An Amazing Time to Lead

Posted by Devin Vodicka on September 22, 2013

This is absolutely the most amazing time to be an educational leader. As a society, we are continuing to transition to the Information Age. As a nation, we are implementing the Common Core State Standards which raise the level of student expectations and compel significant changes in teaching and learning. As part of a multi-state consortium, we in California will soon be assessing our students using a computer-based performance assessment that includes adaptive capabilities. In addition, our state is implementing an entirely new funding and accountability system paradoxically known as “Local Control.”

Long-standing barriers melting away

While I find some irony in the title of the new funding and accountability model, the reality is that long-standing barriers to learning and opportunity are rapidly melting away. California legislative changes seem to be promoting a shift to digital learning resources. Revenues are on the upswing, including an investment of one-time dollars to support the transition to Common Core. The cost of mobile devices is declining and the computing power of the new tools continues to rise. We can now conduct video chats on our cell connection without the support of a wired or Wi-Fi Internet connection. Web-based resources and cloud storage developments are reducing the significant interoperability issues that have historically led to reliance on specific platforms in a given environment. Higher levels of connectivity allow us to leverage these resources in new and innovative ways.

Two hands holding a question mark

Time for some important questions

With fewer obstacles, we are now entering a phase where we must begin to ask some important questions related to educational technology, some of which are not directly related to technology itself but which are vital considerations as we move forward:

  • What is the purpose of public education?
  • How will we know if we are making progress?
  • What is the problem that we are trying to solve?
  • Is this resource effectively addressing the problem that we are trying to solve?
  • Is this resource providing some other unanticipated benefit that adds value?
  • Is this resource efficiently solving the problem or otherwise adding value?
  • Is there another resource that would more efficiently achieve the same result?

Are we ready?

As a leader, I wonder if we are ready to collect information, complete the requisite analysis, and engage in meaningful conversations that address these questions to help inform our ongoing efforts. I worry that if we do not adequately and systematically engage in this process we will miss our window of opportunity to maximize the creative potential of the amazing opportunities that are available in the midst of these transitions.

As we should have perhaps expected, our success in the Information Age will largely depend on our ability to make sense of an overwhelming amount of information. If we expect our students to have a high level of sophistication with an abundance of information, we will need to model the way.

Devin Vodicka is Superintendent at
Vista Unified School District in Vista, California. 

 

 

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Classroom Visits Inform and Inspire

Posted by Devin Vodicka on November 22, 2012

After 13 wonderful years with the Carlsbad Unified School District, I made the leap to neighboring Vista Unified as the new Superintendent in July.  Vista Unified is the fourth-largest district in San Diego County with over 22,000 students (25,000 when charters are included) and 32 school sites.  To help me to understand the new setting I made it a goal to visit every classroom within the first two months of the school year.  While I still have a few to see, I have managed to see hundreds of classrooms within that timeframe.

Though the duration of each visit was relatively brief, I saw amazing consistency in many respects and I also observed some unique and innovative practices.  In all, it has been a tremendous learning opportunity and I wish that I could share the experience in great detail.  In the spirit of brevity, here are three examples I doubt I would have seen even a few years ago.

High School

At Rancho Buena Vista High School the students in an English class had worked in small groups to create posters with content that would be used in an upcoming test.  In lieu of having each student copy the documents, the teacher invited students to take photos using their smartphones and then share the images with peers.  Brilliant!

 

High school students using cellphone in English class.
Rancho Buena Vista High School student uses phone to capture image of documents in English class.

Elementary School

In a primary classroom at Beaumont Elementary School, one teacher asked students to compose messages that could fit in a 140-character Twitter post to share their impressions of the classroom with me.  This was a great cross-disciplinary idea that required students to use a sentence frame and their writing skills.  Counting the characters required some number sense and application of mathematics.  Who knew that a Twitter assignment could be used as a prompt for first-grade students?

 

Twitter messages to the new superintendent.
Twitter messages to the new superintendent.

