Building Student Futures and Meeting High Expectations at Shawnee Mission School District


How do you explain the difference between a master carpenter and a novice? It's not the hammer, or the ability to drive a nail into wood that sets apart the great carpenters. It is their ability to extract the full potential inherent in their tools, their material, and their craft.

This is how I approach technology in education. It is a tool like any other, and education is not about learning to use the tool, but using the tool to learn. Technology has to be accessible, reliable, and functional. This way, students, teachers, and administrative staff can focus on learning, instead of worrying about equipment and infrastructure.

Just as carpenters build houses with hammers, teachers and educators build futures with information and communications technology (ICT). As Executive Director of ICT at the Shawnee Mission School District, I work with a team of nearly 3,800 educators serving some 27,000 students.

From Traditional IT to 1:1 ICT

About four years ago, Shawnee Mission School District was about to embark on 1:1 and visual learning initiatives. This was right up my alley. I'd already spent years managing IT at the district level, and this seemed like a worthy challenge.

The size of the district is part of why I took this job. Shawnee Mission is one of the biggest districts in Kansas City. It has four times the students of my previous rural district. This means a lot more responsibility and the potential for a much bigger impact.

Students here have access to more resources—especially technology—than they would in a rural district. I saw an opportunity to be a part of something successful and something bigger than just any one person. Here was an academically elite 21st-century educational institution that wanted to teach students to learn differently, and think differently.

Meeting high expectations creates a positive feedback loop. The more you succeed, the more you want to succeed.

I welcomed the chance to make a difference; however, when I got here, the reality of the district was very different from the direction it wanted to take. It was a traditional IT environment. The computers were all desktops, and there weren't enough to go around. The district IT department served as a gatekeeper. Everything was centralized. Our students and staff were burdened, not empowered, by the setup.

Switching to 1:1 meant blowing up that model. Giving every student and staff member a laptop meant rethinking the way we managed both IT and learning. It also meant switching from IT to ICT. The district had dipped its toes in unified communication—there was a VoIP telephony system—but there was no collaborative platform. The need was yet to be recognized.

One of the first realities was to accept a certain loss of control. When you put a device in the hands of every student and staff member, you need to embrace a bit of chaos. You have to understand that chaos and control are not opposite ends of a spectrum that you need to balance.

Think of the bands on a graphic equalizer, or the volume and tone controls on an amplifier. You can turn them up and down independently. You can dial them in separately. Giving users more control doesn't reduce your ability to manage your IT resources, but it does force you to change your approach.

Embracing the Unexpected

The other thing we discovered is that you can't plan for everything. As users embrace a new technology, and become more reliant on it, the way they use it changes organically and grows exponentially. They'll discover applications, approaches, and needs you never considered. That's how we came upon Cisco Webex.

Before we rolled out 1:1, there was no collaborative platform. We had no vision for unified communications. But that all changed when everyone got their own laptop. Here were these astounding devices that weren't being used to their full capacity. What more could we do with them?

“Why are we still having in-person meetings?” someone asked. Why weren't we using a video solution like Webex? This questioning of the status quo led to a string of unintended and delightful consequences.

Reinventing Meetings

The initial thinking was obvious. It was a pain to interrupt everyone's day and get them to a meeting room somewhere else in the building, or somewhere else in the district. But beyond this, other opportunities presented themselves.

Traditional meetings are instances of synchronous communications. Everybody is talking to each other at the same time. Once such a meeting is over, everyone switches to asynchronous communication. Messages are sent out, replies come back. Think email. If someone wants to know what happened in a meeting after the fact, they have to consult the minutes, if any were taken. It's not very efficient, and it's challenging to bring someone new up to speed.

With Webex, we can archive the audio and video content of entire meetings. This carries a lot more information than simple text. Facial expressions and vocal inflections reveal much more about what was said than transcriptions.

But there's more to Webex than video. It is a true collaborative platform. Users can collaborate by sharing files and working on virtual whiteboards in real time. Everything they share this way is also archived, so there’s longitudinal data retention. When a meeting is over, the conversation can continue via live chat or one-on-one videoconferencing. You can even guide someone who wasn't there to the precise moment something was said.

