Through It All; Students Are @ the Centre

Last spring, the Surrey Schools technology portfolio team traveled to The International Society for Technology in Education’s (ISTE) annual conference (this year held in Philadelphia) to receive the Sylvia Charp Award for District Innovation in Technology. We were honoured for our commitment to technology planning being focused on transformative learning with the student at the centre. This month, you can read about our award in ISTE’s The Journal.

Jordan Tinney, Superintendent, Elisa Carlson, Director of Instruction &; Dan Turner, Director of IMS

Jordan Tinney, Superintendent, Elisa Carlson, Director of Instruction &; Dan Turner, Director of IMS

In assembling our submission, I became acutely connected to the 15 (ish) year-long journey that I have been on as a district Partner in Learning alongside changing and diverse education and district leaders. The district’s relationship with technology has of course dramatically evolved, reflected through phases I label; access, transformation and innovation.

The district’s technology portfolio itself – comprising technology, education and organizational leadership – has matured substantially over the years, producing a governance ecosystem to optimize opportunity and resources and to mitigate (and even again, optimize) the natural, if not required, tension that exists between its participants.

Our Technology Ecosystem for Learning places student learning at the centre and aligns to the district’s vision for student learning, Learning by Design. LBD FINAL REV It emphasizes collaboration, capacity-building and engagement within a progressive governance model, integrating five essential components: Leadership, Professional practice, Schoolhouse (schools/classrooms), Technology toolbox and Partnerships.

Within the ecosystem we set vision and direction, establish (and re-establish) priorities, develop policy, resolve issues, envision and prepare for the future and hold each other accountable on all topics. Our greatest and enduring challenge is funding. Specifically, limited funding in proportion to the requirements, expectations and dreams of our stakeholders. Each phase of our journey has produced its own set of funding (and related) challenges.

Each phase in our journey has been critical to our success as a district.

In 2002, Information Management Services (IMS) began our work to ready the system to embrace and leverage the growing presence of technology in daily life. The work focused on identifying and removing technology barriers or reasons teachers and students were not incorporating technology into the learning process.

Execution took place school-by-school, wiring closet-by-wiring closet, classroom-by-classroom, device-by-device, software title-by-software title. 10’s of thousands of person hours and millions of dollars in equipment were invested to deliver the beginnings of a scalable and reliable technology infrastructure. We need to gain the confidence of staff and students to inspire adoption of transformative technology practices.  Technology during this phase was often referred to by then leadership as “a black hole.”

We maintained a goal for technology to be transparent and to “just work” so the focus could shift to one of solely being about learning. The strategic technology initiatives in this category were extensive and were implemented in waves and over several years, beginning with a foundation referred to as the Computer Management Strategies (CMS). This was followed by robust end-to-end enterprise wireless programs, bandwidth upgrades, carefully organized technology and purchasing standards, asset management and refresh strategies and organization of IT personnel strategies to ensure responsiveness to teachers, students and administrators.

The power of the underpinning technology program was in its alignment to the district vision – with the student at the centre. Our job and focus was to build the technology infrastructure so as the organization and practice transformed in theory, they could execute in practice.

Winning the Sylvia Charp award, for me as the Director of Technology, was more than a decade in the making. The technology journey we undertook provided the foundation and opportunity and our ecosystem created the energy and action. As a result, when we considered the approach and topic for our ISTE submission, it quickly became clear that there wasn’t one compelling technology-based initiative, there were many. And our story just keeps getting better.

Note: For more information on the District’s strategic work on transforming learning, check out Director of Instruction – Dr. Elisa Carlson’s (@EMSCarlson) blog at: and Superintendent Dr. Jordan Tinney’s (@jordantinney) blog at

A Window into Learning

We’re trying to boil it down to what do parents really want and need to know about a child’s progress in school? How can we give parents a window into class?…We believe traditional report cards are highly ineffective in communicating to parents where their children are in learning. If we can communicate this learning routinely to parents, then we see the need for report cards and the stamp of letter grade going way down.”

Dr. Jordan Tinney, Superintendent, CNN


Surrey Schools has initiated a project – Communicating Student Learning (CSL) – to evolve its student assessment practice and tools reflective of emerging educational philosophy and the Ministry of Education’s direction. Two district explorations have been launched – paper and electronic – to assess various potential assessment approaches, tools and implementation strategies that will ultimately become district best practice. This post is focused on our electronic trial—Making Learning Visible.


For over a decade, Surrey’s elementary schools have been using a standard report card, designed by several school principals using Filemaker Pro. The report card is a list of grade specific Prescribed Learning Outcomes where student progress is indicated using a rating scale[1] and/or letter grades. Limited room on the report card exists for teachers to provide a summary of a student’s learning, often noting what the student has been doing well, in addition to potential areas for improvement. These report cards are distributed three times throughout the school year. Our practice represents a significant misalignment with what we know about Assessment and with the Ministry of Education’s new direction.

