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How A One-Woman IT Department Brought Modern Education Technology to a Rural School District

This article is part of a new series for IT professionals in the education space. If you missed it, read the first article “What is EdTech?” where we’ll be adding links to additional articles as they publish.

When she arrived at Douglass Independent School District in 2005, Lisa Nelson had one goal: bring modern technology to her rural school district. Located in Nacogdoches, Texas, two hours north of Houston, the district serves over 450 students in grades kindergarten through 12 across three buildings. As the school’s only IT professional, she knew her journey to EdTech would not be all smooth sailing. 

But Lisa is a firm believer in tech literacy for all students. As a result, today, students in her district enjoy comparable technology to what’s used in larger, urban districts. Teachers are armed with tools like smartboards, digital projectors, iPads, and digital cameras. Every student in grades 7-12 brings their own Chromebook to and from school.

This radical technology influx has totally transformed the way teachers interact with students, manage their classrooms, and build their curriculums.

The need for modern education technology in a rural district

When she came to Douglass ISD, Lisa says teachers had computers, but these workstations were stand-alone, so staff couldn’t even communicate with each other via email. Getting high-speed Internet in their rural location meant paying for a fiber line to run closer to the school, as there wasn’t one close previously. In order to support the iPads and new workstations they were purchasing, they increased their bandwidth every year, going from 2.8 to 80 mbps in just four years (currently, Lisa’s working to increase it to 100).

Making a shift to more technology didn’t come without challenges. Parents were initially fearful that 1:1 computing would give students “an open conduit to the Internet,” said Lisa. Key to garnering parental support was educating them on the benefits of giving every student a device, such as the flexibility to work both at home and at school, along with security measures that would keep them from roaming undesirable areas of the Internet.

Hear from more IT leaders who have rolled out modern technology in their schools in this free downloadable eBook Education Technology in 2016.

Managing a growing network

When her first shipment of iPads arrived on campus, Lisa said that although the devices were ready-to-go, issues connecting devices with switches made their rollout “a little bumpy.” Troubleshooting revealed a need to manually reconfigure the existing IT infrastructure. Management of new technology was also “a serious concern” with more and more devices to handle, and finding education device management software like Impero and GoGuardian helped.

Today the district’s IT infrastructure consists of over 350 Chromebooks, 200 workstations, 150 iPads, and a multitude of iOS systems, servers, switches, and routers. As they have bought more devices, Lisa said their “growth is just limited by money. And the amount that you can handle as is.” She continually watches to make sure they don’t come close to outgrowing the network, leaving room to expand as they go, and upping bandwidth when needed to support additional tech, because “nothing is worse than brand shiny devices that you can’t get on the Wi-Fi.”

Positive results keeps everyone on-board

Thankfully, Lisa said that getting budget for IT projects has been smooth, thanks to incredible support for new technology from teachers, the school board, and the community. In fact, district enrollment has been up every year she’s been with the district; a direct result, Nelson believes, of the way the district supports technology in education. To make sure EdTech continues to have a positive impact on students, she’s invested significant time in teacher training and surveys, attending faculty meetings, and inviting continual feedback from teachers on issues they’re experiencing. She also surveys students, asking what went well and what changes students would like to see in the way technology is used in their education. 

Nelson believes that any school, no matter their size, can stay in the EdTech game. “My mission statement is that I feel that we may be a rural district, but there’s no reason we can’t be competitive with districts around us and on a national level…. It’s a disservice to not prepare students for what they’ll find in business and college.”

Staying competitive in the EdTech space

So how do IT professionals help keep their districts competitive? Beyond reading and research, “having a really solid network of people in your industry, like other directors of IT or tech specialists, to bounce ideas off of.” Seeing EdTech implemented at various stages in other school districts has been one of the biggest ways Lisa has learned. Attending events also help Lisa stay connected with what’s going on in the larger EdTech world. (Two of her favorites: the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference, and the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) Annual Convention & Exposition.)

What’s next for Douglass ISD? Nelson says that going 1:1 with Chromebooks was a big change, and although she’s not sure what’s next, she’s excited about what’s to come. “Seven years ago it was iPads. Four years ago, Chromebooks and Smartboards. Who knows what’s going to be the next big thing?”

Learn from other forward-thinking IT leaders featured in our free downloadable eBook Education Technology in 2016. Already read the eBook? Check out “The One IT Tool Every School Should Budget for This Year.”