Moving Forward

Technology at Verbum Dei has taken major steps in the last six months. With assistance from our Federal Government’s E-Rate program, the school was able to procure funding to pay for a large portion of our new wireless and switching networks.  In addition, the school’s administrative data and server base achieved a much needed overhaul in 2016.  Lastly – with benefactor assistance – a new security appliance was installed, protecting the school from today’s latest data threats.  A sturdy and secure data infrastructure will enable our school to move forward with educational technology initiatives that best fit our unique blend and needs of our students.

Forecasting impactful Ed-Tech developments comes with some subtleties that are unique to Verbum Dei. Primarily, we’re looking to pilot a blended-learning initiative for the 2017-2018 school year with a vision to rollout the following year.  With blending learning, we look to involve traditional classroom curriculum and lesson planning with online instruction, both in school and at home.  Verbum Dei faces some upstream impedances; namely access to the internet at home on a consistent basis for some families.  Last year, we surveyed our families and found that 10% of our families do not have internet at home.  Although this seems daunting to tech initiatives, my gut feel is that the gap is closing.  I sense that all of our families will have internet services accessible in home in the seeable future.  And for those who may not, there are services and devices that can provide those families accessibility solutions on a case-by-case business.  Lastly, we are contemplating plans to roll-out some form of a one-to-one device initiative in the next few years.

Of course, funding and sustaining these programs require Verbum Dei to derive solutions from various sources. It’s not without consideration that families may be asked to contribute to some form of a “tech fund” as many schools – both public and private – have adopted.  We also will need to lean on deploying devices that have proven to be durable, as well as cost effective.  Lastly, we always need to effectively leverage the ongoing assistance of our loving benefactors and donors.  With this, we’ll ensure lasting, meaning directives that benefit our most valuable asset – our students

A Parents Meeting About Tech

The parents of current Verbum Dei students are encouraged to attend parent meetings held monthly on campus. In addition to earning service hours for their attendance, the parents benefit from increasing their knowledge ability on a wide range of topics focused on their son’s learning experience at Verbum Dei.  In October, the Technology Department was asked to host the meeting, the topic being “Life of a Teenage Boy in the Age of Technology.”

The topic was rather open-ended, but I wanted the meeting to be more informational than philosophical, so I narrowed my discussion to focus on student online activity and the ramifications of questionable online behavior. Primarily, I wanted the parents to know about everyone’s “Digital Footprint” and what that entails.  I wanted them to know that – in reality – their boys probably don’t understand that everything they do online is essentially permanent and forever.  They may think the activities they do online are private, but they’re not.  Everything they do online is tracked, saved and retrievable.  Also, I wanted them to know that even colleges – when reviewing applications– often investigates applicant’s online usage to get a gauge for that students personality and behavior.  It was my impression that some the parents in attendance were not fully aware of these practices.  Even though these were alarming facts, I felt alerting them to these actions was hugely beneficial.  I then went on to talk about cellular phone usage and the countless apps today’s teens are using with regularity.  I provided general information in a handout that detailed some of the more nefarious apps many teens use with regularity.  As an example, I used the popular Snapchat app to bring to light the idea – and dangers – of our Digital Footprint.  Teens may think their photos and videos in Snapchat delete when intended (and they do).   But what they don’t know is that the Meta Data (vital information about the posting) is saved.  There were several shocked faces in the room when I informed them of this, but – again – I felt the information held value.

It was gratifying to have several parents in attendance who spoke to their own teen’s online activity and what they do to protect their kids. The end of my discussion focused on beneficial apps for parents, and several parents mentioned they used those apps to protect and monitor their kids’ online activity. Afterwards, when the meeting was over, a group of attendees came up to me and expressed thanks for informing them about the dangers – and benefits of online activity.    Even though the news was not always good, it’s always best to be informed.

Access to Technology

With much of our lives, we tend to make assumptions – sometimes to things we think we know, but in reality, don’t.  Maybe because we’re rushed to find answers, we jump to thoughts based on what seem to be logical conclusions.   Or maybe our prejudices obscure the reality.  Either way, the quest for truth demands a more thoughtful approach than reliance on personal observations and feelings.  Sometimes, a simple survey can bring to light ideas and false perceptions we lazily “guess-timated” in the past.

Case in point:  For years, we made an assumption that led us to believe many of our students lacked internet access at home.  We knew some students had internet at home and some did not, but we never really knew the percentages.  The prevailing thought however was – due to the financial and economic stresses our families often face – as many as one out of two boys lacked internet connectivity at home.  And if the families had an internet connection at home, it would often be the first item to do without during tough times.  This foundational belief has in turn played a role in our curriculum.  For instance, why would Verbum Dei ever roll-out a one-to-one initiative for our students if we believed half of the student body – lacking internet access – could ever complete homework assignments at home?    Similarly, how could a teacher “flip” a classroom with the intent of having his-her students watch online lectures if they lacked the basic connectivity to do so?  Looking for ways to get around this dilemma, we needed to know what we were up against.  In terms of access to technology, how bad was Verbum Dei behind the 8-ball?

