Marty Sharpe was hard at work when a package arrived at his office. It was a stolen Catawba County Schools Chromebook that had been recovered in Virginia.
“It was found in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in the middle of a street,” Sharpe said. He’s the Chief Technology Officer at Catawba County Schools. He's worked for the school system since 1999.
“This is just one reason we pushed for Chromebooks for all staff and students, as we can lock them remotely with a message that it was reported stolen or missing with our address,” Sharpe explained. This is one example of how county schools have been proactive about the use of technology in their district.
When Sharpe began working in the Catawba County Schools Technology Department, they were on the cutting-edge. “When I first started in the department as the Instructional Technology Facilitator, it was under Terry Bledsoe. Terry was the CTO — he actually started this department,” he explained. “He was pretty much a visionary in the state. Not just with the technology piece — that existed in the ‘80s — but he started this thought of integration of technology.”
In other words, Sharpe said Bledsoe didn’t want to simply put devices into teachers' hands; he was interested in training staff to use technology in the classroom.
Jeff Tice knew this was easier said than done. “Though there were certainly a few early-adopting pioneers, on average teachers approached using technology with an understandable bit of trepidation,” he said. Tice is the Director of Technology for Hickory Public Schools, and has been with the system since 1994.
“While teachers were working hard to incorporate new tools into their instructional experience, their amazing ideas and creativity were sometimes hamstrung by very slow computers and internet connections,” Tice explained. “Streaming video was not yet mainstream, and YouTube had not yet been born. Teachers did the best they could to incorporate professional development, related to technology, into their already busy work schedules.”
One way school systems helped teachers with this was by employing Instructional Technology Facilitators. Angie Sigmon, a 20-year veteran in education, is the facilitator for Newton-Conover City Schools.
“I supervise our five Digital Learning Facilitators. These five facilitators are housed at five of our seven schools,” Sigmon explained. “We meet weekly to collaboratively plan the implementation of district initiatives and develop professional development. We also use our meeting time to stay abreast of the latest research around digital teaching and learning.”
Sigmon keeps up with the weekly meetings along with a slew of other responsibilities specific to technology, such as overseeing Canvas, Google Classroom, and Schoolnet — online tools that connect students and teachers.
“Classrooms have changed tremendously over the past 20 years,” Sigmon admitted. “Students are now equipped with a school-issued device that can be used anywhere and anytime for learning.”
Although technology has continued to progress for students, it started slow. “During my first year of teaching, I believe I had two desktop computers in my classroom. My students mostly used these devices to take reading assessments,” Sigmon said. She was a classroom teacher for 14 years and an instructional coach for three years before entering her current role.
With the integration of technology into classrooms in the early 2000s, Sharpe said the technology department for Catawba County Schools was tasked with jumping a massive hurdle: cutting off access to non-educational, inappropriate materials.
“It was extremely difficult,” Sharpe admitted. “You didn’t have nearly the amount of vendors or people who were oriented towards K-12. There were firewalls and filters out there for businesses, but education is a lot different from a manufacturing business.”
Sharpe said that changed around the 2010s. “Everything exploded once you started seeing smartphones and other personal devices,” he said.
Tice agreed. “I would say that if you’re older than 30 years old, the progress of technology should be pretty evident,” Tice said. “There are far more computers and other digital devices in the home than there were 20 years ago. Substantially more people, schools and business are connected to the internet.”
To prevent students from accessing non-educational materials, CCS and many other school systems had firewall protection and filters.
“When I first started (in the department), we were a little more stringent. There were a lot more things that we didn’t allow, because it was the unknown,” Sharpe said. “We went through a lot of different types of configurations; we had to strike a balance between safety and education, and that’s a hard balance to find.”
In the past five years, the Catawba system has moved from a district network protection to a Cloud-based protection in order to extend into student’s homes. This had to happen once students were able to take devices home.
“There are now federal regulations — CIPA, Children's Internet Protection Act — that require our district to filter content,” Sharpe said. “We have to filter it to the best of our ability in order to provide a safe learning environment for our students.”
Although school systems had to figure out how to protect students when take-home devices were introduced, Tice was thrilled to be part of this movement.
“It has been exciting to be able to put devices of any kind in the hands of students,” Tice said. "The K-64 efforts made this a reality for our high schools and most recently, our middle schools, at all grade levels. This was crucial, as our current funding sources were unable to provide adequate dollars to meet this need.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the nation in March, Sharpe said the next step was to provide technical support to students and parents.
“We’ve always had this mentality of leading with a compass,” Sharpe said. “Our compass is always supporting instruction, staff, and students. We’ve also always supported parents, but we didn’t see that nearly as much as we did beginning in March. Now we’re having to support parents and even grandparents at home, which is a whole new level of complexity.”
In order to stay proactive, Sharpe and his team built a support structure. This structure, accessed through the county schools' website homepage, also has a feature where folks can instant message a technology department employee.
“We knew that we would have so many more technical issues at home,” Sharpe said. “We could not manage the amount of phone calls we would have gotten. You’re talking about 15,000-16,000 students — multiply that by parents, by grandparents — there was no way we could’ve managed that.”
Sharpe says the future of technology in schools is bright. “I love thinking about what’s coming next,” he said. “One of the things we actually implemented a few years ago was VR (virtual reality). We’ve been very heavy into virtual reality in the past couple of years, so I see that continuing to develop.”
Sharpe also believes augmented reality will develop in education in coming years. Augmented reality is the rendering of digital images or data onto real-world objects. “This augmented reality is more engaging,” Sharpe said. “It’s not a book or a video, it’s about seeing it in your environment.”
Tice’s vision for the future of technology in education is similar. “Teachers, in my opinion, will always be the instructional visionaries, guiding student instruction, while at the same time, exploring with them!”
Sigmon also sees potential. “I can visualize a future where students are asked to be creators rather than consumers of knowledge, a future where teachers have the ability to help students explore their passions while mastering content standards,” she said.
Sharpe says education has only scraped the surface of machine-learning. “It’s amazing how fast technology updates and changes,” Sharpe said.
“It’s up to us, to educators, to adapt to those changes and to see how to utilize this technology and put it in the hands of students to provide a quality education and with opportunities to make a difference in the community and create careers.”
Emily Willis is a general assignment and education reporter at the Hickory Daily Record.