The Ministry of Education’s new Curriculum Transformation and Assessment,[2] Communicating Student Learning (Reporting) document states:

“Aligning curriculum, assessment, evaluation and communicating student learning approaches will be key in these transformation efforts. To date, consultations regarding communicating student learning have resulted in the following recommendations:

  • Shift from ‘reporting’ to ‘communicating student learning.’
  • Support meaningful communication between teachers, parents and learners.
  • Report on core competencies and key areas of learning.
  • Focus on learning standards (curricular competencies and content/concepts) in areas of learning (subjects).
  • Enable ongoing communication (with provincial guidelines and supports).
  • Maintain formal, written summative reports at key times in the year.
  • Use clear performance standards-based language.
  • Move toward meaningful descriptions/collections/demonstrations of student learning.”

The Ministry recommendations provide a foundation and guiding principles for our new direction.

In the spring of 2013, Surrey Schools officially initiated its exploration of evolving its practices and tools related to communicating student learning. The project is being guided by a District team of Learning Partners[3], with support from District Senior Leadership. Unofficially, the district had already been exploring other ways of documenting student learning electronically with a small group of teachers from across the district as we began to formulate a new vision for reporting practice. As we felt there was a serious disconnect between our current reporting practices and the Ministry’s new direction, we wanted to align our practice with a new vision.

Surrey School’s Vision

Our vision for long-term change resulting from this project is captured in this simple vision statement:

Making Learning Visible: Transforming learning through assessment.

Surrey School’s Electronic Assessment Goal

Our goal is to provide parents with a 24/7 virtual window into their child’s learning to encourage more active parent understanding and involvement as well as ensuring timely responses and intervention in order to maximize student learning.

  • Provide teachers with a better reporting process to communicate student learning.
  • Provide an opportunity to collect authentic snapshots of learning (audio, video and published blogs), to provide descriptive feedback and to enrich the parent communication experience.
  • Provide an electronic space for a three-way conversation (students, teachers and parents) about learning intentions, achievement and next steps in a child’s learning journey.
  • Students are actively involved in their learning through their own capacity to choose, share and reflect on the most important artifacts that illustrate their learning.
  • Provide an electronic option for teachers to collect evidence on a child’s progress and demonstrate growth over time.
  • Capitalize on the analytic capacity of technology to curate information and resources to provide timely learning support for students, teachers and parents.
  • Provide leadership in setting direction for the future implementation of the MOE curriculum transformation as it pertains to Communicating Student Learning (formerly referred to as Reporting).

The Project Plan

Integral to this process is the invitation to explore the use of formative assessment using an inquiry approach in the context of digital documentation. We asked teachers to commit to working as a collaborative team to explore inquiry questions on “reporting:” How can digital documentation and digital tools impact teachers and student learning? How can formative assessment and the continuous growth of students be communicated in a digital format that provides authentic examples? The investigation represents small teams of teachers across the district in both elementary and secondary schools committed to this action research. The project is ongoing.

Regardless of the tool or template, teachers are asked to communicate on key areas addressing literacy, numeracy, and social responsibility reflected through the lens of the core competencies (Thinking, Communicating, Personal & Social Responsibility) and including the content areas (eg. critical thinking in Social Studies).

About the Tool

The software selected for the Making Learning Visible pilot is FreshGrade, developed by a BC-based company. FreshGrade is a Web 2.0 tool that supports teachers (and students) in capturing student learning, creating a digital portfolio, providing feedback to students and communicating student learning to parents.

The tool can also assist in supporting personalized learning by analyzing student activity and achievement. The tool can potentially access curated resources and can prompt teachers on the next steps, based on an analysis of student data and recommend learning resources matched to individual student needs. Not all of these features are turned on in the program but are included as part of the roadmap. The program is designed to change the way assessment is understood and practiced, save teacher time in data collection and provide a much more robust window into a child’s learning. The FreshGrade tool provides a digital platform that takes advantage of technology to collect, assess, share and communicate student learning. In our partnership arrangement, the use of this tool allows the district to “own” the student data and ensure we can have some measure of control over the information. Teachers have been working with the company providing feedback for over two years now.

Outside of the project, there are teachers who have independently started using FreshGrade. This simple act of engaging with the platform, investigating and “playing” with the tool, is an important part of the innovation movement and confirming teacher interest and support of the tool’s application. We fundamentally believe that if the experience and product is effective that teachers will be drawn to its use.

Our findings our guided by the experience of actual practitioners—our teachers—the professional experts in the field. As they explore, we learn. As Antonio Vendramin, Principal of Cambridge Elementary describes, “More and more as I hear teachers reflect on MLV, the more I hear that this is beginning a transformation in assessment and pedagogy. Teachers are asking critical questions regarding learning evidence that is collected, what it reveals, and how it connects with learning intentions. Fundamentally, teachers are beginning to look at collected evidence and asking, ‘Where is the learning?’