 

Tablets absolutely are  beginning to transform the educational experience for students.  In this photo from Temple Heights Elementary School the teacher was able to replay the work that a student had done on a particular math problem to better understand their reasoning and problem-solving approach.  The ease of use, portability, and flexibility of the tablets seem to be leading to higher levels of use than the computers that have all-too-frequently been left alone in the corners of the classroom.  I saw tablets being used for independent work, guided activities, and direct instruction in conjunction with LCD projectors.  I suspect that what I saw was simply the tip of the iceberg.

 

Elementary student using a tablet computer.
Elementary student using a tablet computer.

Insights

In reflecting on this experience, here are two quick insights:

  1. This is an amazing time to be in education.  New and innovative options for teaching and learning are emerging daily.
  2. Any educator in need of inspiration should find a way to visit classrooms.  The enthusiasm of the students—and the adults—is absolutely contagious.

I am already looking forward to the next round of visits!

Stay connected and follow our progress ….

Editor’s note: Here’s one of Devin’s recent Twitter posts.

 

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How Social Media is Changing School Business

Posted by Devin Vodicka on February 20, 2012

Technology is impacting international diplomacy.  Under Hillary Clinton’s leadership, the U.S. Department of State is embracing 21st Century Statecraft, which it defines as “The complementing of traditional foreign policy tools with newly innovated and adapted instruments of statecraft that fully leverage the networks, technologies, and demographics of our interconnected world.”  In Secretary Clinton’s own words,

“We’re working to leverage the power and potential in what I call 21st century statecraft. Part of our approach is to embrace new tools, like using cell phones for mobile banking or to monitor elections. But we’re also reaching to the people behind these tools, the innovators and entrepreneurs themselves.”

Interestingly, the Secretary’s comments reflect changes that we also see in local politics and leadership for school districts.  Like many school districts, Carlsbad Unified is facing significant financial challenges due to ongoing revenue reductions.  As a result, our district has been forced to make difficult decisions regarding layoffs, the elimination of programs, bargaining concessions with employee groups, and other expenditure reductions.  Each of these decisions at a local level is inherently political. In the process, our school board faces genuine and legitimate pressure from numerous constituents, all of  whom have strong feelings about protecting services that they feel have the strongest impact on students, families, and the community.

If international policy is now shaped by “using social media and the Internet in combination with more traditional … tools,” what does this imply for leaders at the local level?  First and foremost, I believe that educational leaders must recognize that the impact of social media is a significant factor in shaping perceptions and beliefs.  2011 research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that 65% of adults are now active on social networking sites.  In addition, the research found that even controlling for demographic factors such as age and education, social network users “were more likely to be politically involved than similar Americans.”

Once we as school leaders recognize this reality, the first step is to become engaged in the social networks as a contributor.  In our district, we have been using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Blogger as platforms to share good news and to help us respond in crisis situations.  More recently, I started a blog to share business services updates, most of which focus on our current financial challenges.  Information posted to the blog is then fed into our district website, shared through the district Facebook page, and linked in a Twitter update.  These multiple avenues allow others to re-tweet, share the Facebook update, subscribe to the blog, or embed elements in their own websites.

The “viral” effect has been amazing.  Here is a screenshot of data from some uploads to the blog.  Given that we have around 11,000 students in our district, the number of times these documents have been viewed shows that there is a high level of interest from the community in these topics.

The benefits of getting accurate, timely information out to the community are tremendous in terms of ensuring a common base of knowledge.  While our challenges are still monumental, and virtually every possible option for cutting expenses remains controversial, I believe that our process of seeking financial balance would be significantly more difficult if we were not using these social media outlets to help with communications.

My strong opinion, based on these recent experiences, is that school leaders at every level should be determining the best ways to leverage social media and social networks to enhance communications and effectiveness.  If we don’t make a presence in this virtual arena, our absence will indicate a lack of engagement and diminish the relevance of our efforts.  If we truly want schools that prepare students for success in this digital age, we as leaders need to model the way.