Compare this to slogging through email after email. I can't give you a precise figure, but we've seen a huge reduction in email volume since we adopted Webex.

We're even using Webex for vendor meetings. Instead of asking out-of-state and coastal vendors to fly in, we use video to meet. It’s more efficient, cost-effective, and easier for everyone involved.

Going Beyond Meetings

As I said earlier, when you unleash a new technology on smart, qualified people, wonderful things start to happen. Webex is not just for meetings any more. One of the ways we're using it is to communicate with parents.

Wonderful things happen when you put new technologies in the hands of smart people. They find unexpected uses that yield delightful consequences.

We'll often encounter parents who can't make it to parent-teacher nights. They may be working or taking care of younger children, for example. We use Webex to bring parent-teacher conferences to them, at the time of their choosing.

Parents can also use Webex to play an active role in their child's education. With the help of her teacher, one family used Webex to encourage one of our students to hand in her assignments on time. She's doing much better this year compared to last year. We couldn’t have tracked her progress if we were using email or phone calls.

Teachers are also using Webex in classrooms to create real-time, synchronous collaborative learning opportunities on 1:1 devices. On top of whiteboarding and exchanging assignment files, they can chat with individual students who may be facing unique challenges. These important conversations can continue after the school bell rings.

In recent months, one of our elementary school students had a gravely ill parent who needed to travel to another city for treatment. The child had to go along and would have missed many days of classes. Thanks to Webex, this student was able to keep up with the content. More importantly, the child was able to remain in touch with friends and classmates back home. This provided a solid support structure during an emotionally challenging time.

Building Collaborative Environments that Exceed Expectations

This year, we're using Webex Teams to promote our change management program for employees. We've set up targets and milestones that we're recording and tracking through the app. This open line of communications has enabled us to have valuable conversations about the new directions we're taking.

In the future, I'd like to use Webex Teams to facilitate cross-school collaboration to teach students how to work together on a Computer-aided Design (CAD) project. I would have each student design a component of a larger machine using CAD software, and then print it out on a 3D printer. Each student would then match their individual components with everyone else's to build a working prototype.

The whole experience could go smoothly, or it could fall apart. Either outcome is okay. The goal is to prepare students for the way collaboration will operate in their future workplaces. I want to provide a safe environment where they can fail without the pressures of the grownup world. Who knows? Maybe one of them will fall in love with CAD and go on to invent a device that 3D prints human organs.

I have high expectations for our students. I also have high expectations of our vendors. To help build bright futures for our kids, I rely on our rock-solid partnership with Cisco. I recognize that it's a business relationship, but there are different approaches to going about it.

Cisco doesn't offer to sell us products like other suppliers. Cisco works with us to develop solutions that are pushing the boundaries of education. This is very much a strategic partnership.

The company is also relentless in its pursuit of constant improvement. Every single update to Webex has refined existing features and introduced new ones. The product is growing and maturing in a way that reflects what we're trying to achieve with our students.

Building Futures and Forging Hammers

I can go on forever about technology, but it all comes down to our students and their parents. When the families see how much their children are achieving at our schools, it creates a positive feedback loop. As student achievement rises, so do parental expectations.

Now, we can meet and exceed their high expectations thanks to Cisco. As the company continues to enhance and expand Webex, we are finding new ways we can use it to educate our students and staff.

Technology is an educational tool. Education is not about learning to use the tool, but using the tool to learn.

In a way it's like planting a lawn in front of a new house. We've seeded everything, and keep watering and feeding the grass. There are patches of growth here and there, and soon the whole front yard will be green. We just have to be a little patient.

I am confident that our efforts at Shawnee Mission School District will continue to flower. We are growing something special here. Every day, I feel lucky to be working with motivated educators who are putting their considerable skills and expertise behind our technology initiative. They want our students to be successful. They understand that teaching is not about lecturing in front of a classroom.

Our teachers are education facilitators. They look for new ways to use 1:1 technology and collaborative tools like Webex in the classroom. They are kick-starting a digital revolution and building bright futures for our students.

You could say our teachers are master carpenters, and Cisco is forging their hammers.

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