Looking Forward

Elements by Lindsey Sterling: Used with permission, educational purposes only.

The district, as part of this CSL project, is undertaking this inquiry – Making Learning Visible – to explore whether digital documentation of student learning could become a new standard. Our teachers are at the front edge of transforming education through their practice. They are the champions. These teachers believe there is a better way to communicate student learning that aligns with our understanding and research. The district is taking steps to explore what is possible. In the words of Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” We are creating a new model, because, truly, now is the time.

Note: This post is adapted from an Executive Briefing Report prepared last spring for Senior Team and co-authored by Dan Turner (@dj_turner), Director of Information Management Services, and Elisa Carlson (@emscarlson), Director of Instruction with the assistance of Marilyn Marchment of big think communications ( . Excerpts and videos are from the most recent presentation at the B.C. School Superintendent’s Conference (2014). For a complete view of the original Elements video, see here


[1] Approaching Expectations, Minimally Meeting Expectations, Meeting Expectations, Exceeding Expectations.
[2] Ministry of Education: Curriculum Transformation and Assessment (
[3] Pat Horstead, Karen Steffensen and Elisa Carlson.

The power inside just 1 hour

It’s amazing how just one hour can impact you. How it can reconnect and reignite a passion and vision and how it can drive clarity and purpose.

Laptop and hourglassIn my last post I shared the challenges of getting to the space where true “creative planning magic happens” and when the dream begins to come to life. I concluded the post by suggesting that “the power in the action of technology is starting to emerge from inside our classrooms” – no sooner had I posted, I was presented with an opportunity to spend an hour with Mme Jennifer Rossi’s (@MmeRossi) grade six Intensive French (IF) class at Erma Stephenson elementary.

During my visit, students were asked to focus on reflecting on their latest blog post, reading classmates’ posts and offering appropriate feedback and comments in French. The room was alive. Their blogs lived on and their learning tool was a MacBook.

Not to complain, but generally how it goes in Information Technology (IT) is that people only call when something is broken, in need of upgrading or to start a new project. Hence, I am painfully aware of the challenges that come within the IT space: networks aren’t perfect, PLNet can have slow periods, computers and software in general can be “glitchy” and the list goes on…

So after a dozen years with the District striving to remove and mitigate these technology barriers in support of classrooms and enhanced learning, here is where the “magic” started for me. For that hour with Mme Rossi and her class of 30, the technology just worked. It was all but transparent and operating as a utility, as it should! Internet pages were loading, pages from were refreshing quickly, MacBook laptops that are approaching five years old loaded quickly and just worked (three had challenges). I couldn’t help but pause for a moment and savour in the experience that was unfolding for this class.

A grade 6 student using blogging tool in a creative way!

A grade 6 student using blogging tool in a creative way!

The hour was absent of problems and politics, the students were highly engaged in reading, thinking and commenting on blog posts (and indicated they thought was “pretty cool”). The experience embodied a great example of the kind of relevant 21st century learning we want for our kids. It also reminded me that we need to continue to embrace the notion of “digital resiliency” as even a single laptop not functioning can be like a student without a pencil. It demonstrated that “we’ve built it and they are coming” and re-invigorated me to keep pushing to remove barriers, to continue to dream and to advocate to go further.

I shared this story at the Information Management Services (IMS) department year-end celebration to not only thank every single person for their individual contribution, but to help connect them to the magic they’re responsible for delivering into Surrey classrooms. The impact they’re making for students is making a difference.

So a sincere “thank you” to Mme Rossi for the invitation and the hour inside their learning environment. An hour full of impact and inspiration.

If you build it they will come…

fieldofdreams-280-420The movie Field of Dreams celebrates the belief that we should dream and that if we create the “space” for our dreams they can become a reality. I like the simplicity of that notion and believe in it. Fully realizing it is a bit of a different story.

Given the pervasive nature of technology and that the majority of our users (students) are digital residents, it would seem that being able to systemically realize the power of technology for student learning would be relatively straightforward and almost natural. Not surprisingly, it’s not.

Consider that what can be realized isn’t always known or clear yet and that the technology solution – the version 1.0 of anything – destined to deliver the “possibilities” usually doesn’t fully demonstrate the dreaming, but will itself morph and grow alongside in response. Classic “chicken and egg” dilemma that often results in various forms of organizational paralysis or confusion. I believe it’s my role as an IT professional to identify the best technology solutions that can put the stake in the ground so we can collaborate and begin creating the spaces that enact the dream and push to expand that footprint in the direction of enhanced learning.

