason is because this was the first time we put affordable hardware in front of buyers.”
Chromebooks have captured nearly 60 percent of the market, according to Ben Davis, an analyst with the firm Futuresource Consulting in the United Kingdom, which studies education tech market sales. He notes that late last year those sales slumped, probably because the market was beginning to be saturated. In March, Apple announced a new education-focused iPad that will work with a new budget-friendly stylus, in addition to a new app called Schoolwork that is designed to help teachers with digital classroom management. Microsoft recently announced a cheaper set of laptops to match the Chromebook, which educators can get for under $200, and which have gotten much more sophisticated for those who need more options.
“PC providers’ laser focus on the education sector is good news for schools and students,” Davis says. “We will continue to see a wide range of computing devices designed specifically for education and at competitive price points entering the market and vying to be the device of choice for learning.”
Google and Apple
Just as it made classroom-computing devices inexpensive, Google made classroom management free with Google Classroom, which some experts say is useful for both novice and advanced users. Apple’s similar application, Classroom, is newer and has not been as widely accepted, but one education tech-consulting firm has suggested it can be combined with Google Classroom to expand functionality. Google’s education-friendly applications such as Google Docs and Gmail are now used by about half of the nation’s students for free, though Microsoft has made its Office 365 suite cheaper to get and easier to use.
“I expect the complementary software and content from providers like Microsoft and Google will increase going forward with the aim of making the core operating system and productivity suites such as Office 365 for Education and G Suite for Education a more compelling proposition to schools,” Davis says.
One estimate suggests that software costs schools between $100 and $200 per student, so experts say it should be purchased carefully; free software is a bonus.
Indeglio recommends the Schoology app, which costs less than $10 per student, for learning management. Scheduling—another school function in which effective technology pays off—is seeing new options such as ABL, which costs about $5 per high school student and will be offered to middle and elementary school students next year, he says.
Recent research also suggests that the cost and quality of connectivity is a big concern for educators, with 40 percent reporting they couldn’t upgrade their “sometimes inconsistent” service because of the costs. The price of internet service, especially to rural areas, is being addressed in some states. A bill in Illinois is aimed at bringing broadband to rural schools using excess state funds, while another bill in Kansas proposes taxing big service and content providers to provide internet to underserved areas.
Some grants and other supports are available from internet service providers. The EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit, has information about the best options on its site and offers a tool where schools can find their best path and work together for efficiency.
Robotics Take Center Stage
Robotics is one area in which experts say schools can interest students in technology and provide a variety of other valuable educational experiences, ranging from learning algorithmic skills and critical thinking to collaboration and social skills. Often, the technology is not expensive.
LEGO systems have been used widely in schools, and its LEGO Boost app was the most highly rated robotics learning kit by Tom’s Guide (www.tomsguide.com), a tech website that offers buying tips, which did a detailed breakdown of systems ranging in price from $50 to more than $500.
For virtual reality, Columbia University hosts Virtual Reality for Education, which offers exhaustive information about bringing VR systems to classes. It highlights Nearpod, one of the most widely used virtual reality systems in schools, which offers a basic license for free and charges $120 annually per teacher for its “gold” license. It has more than 1,500 virtual reality lessons available on all sorts of topics, and devices come as part of the package. Google also has gotten into the VR realm with its inexpensive devices and free Cardboard apps.
Awe.media recently launched the first version of its platform that allows students to create a mixed-reality experience online.
“There is a growing interest in schools for this sort of thing,” says Alex Young, co-founder of the company. “When we launched the awe platform and the first schools signed up, it was really teachers doing so out of curiosity to see how the technology might help them present the curriculum content in new and more engaging ways. Now it’s becoming an important tool for students and an important skill to learn.”
She notes that high school students are creating sophisticated augmented reality (AR) worlds and doing their own programming to enhance it, while middle school students are doing projects with the technology. “We’ve seen examples of fourth or fifth graders creating pop-up interactive books where they can hold their phones or tablets over a page and it comes to life with related interactive content that gives them more information in a fun and engaging way,” Young says.
