AYER/SHIRLEY -- The world we live in today is different than the world many of us grew up in. We did not have instant communication across the globe, digital gadgets, the GPS, Facebook, Twitter, or cloud computing. In those days, apples were things we ate, pads were things we wrote on, and laptops were places where children sat.

Today, the rate of technological change is exponential, and the challenge for schools is to do more than just keep up with those changes. Add to that the challenge of merging the technology of two separate school districts, and that leads us to Ayer Shirley Regional School District Technology Director Mike Thibeault.

With the 2010 merger of the Ayer and Shirley school districts came the task of taking disparate technology and infrastructures, upgrading them, and merging them into one seamless technology system that works for all four schools.

In a recent interview in the high school cafeteria, Thibeault said that the number one problem with this effort was that all of the buildings required upgrades.

The first thing he and his small staff did, he said, was to provide as much of an upgrade as possible right away. Phase One included an upgrade for the phone system, which required a peek behind the walls of the buildings.

"People often assume an upgrade is hardware," said Thibeault. "But the next step was bringing two information systems together--names, demographics, and all the basic information for students. We both used the same software, but Ayer's schools had it hosted at the company website, and Shirley had the information stored locally on Rediker."

The new district decided to stick with Rediker, and had to align all of the fields in the program. "One of the biggest tasks we had was aligning the information for the student data," Thibeault said.

Edline

The summer before the middle school merger, which took place one year before the official district merger, the technology department also made some significant changes to the district website and the use of Edline, a Learning Community Management System that had been used in varying degrees by the different schools.

Edline makes it possible to produce reports, grade books, a website, student data, report cards, and other materials in one software platform that can be used from any computer. With Edline, parents and students can gain secure access to school or classroom news, school calendars, and direct links to the library and many other sites from their personal computers.

"When you activate your Edline account, you are basically going to the district

website. Once you're there and signed in, there will be a field where you can highlight your child's name, and you will be able to see all the classes they are in as well," Thibeault said.

Parents can click on a class and go to a class page; that class page is where the teacher posts whatever he or she chooses.

"All of the parent accounts are already created. It is just a matter of the parents activating their codes and then the teachers posting their information," he said.

Parent Portal

Thibeault explained that the technology department had to bring all of the teachers up to speed with Edline, and is now getting ready to set up the elementary school Parent Portal.

The Parent Portal allows parents secure real time access to report card grades, assignments with current grade statuses, transcripts, and current contact information that parents provide to the schools.

The elementary school teachers have all been trained in how to use it, but it requires still more training, Thibeault said. In the meantime, parents of elementary school children will soon receive a letter on how to get on Edline, with a unique activation code to form their own Parent Portal accounts.

"That's a fantastic tool from a parent's perspective," Thibeault said. "The Parent Portal can encompass a lot -- grades, attendance, or discipline, but obviously we will start small...You may just see what your child's average is, and as everybody gets more comfortable, (you will see) assignments, test and quiz scores, and so on."

Edline and the Parent Portal have been set up for middle and high school students for the past year.

Working in the Cloud

The technology department is also focused on less use of computers, and greater use of tablets, as well as Google apps and Google email for students and teachers.

"We focused on teachers this year because it is a change in mindset from Microsoft Word and all that. We are piloting it at the middle and high school levels," Thibeault stated.

Thibeault said that the biggest advantage he finds with the products is peer collaboration on projects.

"You have to log on online, but the students don't have to be in the same room anymore to work together on the same project. Now kids can collaborate at all different times on a project."

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