We sought answers to these questions in a survey completed by our students in September.  Here’s what we found:

  • 91% of our students have internet access at home.
  • 84% of our students have a computer at home.
  • Only 62% of our students have a printer at home.

What do we take from this?  Well, there good news and bad news to share. The good news is that nine out of 10 students have internet at home.  This was surprisingly higher than we had presumed.  However, only 70% of the students who said they have a computer at home told us that their computer was internet enabled.  Also, four out of 10 students could not print out an assignment at home.  Thus, depending on the type of assignment given to any verbum Dei student, we calculated that as many as 29% of the student base could not “complete” a school assignment at home.    Sadly there is still a reliance (for some) on completing school work on personal smartphones.

Although the survey results gave us a healthier and more encouraging outlook on our student’s ability to access technology at home, there is still much work to do.  In the short term, the school has increased computer lab hours this school year to answer the need; we’ve added three hours of lab time after-school to enable students to complete their homework and/or print their assignments.  This simple solution to our access issue has been an over-whelming success.  We will continue to offer after-school computer access next year.   And moving forward, we are committed to finding any potential one-to-one – or even hybrid one-to-one – solutions that can best assist us in achieving our accessibility goals.

High-End Computer Questions with Which I Don’t Immediately Have an Answer To

Over my 5+ years as Tech Director at Verbum Dei, I’ve experienced a rather remarkable change in my regard towards our students’ learning capabilities.  It’s been a revolution of sorts, and probably speaks more to my own misunderstandings than to the students themselves, but ultimately reflects positively towards our intrepid young men.

My background previous to Verbum Dei was in the private sector, so I had no previous experience in education and working with high school students. Any interactions with students early in my first year were tainted with a mindset driven by a belief that these guys were young and probably hadn’t benefitted from the exposure to technology compared to many other middle class communities.   I believed in my own semi-tainted mind many of our boys had matriculated through school districts that were poorly funded and under-served.  So when students approached me with technology questions or problems they were facing, I approached my solutions for them in learning contexts – assuming these were great “teaching” moments for them – as well as I.  And this is how I handled those types of questions when they came to me for assistance.

My point for sharing this is most interesting –not that those types of questions have gone away over the years.  I still get those questions.  And it is also true that Verbum Dei students haven’t always benefitted from many of the economic teaching advantages you’ll find in most other communities.  But what’s interesting about my interactions with our Verbum Dei students is that – when I look back at these teaching moments over the years – I really haven’t had as many as I anticipated.  When I reflect on it, those basic questions rooted from inexperience or under-exposure are vastly in the minority.  If I were to be completely honest, the most common requests I get from students are probably password resets to their computer and email accounts!!  And even though those requests are somewhat annoying – yet easily correctable – problems, they are certainly not necessarily reflective of young peoples’ learning competencies (I dealt with password resets just as frequently in the private sector)! Generally though, those issues that provided basic teaching moments for students haven’t cropped up in huge numbers, and thus are not something reflective of a general lack of educational quality or opportunity.

Furthermore, what’s even more fascinating and revealing of our students’ technology acumen is the other type of questions/problems I am frequently tasked with.  I categorize these as the “High-End Computer Questions with Which I Don’t Immediately Have an Answer To!!”  Yes, I get a bulk of tech questions that start from a very high level of understanding from the start.  The Tech Director being challenged by his students for computer solutions is a real thing at Verbum Dei.  Here’s a recent example:  I had a student asked my about formatting text and pictures in a Microsoft Word brochure he was creating for an assignment.  The formatting question was sensible, but the perfect solution had proven elusive.  I asked the student if perhaps doing the brochure in PowerPoint might offer a better variety of formatting, and he began to show me – because he clearly was well-versed with the options and had worked through the issues earlier – that Microsoft Word possessed more dynamic and full-featured brochure templates.  I admittedly did not know any of this.  He began to show me how both products compared to one another!  The tables were turned, and I was the student now.  Finding this as an exceptional learning moment for both of us, we worked together to find the formatting solution that was eluding us – and we did.  And truth be known – this wasn’t the first time this has happened.  I run across this constantly – students bringing a solid understanding of technology to the arena.  And I love it.

The message here is I’ve learned a boat-load of tech stuff from our young men.  Yes – they’ve taught me. They are extremely savvy in the ways and features of today’s technology and devices.  They know the in-and-outs of social media and interactions with the vast realm of knowledge on the other end of our monitors.  I’ve relied on them to show me how certain features work on Smartphones, tablets and Apps.   They – themselves – are daring teachers; they’re that good.  These young men are outfitted for success more than I ever believed when I first came to the school, and their abilities to adapt, retain and learn should encourage all of us.  There’s no doubt in my mind  — they’re equipped for tomorrow’s challenges.

