Q&A: IUSD’s director of education technology talks latest classroom innovations

Kris LinvilleIf you want to know all about the latest instructional technologies being used in the Irvine Unified School District, Kris Linville is your go-to guy.

He’s the district’s director of educational technology, and he leads a tech-savvy team of educators and specialists dedicated to enhancing classrooms with tools that maximize the time and talents of IUSD’s teachers. He’s also a former teacher who spent 11 years at Sierra Vista Middle School, leading video production and web design courses.

At the risk of feeling like we attended school in the Dark Ages, we recently caught up with Linville, a former IUSD Teacher of the Year, to talk about the latest developments in Ed Tech, including a new web-based system designed to revolutionize classroom-to-home communication.


So, what’s new and exciting in Ed Tech?
Well, for Irvine Unified, what’s new and exciting is we are implementing a program called Canvas, which is a course management solution, or CMS.

Canvas is going to be a way for a teacher to communicate with students and parents at home by essentially having a website where they can post announcements and course documents, and where they can host collaborations and discussion boards. That teacher could also do some form of flipped teaching, which is where they record a video of themselves and present it as an online lesson for their students.

What’s nice about Canvas is that it’s not some open website that anyone can go to. Previously, if a teacher had a worksheet that they made a copy of, they could never publish that on a public website. But because this is closed, if a teacher has permission for that worksheet to be handed out to students, they’re actually allowed to host it on their website. So you can imagine a kid who forgot their worksheet, or maybe the parents want to see what’s happening in the class. There’s also a nice calendar feature. A teacher could actually go in, put down all of their assignments, field trips, any major activities happening and it’s set up in the calendar so that students can be notified.

At the high school level, there are some nice mobile apps, so if a student has a smartphone or an iPad they actually can be notified on those devices, and they don’t need to have a home computer to look at the homework or anything like that. They can actually access those files on their smartphones or tablets.

How will Canvas benefit IUSD students?
We’re finding that school-to-home communication through a product like this is allowing students to be more successful because their parents can be more involved with what they’re learning, and then also teachers are responding to fewer individual emails because they’re actually able to communicate more effectively to a broader audience.

With social media that’s available nowadays, students are already going to websites like Facebook and conferencing and collaborating with their peers. They’ll ask, “What’s due in this class?” or “Is anyone else having problems with No. 3?” And teachers don’t have a problem with that – it would be the same as if I went to your house and said, “Let’s do homework together.” So the next thing is, instead of it being on a public site that’s data-mining your information and where we don’t have the same way of regulating off-topic comments and pictures, we are now housing all of this on Canvas. So a teacher might have a video conference for 40 or 50 students the night before a final exam to answer questions. Meanwhile, it’s closed and compliant with the Family Education Rights Privacy Act and the Children’s Internet Protection Act.

How is this being rolled out?
We had a program before the school year started where we trained teachers. We are also offering monthly Canvas trainings, and we’re getting asked by specific sites to go out and do trainings. Of the courses that have been set up in Canvas, we have well over 50 percent of our teachers using it, and for the month of September we had 13,000 kids log in to use this, out of 32,000. That adoption rate is actually faster than we thought it would be.

And it’s not just being used at the elementary level or K-12. Harvard just adopted Canvas, and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business is using it as well. That’s one of the reasons that our secondary teachers wanted Canvas; they wanted to have a product that when the kids graduated from high school, they would have that similar feel at the college level.

Again, we’ve used products similar to this, but the power of having Canvas as our district-supported CMS is that all the kids are in there. Students don’t have to create new accounts for each class with separate logins. Each teacher’s classes are already generated, and students’ logins and passwords are the same ones that they would use to get on district computers. It’s all synced together.

What about parents with multiple students in the district?
It’s just one login for each parent. You’ll be linked to your children in the district, and you can see the calendars specific to each student.

Last time we spoke, we talked about the “Bring Your Own Device” movement, or BYOD, which encourages students to use their smartphones, tablets and laptops at school. Is there still momentum for this type of program in Irvine?
Yes. In fact, we just upgraded the bandwidth of all the sites, so elementary and middle schools are now at 500 megabits-per-second and the high schools are up to one gigabit-per-second. By upgrading the bandwidth, now when we start updating all the Wi-Fi, which we’re doing across the district, then that opens the door for BYOD.

Until the bandwidth and the Wi-Fi are set up, we will struggle with BYOD because even though a principal might be on board and say, “I’m OK with kids bringing their own devices,” there’s no point in bringing a device if it can’t connect. And we still see that problem where we go to a site and a teacher is very excited about a lesson and there are issues with student connectivity. The goal of our IT department is to make it feel seamless, the same way that you can go into an airport or a coffee shop, the same way you have 3G on your device and no matter where you go now you should be able to jump on and do some research and find information. That’s how we want our kids to feel when they’re at school. That being said, our goal at the high school level is to go BYOD probably within a year.

As a former classroom teacher, what value do you think technology brings to instruction?
I think technology has the power to elevate classroom engagement, allowing students to use all of their senses. You can go on Google and visit The Louvre and actually explore the museum and see a 360-degree panorama view. Things that couldn’t be done before are now possible with technology. We have teachers who are connecting with other classes across the U.S. We’ve had authors reach out and talk to classes with a video connection, and it’s all because of technology. These lessons contribute to a different level of student engagement, and adaptive assessments help to personalize instruction.

What we’re trying to move away from is technology being icing on the cake — and something that only certain teachers know how to do — to it being an ingredient in the cake. For that to happen, our infrastructure and our broadband and all of those things need to work seamlessly.

I understand the new computer-based state assessments tied to the Common Core standards are heavily reliant on a technology infrastructure. Is IUSD prepared for those?
Yes. Last year was the pilot for the new adaptive assessments, and bandwidth wasn’t an issue for our sites. We also had a lot of staff training on how to use it. I think our previous assessment coordinator, Irene Brady, did a great job, and now we have Alyssa Honeycutt in that role, and our district is prepared for the tests this year.

Lastly, how do Ed Tech’s goals align with the new Common Core standards?
If you look at some of the new standards, technology is in there. For instance, a standard might focus on presentation skills and might specifically say that the student has to use some type of media or technology to present. So, if the kids are being asked to do that as part of a standard, we have to make sure that teachers feel comfortable doing that. The big approach for Ed Tech is we need to look at Common Core and determine how many of these standards tap into using technology, and we have to make sure that teachers feel confident and comfortable using that technology.