ConnectED: Conversation with Diane Jones

The National Advisory Council on ConnectED is composed of leading K-12 public school officials who have come together, with the help of EveryoneOn, to maximize the value of ConnectED and offer educators’ perspectives on technology for the classroom. This interview is the first in a series of interviews with NACC members discussing the importance of technology in the classroom and the potential ConnectED has in changing the educational technology landscape.

Please explain how you became involved as a member of the National Advisory Council for ConnectED (NACC) and what your goals were for the initiative?

Initially it was completely unbeknownst to me that the NACC was being formed. I was in the process of completing the deployment of 40,000 Netbooks and subsequently implementing a “device take home” program in Detroit Public Schools (DPS). The goal of Netbook integration is learning anytime, anyplace. This program created a 1:1 environment for our 8th to 12th grade students who were participating. However, after speaking with teachers and administrators, it became clear to me that students did not have the connectivity to do homework or continue the learning process at home. When I came to understand that only 35 percent of our students had Internet services at home, I wanted to find a way to close the gap.

As a solution, I began to look for funding to help these students get connected. I started with the Michigan’s Department of Education, asking for Title funding to support thousands of Title I students’ in getting connected at home and was not successful. I understood the “No,” as it was a large request and, frankly, would have set precedent. This type of program had not been tested nor had the controls been put in place to support authorization.

So, I went on a talking tour and collaborated with our Office of State and Federal Programs. My team and I wrote a couple of proposals that were approved. Funding came from a private corporation and the nonprofit Community Telecommunications Network. These grants allowed us to conduct a two-year pilot with 500 families across 10 DPS schools. We used a hotspot from Kajeet with filtering capability, which we discovered at a Council of Great City Schools conference. This was a wonderful find!

As we were working to complete the pilot and report on its merits, and because we were using innovative “think outside of the box” tactics to achieve the goal, I was contacted by the U.S. Department of Education Chief of Staff Tyra. Mariani. She wanted to understand the district’s interest in having a conversation with EveryoneOn, which was working with other school districts around the country.

This was all before any discussion of an advisory council. She wanted to help DPS look at other ways to meet the needs of public school students and thought we would have an interest in the conversation. From there, I spoke with Sheila Dugan and Zach Leverenz from EveryoneOn, which in all honesty started off rocky, because I think initially we lacked clarity on what our shared goals were.

Months later, I received an email from Ron Chandler then-chief information officer of Los Angeles Unified School District and education consultant Richard Quinones asking if I would be interested in sitting on a committee that was looking at these issues and initiatives on a national level. This committee would help define a way forward for ConnectED.

After learning about the role NACC would serve, I said, “Absolutely.” This was a real opportunity to help with this initiative and to work toward closing the digital divide on the national front.

I am 100 percent on board with the mission of the Council, and this is certainly an emotional charge for me. There are children being left behind because of the digital gap, which speaks to their ability to compete on both a national and international stage.

To help them is my passion in life.

How do you see home connectivity’s role in the growth of technology in the classroom?

I think when the president went down to Mooresville, NC and spoke with Mooresville Graded School District Chief Technology Officer and NACC member Dr. Scott Smith, the most apparent problem was low connectivity in the schoolhouse. As such, the priority of the White House initiative was initially centered on broadband in the classroom, which is wonderful and provides opportunities that were not previously available in many schools.

However, what happens after the student leaves the classroom? What happens when the students get home? How do they continue the learning process?

With this in online slots mind, I was very encouraged by the offers presented by AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, which were willing to extend beyond the classroom and offer home connectivity options. These offers showed us all that they get the issue and that they understand the relevancy.

One of the factors I looked at when applying for funding for Internet connectivity at home was a study published by the Michigan State University that found that home Internet access improves academic achievement. When access is available, the walls of the school come down and learning expands to any place, anytime, which facilitates diversity in the way learning and instruction occurs.

Tell us how you see digital learning changing in the next five years. What changes would you like to see at DPS?

There will be a dramatic shift in the way we teach; there must be if we expect to compete. In the early 2000s, which really marked the beginning for e-learning, etc., it struggled to get a groundswell of interest and support. Now that it has garnered the support in the educational space, it is a game changer. It is a way of evolving the mission of education and to advance the Common Core by way of technology. The implications of improving education are interminable.

In the next five years I’d like to see my district provide more online learning, virtual classrooms, and increased flexibility in the design of programs to precisely fit academically gifted, challenged students, etc.

As a part of that vision, today we are in the process of putting tablets into the hands of our students who have special needs, those who can"t necessarily use the Netbooks or laptop due to issues with mobility. This is a new initiative that centers on inclusivity. If you find tools that are better suited to the student, then you can grasp their attention, and once you have their attention, you help them change their perspectives and provide a pathway to success.

The idea is to reduce barriers and create opportunities for all.

What are some improvements you would like to see in educational technology?

I’d like to see a change in instruction delivery as it relates to computer science and programming technology, as a part of the core curriculum in education, alongside other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses. It is critical that our students become digitally literate citizens so that they can test their interests in exploring these vast areas of technology as potential career paths.

I also believe it’s critical that teachers have access to all the training they require. We have a diverse population of educators, which provides for different perspectives and experiences. Providing instructors with the tools they need to assist this generation of students are a must.

Why should schools and school districts look towards ConnectED as an option for funding and implementing digital learning initiatives?

Many schools and school districts don’t have the funding to support digital learning initiatives across their respective districts. ConnectED brings together the information, the partnerships, and the resources required to provide this much needed assistance.

I would also say that the power of collaboration is priceless and it helps everyone. We must join forces as a coalition to ensure that every student in the United States has an opportunity to succeed. Working through ConnectED and communicating our collective needs will change the landscape of the offers being provided to us. It is important that we continue to speak up and participate in ConnectED.