How One District Is Transforming Digital Learning

Dekalb County School District CIO Gary Brantley explains how Digital Dreamers, a $30 million tech overhaul, is changing the digital experience for students and teachers.

by Gary Brantley / April 9, 2018

While pedagogies, learning tools and technology have evolved over the 20 years I’ve worked in the industry and 14 years as a leader in educational technology, the belief in digital equity has remained a constant for me. Regardless of state, neighborhood, socio-economic status or ethnicity, students should have the necessary access to information technology for lifelong learning, civic engagement, career readiness and essential services.

In 2016, I took this belief a step further with the introduction of the Digital Dreamers program, a $30 million technology overhaul for the DeKalb County School District (DCSD), the third-largest school district in Georgia. The program specifically addresses digital equity and access, and exposes our students to digital citizenship, social responsibility, and collaborative learning communities.

I’ve been honored to work with a skilled and dedicated group of individuals who get it. Computers and technology have become a standard across every level of education, and it’s our responsibility to ensure students are adequately prepared. Through our department we strive to ensure that the 102,000 students and 14,000 staff members and personnel of the district receive advanced technology systems, secure infrastructures and strong solutions to enhance learning and support teaching. This shared belief has been turned into the Digital Dreamers program. This comprehensive program, which illustrates our persistent efforts to bridge and build globally competitive students, includes:

  • A 1:1 device rollout for all middle and high schools, which will include a Chromebook laptop for each student.
  • Every teacher of record in the district will receive a laptop.
  • An Elementary Computer Refresh: the district will remove 9,700 outdated machines from elementary schools and install more than 25,000 new machines to increase students’ digital footprint.
  • Digital Dreamers 1 Million Project: Through this districtwide distribution, DCSD will provide 25,000 mobile hot spots to eligible students. These devices will provide each household up to 3GB per month of free Internet connectivity. This portion is made possible by the Sprint Foundation as a part of its 2014 pledge to provide wireless broadband to 50,000 K-12 students in low-income school districts across the country.

Building the Digital Dream

Before the Digital Dreamers program took shape and began transforming learning across the school district, we worked for more than six years to prepare. Community engagement and feedback is important to us, which is why we conducted stakeholder interviews and paid keen attention to their ideas on budget planning and overall IT desires for the district. We created a future-ready infrastructure for students, faculty and staff by adding more than 6,000 access points. This vital addition accommodated over 575,000 wired devices — that’s three devices per student. We also increased our Internet bandwidth, tightened up network security and upgraded our wide area network with state-of-the-art switches.

This community support and planning was bolstered by a very supportive school board that understands the value of having our students prepare for college and the future that’s ahead of them. The Digital Dreamers program also relies heavily on maximizing relationships, leveraging corporate sponsorships and working with faculty and staff to educate them on the importance of digital equity. In addition to the Sprint Foundation, other sponsors of the Digital Dreamers initiative include Acer and Virtucom.

The Impact of Digital Dreamers

As of March 2018, more than 45,600 Chromebooks have been deployed to help DCSD students complete assignments and study courses. More than 6,800 Chromebooks have been deployed to teachers to make issuing assignments easier. Approximately 5,000 DCSD students now have access to the Internet because of mobile hot spots.

This program is transforming learning, leadership, teaching and the classroom experience, made evident by students’ own testimonials and praise of the program. Take for instance high school junior Madison High, who didn’t have Internet at home before Digital Dreamers and now has a mobile hot spot, which she uses for homework, to study and to make great use of interactive tools like Khan Academy, Edpuzzle, and Google Classroom.

Madison says she’s also experiencing improved grades and higher test scores. “We can connect more. I don’t just learn in the classroom, I learn all day long. I can go anywhere I want to go to do school projects,” she said.

Digital Dreamers supports interactive discussions and fostering real-time student-teacher engagement. According to Angela Woods, an instructional support specialist for our district, Digital Dreamers has totally changed the school’s instructional environment. The program has provided equal footing to teachers and students, allowing both to remotely connect to the classroom if needed and have an easier time completing assignments, she said.

In January, we were forced to close schools due to inclement weather, but the Digital Dreamers technology allowed us to employ our first-ever Virtual Learning Days to make up this lost time. That’s powerful!

Ensuring Digital Inclusion on All Fronts

While Digital Dreamers is the largest technology overhaul we’ve completed, there are other programs that complement it and allow students to create an even greater digital footprint, including our virtual learning experience FLEX Academy.

We’ve also spearheaded the launch of the ed tech program IGNITEU, which assists in developing a strong technological foundation in support of our kids’ futures. As a part of this three-year professional learning plan and our continual tech training, we provide instructional staff with Tech Beat webinars, on-demand guides, virtual collaborative Q&A sessions and more.

Programs similar to Digital Dreamers are critical in improving digital inclusion. College and workforce preparedness are two of the biggest issues facing youth across the nation, and it’s time for ed tech professionals and leaders to fuse our experience and passion for digital equity to bridge the digital divide.

Gary Brantley is chief information officer of the Dekalb County School District.

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