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Even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Orange Unified School District (OUSD) made equity and inclusivity front and center to their mission statement, committing themselves to “provide inclusive and culturally relevant environments that support the social-emotional and intellectual needs of all.” That inclination serves their diverse constituents well. Despite the way Orange County is often portrayed in movies and shows, Orange USD spans six diverse cities and serves 28,000 students from a wide range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.
When all 40 of OUSD’s schools closed, teachers and administrators were forced to recreate those same inclusive and culturally relevant environments online. To do that, OUSD agreed the best course of action was to deploy 16,000 Dynabook laptops as quickly as possible.
Achieving parity in a diverse population with online learning
Tam Nguyen, director of IT for OUSD, has been working in schools for more than a decade and has spent the last seven years at OUSD. For 20 years he watched parents and administrators clash over funding, updates and school bonds. When the COVID-19 emergency hit, Nguyen and his team of 34 IT professionals realized it was now or never to move forward with educational technology that would support all of OUSD’s learners.
“We had to get something that would bring some parity to the different groups,” Nguyen said.
To achieve that, OUSD needed to bridge gaps in device access, Wi-Fi access and device capability. They needed to provide students with age and curriculum appropriate devices that were sturdy, robust and centrally managed. Prior to the pandemic, the district deployed a range of educational devices and operating systems, such as Chromebooks and iPads, and provided on-site technology for students without personal devices. When those on-site tech opportunities vanished with the virus, it became clear that “technology had become the paper and pencil of today’s learning.”
Learning remotely requires a robust device
Before COVID, technology was a supplement to learning, not its primary vehicle. As a result, Nguyen program used a variety of devices, so that principals and teachers from the various schools could select what seemed useful in a given moment.
“We had iPads, Chromebooks, and PCs available for teachers and principals to purchase, to make a decision on what platforms were best for their teacher population or their curriculum,” Nguyen said.
When students used their devices for specific projects, doing homework or internet, those devices worked fine. But when all learning became online learning, and the computer became the classroom itself, Nguyen and his colleagues quickly recognized the piecemeal device program simply wasn’t going to cut it.
“Prior to COVID schools purchased mostly Chromebooks, second population was iPads, and then third population, probably 20-25% of the district, was PCs. So, at the time, PCs were definitely the minority,” Nguyen said. “When we went to remote learning, everyone took their devices home, and then we started to get calls from schools saying, ‘Hey, can we swap them out for PCs?’”
So, in just under two months, OUSD engaged with a Microsoft team to select, configure, and deploy 16,000 Dynabook laptops. Microsoft Autopilot, which uses automation to simplify the deployment process, ensured that students needed only to connect and verify their identity to get rolling.
utopilot also auto-enrolled the devices in Microsoft Intune, so Nguyen and his team could manage the devices remotely, which, while convenient in the days of in-person schooling, was absolutely critical during a full year of remote learning.
Christine Rotsios teaches fourth graders at Anaheim Hills Elementary. Her students used a variety of devices, including many Chromebooks. When the Dynabook laptops rolled out, she said, “I was amazed at the speed with which my colleagues and I were able to transition.”
“We went with the PCs all the way down to the PK level — and the community loved it, the teachers loved it and the students knew how to use it. Some people think that Windows is a little difficult for students to use, but they loved it too,” Nguyen said.
Swapping out the legacy devices
The calls to swap weren’t just coming from upper grades, but from elementary schools, which had previously relied on iPads for educational technology, “We heard from kindergartens, first grades, second grades. Places where traditionally you would see iPads dominate,” Nguyen said. Suddenly, touch devices and tablets with no keyboards just didn’t stand up to what teachers required.
“Even elementary teachers wanted the functionality of the PC, including a keyboard and Windows,” Nguyen said. “They wanted the Windows environment for younger kids which arguably is more complex. I think that definitely says a lot.
“The PC devices deployed in these younger grades are robust and affordable, and they can keep up with video conferencing,” Nguyen said. “The processing power of the device ended up being a godsend.”
Supporting vulnerable kids through interactive technology
Educational equity isn’t just about academics. Promoting an inclusive and culturally responsive classroom environment means acknowledging that some kids are having more trouble at home — illness, job loss — that may impact their ability to learn. When the day-to-day routine of seeing friends in between classes or the opportunity to drop in and see a school counselor suddenly vanished, emotional support had to come from the online classroom. Students needed the ability to work collaboratively in groups or video chat with friends while simultaneously doing schoolwork.
“The social emotional part of the classroom was a significant issue,” said Rotsios, the Anaheim Hills teacher. Her fourth graders really missed their friends, and so she and her colleagues sought ways to match the collaborative environment of their in-person classroom with the online classroom.
“Utilizing breakout rooms and having small discussions helped,” she said.
Nguyen also understood social-emotional behavior as a major issue during coronavirus isolation. “I think we just needed to keep everyone really happy, positive, and just stay out of student depression, because those rates went up exponentially during COVID.”
“I hate to think, what if we didn't have all of these interactive tools? What if the maturity of video conferencing and online classrooms wasn't there? Everyone would be pretty much isolated, you'd never see your fellow classmates. It could have been a pretty dark place for a lot of students.”
After a full year of remote learning, most of OUSD’s 28,000 students are back to school. Rotsios is impressed with how her fourth graders now use technology, asking for more interactive experiences and even showing her tips and tricks. She is, of course, happy to have more room to teach different techniques and learning preferences that can come with in-person learning, and still intersperses pen-and-pencil work with technology-enabled teaching.
She is candid about how the pandemic affected certain families more than others and how students were learning in households where family members had suddenly lost their jobs. But that isn’t the end of the story for OUSD. In fact, Rotsios sees a clear positive impact from OUSD’s 1:1 device program.
“I think it levels the playing field. Now everybody is working with the same device in the classroom. Everybody has access now. It helps kids who didn’t have a device at home because when you don’t have a device at home you don’t get to play around with it. You don't get that downtime to work on something that maybe isn't an academic assignment but something they want to learn how to do. Now they have that capability because they have their device at home.”
Nguyen is so confident in the new device infrastructure, he’s confident they can quickly adapt to a school closure. “The Dynabook devices are robust, we can manage them with Intune, we use single sign-on, they can access all of their applications. If we had to flip back and forth between remote and in-person at this point, it doesn't stress me out. As a matter of fact, we're all preparing for that situation.”
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Jason Cockrum is director of education marketing at Microsoft.