Another View: Inside Placer Union’s digital transformation

By: Gregg Ramseth
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Reading the newspaper is a daily habit of mine. Its stories connect me to my community, keep me tuned to the world, trigger conversations among my education colleagues and help me think differently.

But my daily fix doesn’t stop with newsprint. The routine now includes firing up a digital device to check The Skimm, the New York Times and the Idaho paper where our son is a journalist. My appetite has grown for news and the Internet has obliged.

Like print journalists, educators saw digital disruption coming. In 2006, our Director of Technology Tom Johnson introduced us to Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat.” It forecast that society’s businesses and institutions would face a disruptive “flattening” effect of technological innovation. The world our students inherit will be more impacted by globalization and less bound by geography. We realized this impending disruption needed to become our school district’s innovation opportunity.

Placer Union has been riding a disruptive digital wave ever since. In 2009, we migrated all staff to a suite of cloud-based tools that have changed the way we do business, especially our ability to collaborate.

In 2011, our students were welcomed as users into the same suite of real-world tools, essentially flattening our organization and putting us all in ready position for the changing landscape of learning.

The next disruption was the explosion of mobile technology, where smartphones became capable of delivering massive amounts of information with the swipe of the screen.

Concerned about the growing digital divide of haves and have-nots, our board of trustees demonstrated a commitment to student equity. It was 2013 when every sophomore, regardless of means, was issued an Internet-connected laptop. We soon became a 1:1 school district.

Our latest frontier is bridging the distance gap between campuses. To maintain and expand course offerings, our pioneering teachers are delivering instruction to neighboring campuses in real time, utilizing two-way video conferencing equipment.

Students are able to enroll in classes previously unavailable at their campus. They learn via live classroom broadcasts and build relationships with faculty from afar. The business world once called this disruptive trend the “death of distance.” At Placer Union, we could call it “distance inspires opportunity.”

You may be asking: “What’s the obsession with technology?” Rest assured, we haven’t forgotten our district’s core values. Our mission remains the same: “Quality Teaching and Learning in a Supportive Environment.” As it has always been, Placer Union is flush with talented educators who understand quality relationships are critical to successful student learning.

And while our high school students are certainly “digital natives,” they are also digitally naive. They crave authentic conversation with parents, educators and community members to help them navigate their way toward adulthood, both as citizens of a local community as well as a global community.

Back in the classroom, there’s a teaching strategy called “gradual release,” where students begin to independently own a new skill or concept. The whole high school experience is also a form of gradual release, as our young people begin to own their future of college, career and life.

So what does college, career and life preparation look like on today’s campus with digital access for all students? Examples include: presenting Socratic seminars on digital ethics, comparing and contrasting online primary sources, programming hand-built robots and pitching product design ideas to East Coast tech start-ups. Students are creating public service videos, building a “Rubik’s” box to stump the bright minds of Silicon Valley and recording musical performances for teacher feedback. They are programming 3D printers, manipulating spreadsheets, mapping out data and podcasting.

Today’s educators are innovating their way toward a bright future of student learning. The school textbook is not unlike the community newspaper. Each still has its place. But society is changing, technology is disrupting, and the way students learn tomorrow will not look exactly the same as how we learned in the past.

Gregg Ramseth is director of technology and assessment for the Placer Union High School District. Twitter: @placerunion and