Technology

On my wall in my office is a prominent poster outlining Verbum Dei’s Grad-at-Grad principles.  Whenever I quickly glance up at them (every day, seemingly), I am reminded of several obvious applications which immediately seek impact with our students through the use of technology.    Certainly, I can clearly connect the benefits of technology to its enormous role in one being Work-Experienced, as well as being Intellectually Motivated.   Those are obvious.  Yet conversely, when I ponder the other values – Open to Growth, Spiritual and Loving – it seems to be more of a challenge and difficult to directly connect their attributes to technology.  That may be the case, but at Verbum Dei, we seek to mold well-rounded gentlemen ready to take on – with confidence – every hurdle tomorrow’s world will throw at them.  The value of each principle is equal and ever-lasting.  There is however one last Grad-at-Grad value that – although at first glance seems afar from our technology goals at school – actually delivers the strongest cue to what I ultimately seek to achieve for our boys at Verbum Dei.   That is, I am – as Tech Director for the school – Committed to Doing Justice for our guys.  Let me explain.

The impact of a Verbum Dei education – and the school’s ability to set afoot tomorrow’s leaders – is ultimately what our work here is judged by.  Every aspect of the school’s operations is ultimately measured by the success of our graduates and the influence they’ll make in society.  To me, the real grit of Verbum Dei’s mission is less about rescuing or accommodating lives and families in need, and more about fairness, equal footing and preparation for an ever-increasingly competitive job market.  I’m not interested in salvation so much – I’m more concerned in getting our young men ready to compete.   That’s what drives me.   In my zeal to ensure our guys will have “the skills to pay the bills,” I need to be confident in my mind we’re delivering every opportunity for them to interact and master the latest forms of technology in the classroom.  That is the Justice I’m Committed to; I feel mandated to having helped create an atmosphere of learning where – through the use of technology – we are equipping our students with the finely-honed study and research skills they’ll need down the road.  I want – and expect – our graduates to go toe-to-toe with any other student – from all communities and all social boundaries – to compete in the college classroom.  And in turn, I want – and expect – for those same young men to compete in tomorrow’s job market as well.

My mission is clear, and the constant reminder is there –every day – on my wall.   When you walk the halls of Verbum Dei on any given day, you’ll see a diverse array of technology actively integrated in each classroom.   Having an eager and intrepid group of faculty here helps this process immensely; I feel blessed to work with such gifted individuals who are willing to experiment and deploy new methods of learning.  But they can’t do it alone.  Information Technology is – at its core – a service department.  My department is here to assist our faculty and help them enhance their teaching environment.  Together, we will distinguish Verbum Dei as a superior institution which confidently builds tomorrow’s leaders.  I take my role in that process seriously – there are no choices here.   I am Committed to Doing Justice for these young men.

Tech Insight and Men for Others

Fr. Muller has often mentioned in his liturgies the idea of “I’ll see it when I believe it.” Beyond its powerful spiritual message, that framework equally resonates with me when I think of the relationship I see with our young men of Verb and technology. I’ve professed to anyone who’s asked me – with sometimes astonished looks – and believed it to be true; our students are exposed to the latest trends in technology more than we think, and have high expectations for the interaction of technology and education in the classroom.

So, recently in our new school year orientation, my assertion was to be put on public trial. Gathered in front of me was our entire student body. The purpose of our meeting was to inform them on some new policies involving tech this coming year. I also wanted to introduce to our boys our latest addition to the technological arsenal at Verbum Dei: Ipads. I knew they would be excited to hear the Ipads were ready to be used in the classroom — Their eyes certainly widened and many edged up in their seats when the word came. I felt compelled however – and completely off my script – to ask the boys: “How many of you have ever worked with and used an Ipad before?” So here was a moment of truth – would my contention hold true. How many hands were going to rise? I believed it, but will I see it? Well, there wasn’t much hesitation – and the result was clearly pronounced – as dozens and dozens of hands shot to the air. I formed a wry smile, and blurted on the microphone the first reaction in my head, “Right on!”

Later, I was meeting with a fellow staff member. She told me she appreciated me asking that question during the orientation. What she liked most about the poll – and its visceral results – was the reaction it produced with some of the faculty members present. You see, there are some teachers and staff members interacting closely with our students on a daily basis – who know much about their lives outside of academics, who may not fully realize how technologically savvy Verb students actually are. It belies what many of us may think socioeconomically – but our young men know and follow the latest tech trends and reach out to them wherever possible. My interaction with our students has proved to me that they have a thirsty desire to utilize technology and recognize how tech can be used educationally. I know this most simply by the questions they ask our IT group. I can tell they follow the newest developments in the tech world.

What we need to appreciate is that the Men of Verb have been surrounded by tech their whole lives; hence, the classroom should be no different. As IT Director, my mission must take this fact in consideration. Not only must IT provide the means for educators and students to access information and assimilate it in a timely and efficient manner, we must in parallel prepare our young men – in all aspects – to become tomorrow’s meaningful contributors to humanity. Thus, they must be exposed to and comfortable using all the tools – tech included – that in turn form Men for Others.