If you're going to alter what teachers are accustomed to ... you've got to make sure you're giving them something better than what they had." - Cynthia Saunders, MCSD Superintendent
About Manatee County School District
The School District of Manatee County covers a swath of territory on the west coast of Florida, south of the Tampa Bay area. Based in Bradenton, the district encompasses 61 schools and has a K-12 enrollment of more than 48,000 students.
Manatee County is leading the state in terms of interactive technology adoption, embarking on a years-long deployment of tablets and displays across its middle and high school buildings. In its pursuit of fulfilling its mission statement to educate students today for success tomorrow, the district is focused on adapting teaching styles to meet learners where they are by implementing everyday digital equipment.
Aging A/V Equipment Hampers Teaching Efforts
Teachers in Manatee County’s middle and high schools were using decade-old classroom equipment. Projectors were failing and other audio-visual equipment was short on both effectiveness and relevance among students growing up with smartphones, tablets and laptops.
“We had projectors in all of our classrooms, and we had run into a dilemma with projectors with failing bulbs, and then there were issues with the visual quality of the video,” explained Charles Newsome, Senior Site Support Engineer with the school district. “It was getting worse and worse, and we needed a better solution.”
Attempts to mirror content from teacher laptops to screens was hit and miss, and required both training and support to make it work consistently.
Superintendent Cynthia Saunders said a classroom technology upgrade was a clear priority — and settling wasn’t an option. “If you’re going to replace what you have, then you definitely need to spend the money to put the most current product in front of your teachers.”
Saunders and her team wanted and needed technology that would empower teachers, engage students and deliver a solution that was easily used, reliable and secure — protecting logins and limiting how devices could be used.
Charged with finding a suitable solution, the district’s IT team weighed several options before seeing a young Manatee student using a Samsung Galaxy tablet. Newsome liked the ease of use and the ability to seamlessly connect with a display. “I pretty much came to the conclusion that this tablet and a panel is what needed to be in each classroom,” he said.
Samsung Displays and Tablets Increase Classroom Engagement
Manatee worked with education-focused solutions provider United Data Technologies (UDT), which has put Samsung display solutions in other Florida schools, to draw up specifications and a plan for putting 65-in. professional displays in classrooms to replace aging projectors. They also equipped teachers with the Samsung Galaxy Tab A and pens that would function as something of a remote control and annotation tool for the classroom display.
Saunders says her district was able to secure a “big portion” of the capital funding through state digital technology grants. After a successful technical pilot to validate the technology and ease of use, the program was rolled out in 2018 across the district’s middle and high schools. Displays have also been placed in school lobbies, running digital signage messaging about school events and programs, as well as videos celebrating famous Manatee graduates, such as professional athletes.
Dave Zeller, Manatee’s supervisor of site support, said he and colleagues involved in the project particularly liked the “secret sauce” Samsung has developed that integrates tablets with monitors. “Those two [technologies] are able to talk well back and forth and stay connected,” Zeller explained. “They have digital inking, so teachers can take whatever page that they want to work with, and they can circle, highlight, annotate. They can take a blank page and do a problem [together].”
Teachers are also able to save anything that’s done on the tablets That means notes can easily be referred back to by locating them in a stored directory and pushing them to the 65-in. classroom screen. It also enables educators to summarize lessons and distribute them to students and parents. “We have one teacher, in
particular, who creates notebooks of his day, that then are available to all his students,” said Zeller. “So, if you were absent, he has a notebook of all the things he put on the tablet that day, that you can come back and review.”
Network and device security were major factors in technology selection, and the Manatee IT team liked the ability to run the tablets with Samsung Knox, the mobile security and management platform baked into Samsung mobile devices from the chip up. Zeller notes that they “took a long, hard look at a lot of different tablets,” and it was the control afforded by Samsung that ultimately won him over. “We have it set so that students can’t add games or other apps to it,” Zeller explained. “They get the programs that we want to be on there, and that’s it.”
“We have ways to differentiate between a student’s use of the tablet and the teacher’s capabilities on that device,” Zeller continued. “It’s similar to what happens when laptops are used. When the student logs in, they’re going to get a certain background, and when the teacher logs in and they’re going to get a different screen background. It helps us with security. A teacher can look and see a background on a tablet, and [instantly know] that kid is logged in as an administrator.”
The network of displays are all managed from Samsung’s server-based MagicINFO content management software platform. The application enables control and management, but also empowers schools and individual teachers to use the lobby and classroom displays as digital signs. Approved users can log in and either develop content or upload finished content to push to screens when they are not actively being used for lessons. That can mean everything from can’t-miss reminders about submission deadlines to notices about class or school trips or events.
“Manatee County School District was the perfect environment for the UDTConnect™ solution,” said Danny Rodriguez, Chief Technology Officer of UDTConnect. “The UDTConnect collaboration provides digital signage, and when activated can provide emergency notification and lockdown instructions to help keep faculty, staff, and students safe.” Education is the largest industry UDTConnect serves, and created the Connect concept to power collaboration, communication, learning applications, content sharing, broadcast media, and emergency notification system for every classroom the company has installed products.
Untethered Teachers Have New Dimensions of Classroom Mobility
Manatee is in the midst of a multiyear technology refresh program and the Samsung display and device integration is viewed as a big success. In addition to the installation of the display devices, UDTConnect has been tasked with continuous on-site support of the growing deployment in the school district.
The reception from educators through pilot and rollout has been very positive — something that’s never guaranteed.
“Change is hard,” said Saunders. “If you’re going to alter what teachers are accustomed to, and make folks learn a new system, you’ve got to make sure you’re giving them something better than what they had. If you don’t have something better than what they had, there’s no reason for them to throw away the old and put forth the effort to learn the new.”
Educators and administrators are always watching and learning, and what Manatee has done has the attention of other districts. Saunders says she wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the technology path Manatee is now on. “I would say absolutely,” the schools’ chief said. “My vision always had a tablet tied to it,” she added. “It just took us little time to get there. The reason why that tablet is so important to Manatee is that it gives teachers mobility, where they’re not just standing in front of the classroom, tied to their computer. It allows them to run that information through the device and be anywhere within their classrooms.”
“It adds another dimension to classroom teaching,” said Zeller. “And we now are starting to get teachers to build their own content. They can use content they build from the MagicINFO server, which they can quickly change, and then they can go to content they have on their laptop, use that, and then maybe go to live TV.
“Students have changed because of their environment,” he added. “They benefit from multiple forms of media — multiple forms of learning.”