In recent months, business leaders have been crediting the coronavirus pandemic as the catalyst of mass digitisation. Schools were closed for prolonged periods of time, making winter shutdowns seem like nothing but mere blips in this wider disruption to education. If it wasn’t for digital technology, learning would have fallen even shorter than expected, as students were given access to technology that enabled them to work from home under the watchful eyes of their parents.
Technology was, and still is, one of the key enablers of education and, as COVID-19 provoked years’ worth of digital transformation in such a short period of time, technology will continue to play its role in ensuring that students are educated properly, dynamically and safely.
Yet, with new technology comes added risk. Cybersecurity is another core aspect of digitisation so, although there are increased attack vectors, there are increasingly more sophisticated ways of countering these and adapting such programmes to meet the needs of users.
This is particularly true for Green Bay Area Public Schools (GBAPS), which has been on a journey to transform the way it operates, squeezing every last ounce of education into its students’ lives while making learning easier and more fun in the process.
Overseeing these projects is Amy Sterckx, Executive Director of Technology and Information, who was born and raised in the area in which she now works. She began her career as a classroom teacher and now works for the organisation that has managed education across the city for more than 150 years, overseeing the technology integration across 42 schools for more than 19,000 students.
Securing the future of students and data
Adopting the necessary hardware and software solutions is a key part of enabling success, but Sterckx believes it goes beyond that as the commitment of the organisation to security becomes a critical part of school operations.
“Although hardware and software are large components of our work, technology truly encompases more than devices and software systems. Here in Green Bay, we have a large focus on the security of our student information that flows through our software systems,” Sterckx explains.
“Our students have so much of their information that is now naturally placed in the digital world, whether it's our student information system, online textbooks that we use, or third-party resources that are used in our classrooms.”
The repeated consideration for student safety has shaped the way the organisation uses technology and, through such efforts, the organisation has obtained over 100 student data privacy agreements to benefit the schools under its watch, but also those throughout the state of Wisconsin.
The group also offers training in collaboration with the county’s law enforcement to educate all people, internally and externally, on data security and how to protect their information as well as that of the children in the city. Such education is an important step in allowing children to have access to the powerful tools that enhance their learning.
Preaching equity in the learning environment
GBAPS prides itself in implementing the latest technological changes that impact the educational symptom as a whole, particularly as human resources has become an issue for many schools. Students and parents also gain peace of mind knowing that GBAPS is working tirelessly to secure student information.
“I think about it in a way that, just as we protect our students in the physical world—we make sure we know who we're sending them home with and that our doors are locked—we strive to do the same in our digital world,” Sterckx says.
This also plays into the organisation’s ethos of equity. The ability to provide equity for its students is what is expected from parents; the ability to support its staff to achieve great things is not so much of an expectation, but it is second to none. Securing a bright future for students begins with the interview process and works its way into the classroom environment to support both students and teachers.
“We recently hired staff members to make equity the main focus of their job role. Specifically, the person that I'm thinking about here is responsible for planning, organising, coordinating, and implementing equity initiatives throughout the district. To expand on the work that takes place in the district, they also serve as a liaison between our district, local universities, community agencies, and, really, our community at large,” says Sterckx.
“We're very proud to say that this person was named one of the most influential Black leaders in Wisconsin, which really shows our support for equity throughout our district, whether it’s a diverse background, special education or resource access from our department, such as access to the internet and devices.”
Equity was ingrained into the organisation early in its existence and strives for this across all facets of education. The continuous commitment to equity allows the organisation to further its social reach and support the development of students from overseas—some may not even know English—as well as families in the city, by also offering them learning opportunities.
“Green Bay attracts so many families and offers families throughout the community many different learning opportunities,” says Sterckx.
“Whether a parent is looking for opportunities to focus on learning based in STEM or bilingual education, our IB programme, project-based learning, or learning centred around the arts, automotive learning, culinary, manufacturing, the list of opportunities just goes on. Parents find that we have opportunities here in GBAPS for every child.”
Simple steps bring technology to the forefront
Much of the technological development that has taken place across GBAPS is adoption. New, personal computers are provided to pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students and all certified staff members. Cost savings is a key benefit of digital adoption experienced across schools.
By working with JAR Systems, GBAPS has enabled more computer access across schools and streamlined the way that students use technology throughout their daily lives. JAR is one of the company’s partners for IT equipment provisions and has been instrumental in taking schools through transformation over many years of partnership.
Years back, the company worked with GBAPS to provide access to laptops across district classrooms via a cart model.. Using these dedicated carts, students had access to laptops directly in their classroom rather than having to leave the classroom to go to a computer lab. This solution is the earliest option to be sourced by GBAPS, but now schools’ use of laptops has increased. Students are able to take the devices home to continue work outside of school hours.
“In our current state, the Board of Education has invested in roughly 20,000 Chromebooks to support a one-to-one student device ratio,” says Sterckx.
“These devices were in need of a modernised charging station. The charging carts were great when we had them, but they were large. They took up a lot of space in the room and required the charging cord to remain in the cart.”
As a result of this new charging station, students can now leverage the ability to work at home, taking their personal computer to and from school while not having to worry about a charging cord. JAR was a major cog in this project as it provided the solutions while also solving some of the mobility issues, preempting that some students would return to school needing to charge their laptops.
“Prior to the solution that JAR helped us put in place, if a student came back to school with an uncharged computer or the battery was low, they would have to leave the classroom, walk down to the library, swap devices or get a charging cord, and come back to the classroom. JAR offered us a solution that allowed us to have battery packs in all of our classrooms where students can take the charged battery pack, plug it into their computer and continue working at their desk,” Sterckx says.
It may not seem like a huge difference to many, but the difference that this modernised charging system has had on learning and accessibility is invaluable.
This solution, although it may seem like a simple fix in the modern technology landscape, has revolutionised the way that students work and has saved students important study time they would otherwise lose moving around school.
Sterckx preaches the fact that more intuitive and compact digital solutions create a better learning experience.
“At our elementary levels, charging carts were replaced with charging stations that have dramatically reduced their footprint. They are a lot smaller and have created more space for different learning activities throughout the classroom.”
As GBAPS looks to the future for both its students and the wider state, technology will be embedded further into school practices and open more doors for learning and adapting to the digital landscape. Sterckx states that the organisation strives for more of a routine, making sure that devices are up to date and all equipment is in use and functioning as it should be at regular intervals.
“I believe COVID-19 has opened our eyes up to opportunities that we may not have seen three or four years ago,” says Sterckx as she talks more about the future of the Green Bay area, which is full of opportunities that were unforeseen prior to digital transformation. New and emerging technologies will soon become embedded into the schools’ daily practices and openness to available solutions could future-proof education.
“I think we're going to continue to see an expansion of the use of virtual reality and augmented reality to explore learning topics that maybe, traditionally, couldn't have been experienced within the four walls of the classroom,” says Sterckx.
“We’re really taking this as an opportunity to put our students at the centre of learning with our teachers as guides on the side to meet the needs and the desires of the students in their classroom.”