When we first started visioning for, our digital learning community, we had the basics identified to create an organization-wide space for information sharing, system collaboration, delivering learning opportunities and experiences and optimizing business processes. What our stakeholders couldn’t fully comprehend and articulate was the powerful possibilities this new environment could offer that aligned to relevant 21st century learning outcomes therefore, the dreaming struggled to take root.

To get back to the movie analogy, the “field” was ready. I had focused my team on getting anchored in (and living) a shared vision, principles and values, we focused (for years) on removing technology barriers (focusing on process, procedure and the dreaded “S” word – standardization), speeds and feeds (PLNet upgrades), ceilings and walls stuff (CMS, infrastructure), spinning wheels of death (bottlenecks), under the hood pieces (firewall rules/roadblocks, equipment upgrades, renewal plans, etc) culminating recently in second generation oxygen (district-wide wireless), not to mention cultivating positive relationships with both the education and business sides of the organization.

Power of Technology venn - v2-350-310Even with the majority of technology barriers addressed, getting to the space – where the true creative magic happens – has been an ongoing and constant challenge. There are many foundational, moving and dynamic parts and the “technology” itself is actually a small piece of the overall equation for the dream. It has to be a collaborative and recursive process whether you’re identifying learning or business requirements, developing solutions (even conceptually), dreaming about the possibilities within those, securing funding, building systems or integrating them. We haven’t always achieved or experienced it. There are steps forward and steps back. We remove a barrier only to run into one created by removing the barrier (wicked problem in action). We are challenged with funding or staffing and competing requirements. It can be easy to lose faith yet we always remain anchored and focused on move forward plans. The power in the action of technology is starting to emerge from inside our classrooms in the form of exciting examples of student engagement and empowered learning inside and outside the “walled garden” (

Last week we had a demonstration of some work flow software we are planning to layer onto It was an amazing feeling to see how close we are to realizing this part of the vision via and to beginning the work of automating the dozens and dozens of paper-based, labour-intensive and inefficient processes that all organizations have inside them. This has actually been a dream since the beginning of my career. In the coordinating, tracking and aligning of all the various initiatives I had lost track of this one and it felt great to re-connect and know the organization is poised to realize these significant efficiencies, during a time of continued budget strain. By the end of the session the team was also connected to the vision and were excited about the possibilities. Everyone on the team had different examples and ideas – it had become a creative idea generating space.

We’re beginning to see the same energy in the education space and I truly believe that following a similar process of building the space – delivering 2.0 this summer – will support a deeper exploration of the possibilities associated with 21st Century Learning – the power of technology in learning. The dream.

A relentless pursuit

When I think about how technology influences every aspect of our daily lives – personally and professionally – it stirs a feeling of awe. For me, the evolution and impact of technology over just the past five years alone is simply astounding; think how Apple has harnessed technology to transform the music, movie and communication industries – it’s mind blowing. The consideration of what’s next and how it could evolve lives is inspiring, specifically in how it relates to learning and our kids.

As an Information Technology (IT) professional for more than 25 years – 12 of them as Director of IT for Surrey Schools – I am driven to realize the power of technology for my organization as it prepares its students to thrive in the global economy. Through this blog I hope to positively contribute to the already robust IT + K-12 conversation while inviting others to join-in on my exploration of the beliefs that guide my relentless pursuit every single day.

I believe to truly realize technology’s power I need to be a partner with the organization and its stakeholders while also being a leader of my team and those within the IT portfolio. I believe you can’t just have IT operating or succumb to “shiny gadget syndrome.” I also believe I need to be part of the solution (not the problem), a pioneer that’s progressive in my thought leadership, and someone that strives to ensure the organization is doing the right things at the right time as it relates to IT.

While there’s more than enough to consider and discuss within each belief, I have also gained tremendous clarity that the pursuit of truly realizing IT’s power in the K-12 space naturally brings with it wicked problems as technology (a binary world of 1s and 0s) collides with human beings (and their individual needs, perspectives and motivations).

Over the years, I have been immersed in understanding the impact of IT + K-12 wicked problems on organizational clarity and success. We have come a long way and there is much to share, but even more to explore as technology options explode and the “under the hood” pieces become increasingly complex and “wicked” in nature. It seemed only fitting for this to be the frame of my exploration and reflection.

To kick things off, some context: a wicked problem describes a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, interdependent and/or changing requirements that result in the problem being resistant to resolution. It has many stakeholders, most of which have differing – if not competing – perspectives and motivations. At best, we can hope to improve the problem and to better understand it. In reality, a solution to a wicked problem (an oxymoron by definition, I realize) may result in new problems – often wicked in nature themselves.

While the theory of wicked problems was introduced in the social policy planning field by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in 1973, its concept and defining characteristics have gained relevance within other industries, including K-12 education and technology.

I’m excited (with a healthy dose of nerves) about entering the blog world and I choose to have faith (thanks to Chris Kennedy, Brian Kuhn and others) that the writing improves and gets slightly easier with each post.