Can Technology Transform a Community? Yes!

Good things happen when a community comes together with the right opportunities.

GUEST COLUMN | by Anthony Thomas

CREDIT Merced Union High School DistrictCan a technology implementation transform an entire community? I believe it’s possible, because I am starting to see it happen. Good things happen when a community comes together to support students and students build on that positivity to explore new opportunities for their futures.

I work at Merced Union High School District in Atwater, California. It’s a small community in the San Joaquin Valley with farming at its center that has been hit hard by the economic downturn. Our area has been near the top of some negative lists: foreclosure rates, teen pregnancy rates, unemployment rates. Many kids here don’t know the possibilities available in the world beyond our backyards—but that is changing.

Many kids here don’t know the possibilities available in the world beyond our backyards—but that is changing.

About six years ago, we starting looking into providing a 1-to-1 program to our high school students. At that time, there weren’t many high schools in our area doing this, so we looked to college campuses. Colleges have robust BYOD programs, with many kinds of devices supported on a campus network. We wanted to capture that atmosphere and learning environment on our high school campuses, not just have computer labs where students were restricted to indoor facilities.

A Fair Chance

We hosted a vendor fair and had various classrooms set up with different devices and operating systems. We had 50-60 people—community members, parents, students, teachers, staff and administrators—try out the devices and come together to debrief. We took student feedback very seriously and ended up choosing Chromebooks, their preferred solution. It was an interesting experience, as it showed us that kids don’t care about brands or operating systems so much as functionality: what will get them on the Internet quickly with the tools they need to complete their work.

Of course, deploying 10,000 new devices across seven campuses—even in phases—did a number on our network. We had plenty of bandwidth but the existing firewall and web filter couldn’t handle the traffic volume. We ended up replacing our existing security solution with the FortiGate 3700D and a FortiAnalyzer VM for firewall and web content filtering, which had the throughput we needed to keep the network moving now and in the future. That combination also helps us ensure compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which are big considerations for my department.

More Like College Students

We started seeing huge benefits both on and off campus. We saw positive behavior in the kids. They acted more like college students. It’s much more common to see students working quietly on their laptops inside the classroom and out.

The technology opened new learning opportunities that evened the playing field socially and geographically. Shy students were able to submit questions to teachers online, even during class, so they could get the information they needed without possible ridicule from fellow students. Teachers were available after school hours, even into the night, for one-on-one help through email. How helpful would it have been for you to be able to email a teacher at 8 p.m. when you ran into an issue with your homework? And get an answer so you were able to finish the assignment and turn it in, complete and on time? Invaluable.

Students can set their own learning pace to a certain extent. Students in the lower end of the class can get that one-on-one help and access to resources to allow them to catch up. Students in the top end of the class can consume all the information they want with no one holding them back. And students in the middle of a class benefit from both—some extra help and some extra resources. Technology allows teachers the ability to offer personalized instruction in a way that was never possible before.

Reaching Further, Trying Harder

We’ve had classes collaborate with students in other countries. We’ve launched an after-school program called ASSETS in which students can utilize school Wi-Fi. Schools have started security clubs and participated in Department of Defense hack-a-thons. As a District, we have recognized that when kids get involved and know people are interested in them and their success, they try harder.

We’ve even launched on-campus repair centers at two of the schools. Students are fixing fellow students’ Chromebooks, similar to what you find on college campuses. We used to have an outside insurance policy for the devices but now we self-insure, with each student paying $25 a year and students handling maintenance and repair. It’s great training for them and reinforces we are treating them like adults.

Community Transformation

The community impacts have been significant as well. For some of our students, their school-issued device was the first computer their family had access to. That exposure helped show families how technology, like computers, could have a positive impact on their lives and their livelihoods. It has opened eyes and opened possibilities and students now believe they have the ability to compete in a technology-enriched global economy.

And the community has welcomed students and their devices. We recognized that, since few students had devices at home, few would have Internet access. We approached local businesses and asked if students could use their Wi-Fi to do homework off-campus. Businesses that agreed have a sticker in their window so students know they are welcome. It’s been fantastic to see everyone coming together to support our students and their new ambitions for the future.

Deploying devices across our high school campuses is truly starting to transform our community. We are showing students they have options. We are showing businesses that we have knowledge and interest in new and different types of jobs, which can help attract new employers. In fact, we are working with CDW to develop a program in which they hire some of our repair center students as junior engineers. We are building students who will be able to compete in the 21st century economy and bring positive change to their hometowns. And that’s what education should be all about.

Anthony Thomas is Assistant IT Manager at Merced Union High School District in Atwater, Calif.

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