The company charges a fee of $19 per month and has a package that provides the AR equipment and support with instruction and lesson plans.
Coding instruction comes in a variety of forms, including Apple’s Swift programming language, which can be downloaded for free and offers courses with many lessons provided without cost or for as little as $10. Swift Playgrounds is also now offered for the less-experienced coder. There is coding instruction available for all age groups, ranging from ScratchJr for elementary school students, Hopscotch for middle school students, and Code.org for older teens (well known for its Hour of Code and the support it provides educators).
A Look Ahead
If technology purchasing by schools is moving into maturation, Davis says, that may mean schools will move to using a variety of sources for their technology. “If I’m a school looking to go from a standing start to a fully digital environment in the classroom, I’m likely to have to deal with multiple resellers, publishers, [and] software partners, and look to third-party integration solutions and standards like Clever or IMS Global to help manage it,” he says.
But in a recent article in Forbes magazine, education tech expert Rod Berger suggests that bundling technology from one source can often be most efficient in busy schools when they are buying and maintaining or upgrading systems. He recommends Classform as a platform that helps schools develop a comprehensive STEM program, for instance.
For schools that want to evaluate their current technology and efficiently purchase new material, LearnPlatform uses the expertise of other educators to provide information about technology and help administrators determine whether theirs is working.
“In one scenario, a school identified more than 400 different ed-tech products being used by its teachers in just one month,” says Amanda Cadran, director of customer success for the company. “That was important to see.” She says the platform has helped schools find their most effective technology, put it to use consistently in all sectors, and use information from their own data and that of others to make smarter purchases. “Users have reported they can actually compare usage to student scores and discover a variety of correlated data that will inform instructional and resource decisions to help them be better at their jobs in a more immediate manner.”
Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.
Sidebar: Making It Work
Tips for Garnering Local Support
Heather Singmaster, associate director of the Center for Global Education at the Asia Society in New York, which studies tech availability to schools, says educators don’t take advantage of their local business community often enough when they need tech upgrades.
Follow these recommended steps from Singmaster and other experts:
- Develop a plan. “Have a clear vision of how this technology will help prepare students for their future in college and careers,” says Winston Sakurai, upper school principal at Hanalani Schools in Mililani, HI. He says schools shouldn’t simply ask for money, but have a “purposeful plan” that includes future needs once the technology is in place and how it will be upgraded and maintained.
- Create support. Pat Brown, assistant vice president at National Academy Foundation, a network of educators and others supporting academy programs in education, says schools should carefully build advisory panels that include members of the business community, representatives from higher education, staff members, parents, and students to get the best analysis of needs and what should be acquired, and to gain support in upgrading facilities. These advisory panels can also be charged with spotting trends that will keep the systems current. Brown recommends developing relationships that involve more than just requests for monetary support—but include shadowing or seeking presentations by those in the field.
- Refine your pitch. Brown says schools should have a strong “needs” statement that is transparent and fully outlines the challenges, using the staff and students in some cases. Singmaster says they should make it clear how any investment will be supported and thrive in the future, and especially, how it might benefit businesses by providing them with trained workers. Also, be sure to define the ways that the benefactors will be recognized for their help in the school and the community.
- Express appreciation. Develop effective ways to express gratitude (try using students, and have them describe their experiences), and make sure that some members of the advisory committee are available to help get staff trained and on board, and to help the school stay up to date. Aim for producing a regular biannual report to the advisory committee about the effectiveness of the technology; this also ensures that the school monitors it.
Explore these websites to start your search for technology funding:
- eSchoolNews has a section where it offers updates on grants and other funding: www.eschoolnews.com/grants-funding.
- THE Journal has a weekly listing of grants for technology education: thejournal.com/articles/list/listings.aspx.
- The Foundation Center is a good resource for names of grant sources: www.foundationcenter.org.
- GetEdFunding features a list where you can search for tech support: https://tinyurl.com/getfundtech.
- Donors Choose allows educators to raise money for individual tech projects: www.donorschoose.org.
- Techsoup is a site where schools can get connected with donated and discounted technology: www.techsoup.org.