Bringing a Digital Revolution to the Heart of California

Cebron Walker


Cebron met up with Mr. Madden in Fresno, California, for a Digital Curriculum Discussion Meeting. Kurt is the Chief Technology Officer for the Fresno Unified School District, which, as the fourth largest school district in California, serves 106 schools and over 73,000 students. Bringing the digital revolution to such a large and diverse group of students requires careful planning. Over the past eight years, Madden has been working with the schools in his district to incorporate digital curriculum while paying close attention to the big picture.

When Madden’s district first started talking about digital content, he realized that the first step would be addressing what he calls “the plumbing”—the infrastructure needed to support the proposed changes. Eight years ago, the district’s technology and slow bandwidth couldn’t handle the load.

Madden’s strategy was to take advantage of funds offered through E-rate, the FCC’s educational technology program, to put in fiber-optic lines to all the schools. Once each classroom had a wireless access point instead of the old wired connections, attention could then be turned to content.

Starting Slow
Digital curriculum represents a fundamental change in the way children are educated. Instead of jumping headlong into full-scale implementation, Madden is a big advocate of dipping a toe in the water first. Fresno Unified’s strategy started with a pilot program staffed by the teachers who were most interested and invested in using digital curriculum and devices in their classrooms. Because these teachers were already knowledgeable about technology, no additional training was needed. The district simply provided the tools and they took off. At the end of the pilot period, they evaluated what worked and what didn’t, which helped shape the program as it was rolled out to the rest of the schools and teachers.

"That process of doing something small to see how it works means you get small successes," Madden says, “but it also prevents you from having large failures. The main thing is to get started." He also points out that starting with a pilot reduces pushback at the district level. It’s much easier to get someone to sign off on a small pilot than a huge undertaking that will affect all the schools in the district, and the lessons learned from the initial trial can be used to create a plan that will have real impact."

The Right Program for Each District
Every district is different, and each one needs to come up with an educational technology strategy that fits their individual needs. Fresno Unified, for example, currently has about one device for every 2.5 students. Madden isn’t convinced that a 1:1 ratio (a device in the hands of every teacher and student) makes sense for them. Not every teacher is ready to change the way they’re teaching, and 3,500 teachers is a formidable number to get on board all at once.

He also doesn’t recommend forcing resistive teachers to get on board. "If everyone else moves in this direction, but they want to stay there, my opinion is let them,” Madden says. "Instead of trying to do things by compliance, by saying 'you all will,' it always works out better by attraction—if they can see somebody who's really successful and then ask, 'How do I do that?'"

Madden points out that they have some students bringing their own devices for use with digital curriculum. The school ensures they have access, but there’s a good possibility that it won’t be long before the devices they have at home surpass the capabilities of the ones at school. With prices going down to the point where you can buy an advanced device for less than you’d pay for a pair of tennis shoes, even low-income families (85% of the students in the district receive free or reduced lunches) are starting to be able to afford to make the investment for their kids. Madden predicts that within the next 3-5 years, a majority of the students will have their own devices.

Advice to New Adopters
Schools have been teaching with pencils and paper for hundreds of years, so Madden cautions that the switch-over isn’t going to happen overnight. For the digital implementation strategy to work, the actual process of learning needs to be changed so it integrates with the technology.

"If I look at the barriers for digital learning, one of the biggest ones is that it's not about the technology,” he says. "This is not a light switch. You don't buy tablets for every kid and say go learn. But we at the executive level tend to have that kind of philosophy. School districts get put under pressure to get with the digital world, and it's really the cart before the horse. It's too easy to go to the store, so to speak, and buy a bunch of stuff. How you take that and integrate it into true instruction and learning is the hard part."

The Role of the Teacher
During Mr. Madden’s talk at the recent Learning Counsel discussion meeting in Fresno, he made an interesting analogy. He compared the role of a teacher in the digital curriculum revolution to that of a personal trainer. People hire a trainer to help them do something that they could do on their own, but won’t. Students could very well use educational technology themselves, but it’s only with the help of an experienced coach that they’ll be able to stay focused and excel.


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