For leaders interested in learning more about using social media in schools, I recommend the following resources:

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Summer School: Lessons for the rest of the year?

Posted by Devin Vodicka on August 10, 2011

It is hard to believe that summer is almost over.  Like most districts in California, ours has been under intense fiscal pressure due to ongoing budget cuts.  This influence, coupled with increasing expectations for student achievement, led us to redesign our summer school options.  We now have an opportunity to reflect and evaluate the merits of our decisions.

The silver lining in the current financial crisis has been the relaxation of rules for programs like summer school.  In the past, our revenue would have been linked to the number of hours of attendance for students that qualified for varying rates of reimbursement.  Now that the supplemental hourly programs such as summer school are flexible, we asked ourselves what the needs of our students were and how we could best use existing resources to address those areas.  As a result, we decided to offer a distance learning program for students in need of credit recovery at the high school level and an English Learner academy for all grades.   Thanks to recent funding from the Education Technology K-12 Voucher Program, we had some iPads and iPod touch devices that we decided to deploy as part of our EL academy.

How did it work?

Our district sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean about 35 miles north of San Diego.  I mention this because the first thing we noticed was that attendance, which usually drops off during the summer, held steady in spite of the lure of our coastal diversions.  Student engagement, which typically is not at its peak during summer interventions, was remarkably different than in the past.  Teacher enthusiasm—also subject to variation during the summer—was off the charts in a positive direction.  Grades and local assessments also showed higher levels of success than we previously have seen in the summer.

Here are a few recommendations based on this experience:

  • Take advantage of the existing options to be creative with program design.
  • As always, consider multiple funding streams to support your plans.  We used Voucher funding for the hardware, Title III dollars for the EL academy instruction, and some Tier III revenues to provide for distance learning resources.  Much of the planning was supported by a one-time, ARRA Technology grant.
  • Remember that many technology resources—hardware and software—are unused during summer.  For us, having the iPads sit in storage would not have served our students.  The distance learning licenses we purchased earlier in the year were “annual” subscriptions that also were viable for use in the summer without any additional expenses.
  • Use student achievement data to guide your areas in need of attention.
  • Empower teachers and staff to best use the technology resources.  Our teachers discovered new and creative ways to motivate and instruct students that we would not have been able to anticipate had we provided too much of a script for their plans.

As educational leaders, my hope is that we find ways to turn our challenges into opportunities for improvement.  Strategic and novel deployment of existing technology resources is one strategy that will help us to best serve our students and communities.  If we can make it work during the summer, what is to stop us from doing the same throughout the year?

Learn more:

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Fitbit

Posted by Devin Vodicka on April 18, 2011

Do you have a fitbit?  I do.  It’s  a tiny device that can be worn on a belt clip or armband and tracks movement at all times.  When I get within range of my wireless sync station, my activity becomes available via an interactive website with a number of analytic tools.  These activity reports track calories burned, number of steps taken, net mileage, and a “performance level” of my movement for the day.  Here is one of my recent reports on a day where I was reasonably active.

Notice how the data is recorded in 5-minute increments.

The fitbit also creates a record of your sleep, including the number of times you awaken during the night.

Individual data can then be compared with peers to determine relative performance:

 

Finally, there is also a food log with numerous reporting options as well:

This abundance of data is typical of the potential that we have now in the digital age.  One tiny, relatively cheap device is generating detailed, drill-down performance metrics that can be displayed in a number of different ways to help me understand my own activity and performance.

Imagine the potential if every student had their own fitbit, tracking their performance in real-time with immediate feedback that can be used to help the students to understand themselves, set goals, and make adjustments in their own behaviors.  Now imagine that it wasn’t just tracking physical activity, but also the ability to apply learning in a meaningful way.  How would schools change?  How would teaching change?  How would kids change and how would society begin to change?

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