I remember a time at TFA when the entire Upper School shared a single class set of 24 iPads. Even before then, TFA had begun dreaming of what a classroom fully collaborative with technology would look like — how students could have an engaging and personal learning environment and how teachers could foster innovative daily learning experiences. We could envision that dream clearly, but reality looked like teacher-booked days at a distant computer lab, immobile desktops, and a lack of personalization in the classroom learning environment. Those 24 iPads were just the beginning.
TFA has long seen a need to equip and immerse our students in the authentic use of technology as a tool for learning. It is another way we equip students to be effective leaders in our rapidly modernizing world. So, in 2010, Dr. Higgins opened Learning IE (Learning Intentionally Enhanced), which included our initial Wireless iPad Learning Lab. We invited highly academically talented students, as well as students in grades K-12 with documented learning needs, to utilize iPads, iPods, and other electronic devices in class. We taught these students how to use technology in their learning environment and their academic growth and success was BREATHTAKING.
We had to do more.
That very next spring, our school officially “embraced the authentic utilization of technology” by inviting students to bring their electronic devices to class as useful learning tools. Later, we added an additional iPad lab and used an Upper School U.S History class as our test subject. This class experienced 1-to-1 daily implementation of iPads in the classroom learning environment. This standardization of technology, together with the innovation of the teacher, proved incredibly successful. Seeing how this technology allowed our teachers to tailor their learning environment to the specific needs of the students, and witnessing how this innovation accelerated student success, we knew our next step.
Christmas 2011 came generously and our school was able to gift iPads to the Upper School faculty. This access to technology was supplemented by vital professional development courses that familiarized and educated our teachers on how to best implement this tech in the classroom. They immediately began utilizing iPads in their classroom environments, tailoring their curriculum towards more student-centered strategies by creating customized, creative, and collaborative lessons. Test scores were increasing, but what was perhaps more important was revealed in a student opinion survey that showed a majority of the student population felt their iPad usage directly contributed to their academic success and wanted to see the program expanded throughout campus.
So, with our BIG dream in hand, we took another step forward.
In 2012, we launched a 1-to-1 iPad initiative in all of Upper School. Now, each student had access to mobile technology in the classroom. We set the framework for success in this new mobile environment by shifting the entire school to using Google Apps — a cloud-based platform built to foster collaboration. We even standardized the school’s Learning Management System to Canvas, giving students a personalized learning environment that was engaging and available wherever there was WIFI. In addition, we outfitted each classroom with complementary tech like Apple TVs, ensuring full compatibility and collaboration between each of our Apple technology solutions. TFA adapted beautifully with each new tech addition. Test scores were rising, classrooms were individualized to each student’s needs, and there was more open and available communication between teacher and student than ever before.
But we knew we could do MORE.
In 2013, a group of eight TFA members traveled to Apple HQ, in Cupertino, CA. We began a conversation with Apple on how their products could best partner with TFA’s learning environment, highlighting ways our visionary leadership could champion the continued growth of a 24/7 innovative learning environment. According to the JAMF Software Employee Choice Survey, Apple continues to be the #1 choice of employees in business due to its intuitive platform, ease of use, and accessibility to the best, most effective apps. To achieve our goal of creating effective Christian leaders relevant in a modernized world, we would need to familiarize our students with a technology platform that delineated them from others in the workplace; the answer was Apple. We worked together with Apple to craft a game plan on how to best foster an Apple Ecosystem in our school, preparing us for the next great opportunity — becoming an Apple Distinguished Program.
We are proud to say TFA Upper School applied, and was awarded, the title of Apple Distinguished School from 2013-2015 — a title only give to less than 2% of private and public schools annually.
Our dreams were coming to fruition.
Now, as an Apple Distinguished School, learning institutions from all across the nation looked to The First Academy’s Upper School as a leader in technology integration in the learning environment. Our faculty, together with great minds from Apple, Instructure, and the like, have received multiple hours of training on how to effectively use technology to build a customized, interactive learning experience for their students. And we get better at it every day. Holding on to the mantra “Progress Over Perfection,” TFA continually strives to bring the best learning experience to our students — ALL of our students.
But there is still more work to do.
By 2017, it is our goal to be a K4-K12 Apple Distinguished School. To get there, we need to provide every student with access to an iPad – what we’ve experienced as our biggest tool in creating a personalized learning experience. This action aligns with our priority of a personalized learning experience for all grades at TFA. Additionally, to increase accessibility we plan to deliver 90% of our curriculum in a digital format for 7th-12th grade. Books will be available for home use, but gone will be days of students carrying their weight in books on their backs to and from school every day.
I look fondly on my memories of TFA a few years ago, when we had big dreams of a collaborative learning environment immersed with the latest technology – and only owned a cart of 24 iPads! However, our visionary leadership believed what could be, and one small step at time expanded technology at TFA so we could offer every available opportunity to our rising Christian leaders.
Now, by the time a TFA student graduates they will be familiar with integrating technology in their learning environment, additionally familiar with the use of such apps like Educreations, Telligami, Arasma, Kahoot, Nearpod, and Notability, to name a few. It is our hope to expand our students’ skills even more through the addition of Coding and 3D Printing courses, adding to their resumes and increasing their technological proficiencies in a competitive job market.
Finally, I’m very blessed to announce that TFA has been awarded yet again as an Apple Distinguished Program in the Upper School for another two years. In our rapidly changing technological world, we know there is always more we can do to equip our rising Christian leaders with the best learning environment. However, we now know the formula to get there, and it’s not magic! It’s the compounding effect of intentional planning, measuring outcomes and celebrating small victories that are pushing TFA to excellence one step at a time.
Director of Technology