Ed. note: Choosing hardware or software for an entire school district is a momentous decision, so it only makes sense that districts across the country are choosing to pilot products before signing on the dotted line. Here are two case studies of how carefully planned and executed pilots helped districts make informed choices—and improve teaching and learning.
Central Falls School District, Rhode Island
Becky Oristaglio, Speech and Language Pathologist
Hearing and understanding what is being said in the classroom play a crucial role in a student’s speech and language development, reading and spelling ability, attention and concentration, and overall academic achievement. Experiencing the impact of poor acoustics in the classroom led me on a journey to create an environment where communication was optimal for students in my charge.
In early 2010, I began the search for the best amplification system to implement in the classrooms of Veterans Memorial Elementary School to improve learning for students with hearing loss and impairments, learning disabilities, and English Language Learners. I turned to university-level research and the district’s consulting audiologist for high-quality recommendations on the best system available, and almost everything I read documented Lightspeed Technologies’ Redcat audio system as the system of choice.
I presented the research and my vision for change to the principal, who embraced the idea and gave permission for a trial period. I contacted the local Lightspeed representative to discuss my lofty goal of implementing soundfield systems in all classrooms in the district and requested two trial units. The Lightspeed representative sent three units for trial, came to Veterans School to set up units, and provided instruction on how to use the Redcat.
The system came in three parts — speaker, wearable teacher’s microphone, and a Sharemike handheld student pass-around microphone — which were simple enough that I was able to move the systems between classrooms after one week to give many teachers the opportunity to access the system’s usability and impact on learning and student performance. At the end of the trial, the classroom teacher completed a questionnaire and provided feedback on their experience. At week’s end, teachers were pleading to retain the system, because they noticed their students were more engaged in lessons and distractions were minimal.
My search for a solution that would help students with hearing impairments and learning disabilities and English Language Learners led to the realization that being able to hear the teacher clearly benefited every single student in the district. With university research, documented trial data, and teacher/student feedback, the district clearly acknowledged the need for this tool in all classrooms. We made plans to expand our pilot.
Since this sort of technology was not budgeted, the Special Education Director, consulting audiologist, and I wrote a grant asking for funding to pilot the amplification system in every classroom in the school. We received the funding, and in 2010, 29 Lightspeed systems were installed at Veterans Memorial Elementary. Every year since we’ve added more and more systems to our schools. Today our district has Redcat systems in 127 classrooms. Central Falls recently acquired funding and purchased 16 additional units scheduled for installation in ELL classrooms this summer. I hope to be able to procure the needed ten soundfield units to fulfill my original goal.
But we’ve gotten more than just hardware. Lightspeed and Central Falls have a close partnership. Every teacher gets troubleshooting tips before implementation, training on how to use the system and ongoing support.
In addition to each classroom’s Sharemike handheld microphones, we have purchased several additional teacher microphones for our shyest students to wear throughout the day. Hearing their voices amplified and the responses from their peers has increased their confidence, participation, and social interactions, resulting in improved academic performance and the establishment of positive peer relationships.
St. Clair R-XIII School District, Missouri
Nadine Aitch, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
St. Clair’s instructional and technology team regularly attends professional development conferences, as well as dedicating time to researching products that are new to the market. We also use Twitter to follow educational groups that are tied closely to Google, instructional technology (#GoOpen), and many other groups as well. For three years, I was a part of the team that attended ISTE, which is often where we find the next technology we want to pilot.
In most cases, it’s a team decision to pilot a product that might fit an academic need in our district. Of course, our superintendent has the final say on whether or not it’s fiscally possible to purchase the product. A key to our success with technology implementations is that we pilot two or three products a year but have never piloted a product that we knew we couldn’t afford. Piloting products allows us to test them in real-world circumstances to make sure that we don’t waste money, time and forward progress on a product that is not going to positively impact student achievement.
We strive to do our homework on the front end. As part of our research, we contact other school districts who are using the product, and conduct site visits to see and hear for ourselves what their teachers think of the product. Very rarely do we pilot a product that is “brand new.”
We’re a PLC (Professional Learning Community) District, so data is very important to us. We want data to drive our instruction wherever possible, so we need the data we collect to be useful and actionable for our teachers. Products also need to be easy for our teachers to adopt and use.
In 2013, the year our district went one-to-one, we found many resources with a focus on STEM, but we were not finding quality technology resources for literacy. We are a balanced literacy school, so the fit had to be perfect. After viewing myON at ISTE, we thought it supported our balanced literacy model, so we launched a pilot.
We made the decision to start small with the myON pilot, introducing it to a number of our “Rock Star” teachers during summer school. (We already had a few other new initiatives going, so we were worried that we would overwhelm our teachers with one more thing.) Using a “train the trainer” model, we set up extensive PD for our Rock Stars and allowed them to implement and use the platform for a few weeks. We knew that if our Rock Stars gave their seal of approval, their excitement would spread through the district like wildfire, leading to more teachers asking to pilot the product as well. We never turn down a teacher who is interested in taking part in a pilot.
To measure the success of a pilot, we listen to our teachers. Often we will have teachers complete a Google Form or survey to share their thoughts on the pilot. Our instructional tech coaches spend a lot of time in the classrooms to not only provide technical support but also to observe the product in use, so we have a good grasp of what teachers and students think of the product and how it is being integrated.
In the past, we’ve said no following a pilot. Ownership of the product changed companies in the midst of our pilot, and there were several kinks in the new set-up that caused our teachers and students to become extremely frustrated. It was an electronic product, so it was crashing, not tracking student data correctly, and giving us constant error messages.
If I were offering advice to other districts just starting with pilots, I would say: Do your homework up front. Conducting a district needs survey is a great place to start. Listen to your teachers too, but remember that often, teachers are not exposed to new products, so create a team to do some of the front-end research. Attending conferences like ISTE that have a heavy emphasis on instruction and technology is another great place to start. And most of all, don’t pilot a product or initiative if you know the district can’t afford it.