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Supporting Innovation in Education: Digital Curricula and the Public Library

by Chad Lubbers on July 8, 2014

In 2013, the Washington County (Minn.) Library (WCL) began collaborating with South Washington County School District (SWCSD) (District 833) to support the district’s Transforming Thinking through Technology (T3) initiative. This new curriculum incorporates a variety of digital learning tools and strategies, including tablet-based learning, flipped classrooms, and a gradual phasing out of textbooks from select classes. WCL has taken a multi-departmental approach to providing support services to district staff and students, leveraging library resources on a variety of fronts and demonstrating library utility to a number of different audiences.

District 833, located southwest of St. Paul, formally launched the T3 Initiative during the 2013-14 academic year. This initiative is a key component of the district’s long range plan to move teachers and students towards a new digital curriculum. T3 is designed to help prepare students for twenty-first-century academic success by personalizing their education through self-directed, anytime/anywhere learning. Using a variety of emergent technologies, T3 capitalizes on the flexibility of digital communication and collaboration while helping students develop the critical thinking and evaluation skills necessary to function in an increasingly online world.

T3 was partially funded through Minnesota’s Compensatory Education Funding, which earmarks state education funds for schools with high numbers of students who have been unable to meet state and local performance standards for their grade levels. Schools receiving these funds are frequently located in areas of greater socioeconomic need throughout the state.

During the 2012-13 academic year—one year before the formal T3 launch—all District 833 teachers were issued a MacBook for classroom and home use. These laptops were intended to help facilitate the transition from print curricula to online learning models by familiarizing district teachers with the possibilities for integrating online material into their classrooms.

As the 2013-14 academic year approached, teachers were informed that textbooks for specific subjects, such as social studies, would be gradually phased out in place of online learning modules that teachers would be building for their classes. Textbooks would not be removed from classrooms. Instead, the district would simply stop purchasing them for specific subject areas. Funds for these textbooks would be reassigned to purchase access to online curricula modules (such as the Minnesota Partnership for Collaborative Curriculum) or for other specific online services teachers would like to access when constructing their class content.1

As the 2012-13 academic year concluded, classroom teachers, media specialists, and public librarians contacted each other to investigate resource-sharing to support this new curriculum. WCL administration arranged to meet with District 833 administrators to investigate a more formalized collaboration that was preemptive rather than reactive to the upcoming changes.

What resulted was a multi-departmental approach involving library collaboration with a variety of district representatives and stakeholders over the course of the following year.

Library/School Profiles

WCL is a midsized suburban library system with six branches in a roughly California-shaped county. We share a western border with Ramsey County, which surrounds the state capitol, St. Paul, and we share an eastern border with the state of Wisconsin. Our annual circulation is approximately two million items for our six branches and we see approximately 800,000 visitors each year.

Two of our six branches are located within the borders of District 833. WCL’s Park Grove Branch Library was built in 1984, is 19,000 square feet, and services the majority of the lower-income students in the District 833 service area. The R.H. Stafford Branch Library was built in 2002, is 26,000 square feet, and services Woodbury, the largest city in Washington County.

District 833 has approximately 17,000 students enrolled in the district’s fifteen elementary schools, four middle schools, and three high schools. The district spans an eighty-four square mile area and has a population of approximately 94,000 residents.

A New Curriculum

Classrooms throughout District 833 have been incorporating online and digital components into their curricula for several years now. To encourage this, teachers are offered a variety of continuing education units (CEUs) on tech-related educational theories and applications. The most popular CEUs in recent years have been the Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition (SAMR) learning model, Moodle, Google Apps, and Notability.

Beginning in 2013, the district gained the capability to assign Google Drive accounts to the entire student body at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels. This created a cloud computing environment which allows students to create, share, and modify documents online across multiple operating systems.

And an increasing number of teachers are incorporating elements of the “flipped classroom,” where students view a daily lesson online at home and then report to school the next morning to review concepts and to practice skills.

The portion of District 833’s T3 initiative that has received the most publicity, however, is the tablet-based learning project, which distributed iPads to every student in five of the district schools (three elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school). Each of these five schools is located in the lowest income areas of the school district. The intent is to eventually provide tablets for all students in the district, but due to the availability of state funding for these five schools, the decision was made to implement at these locations first.

During the last weeks of summer 2013, each student at these five schools was issued an iPad preloaded with the following standardized suite of iWork apps:

  • Notability: note-taking app that allows for note taking via typing or writing (with finger or stylus) and also allows for note taking on top of existing PDF docs
  • Pages: word-processing app that is the Apple equivalent of Microsoft Word
  • Numbers: spreadsheet app that is comparable to Microsoft Excel
  • Keynote: presentation app comparable to Microsoft PowerPoint
  • iPhoto: app for creating, editing, and sharing photos
  • iMovie: app for creating, editing, and sharing movies
  • GarageBand: app for creating, editing, and sharing music

Students are permitted to load additional apps to their devices, but the core apps above are required to remain installed on all tablets. There are also numerous apps currently being used by classroom teachers that are not part of this initial suite, including a variety of whiteboard apps as well as the Schoolology Learning Management System.

Teachers in all subjects were encouraged, but not required, to begin introducing new methods of accessing class content via tablet. Students are able to use their devices at home to view classroom presentations and to complete online homework assignments. Many of the apps used in class are linked to accounts managed by their teachers. This allows teachers to review student progress in real time as the assignments are completed at school and at home. Students also gain an online forum to ask questions, discuss concerns, or post community responses about topics pertaining to class or to homework.

Library Support

As WCL and District 833 staff corresponded in the months leading up to the start of the school year, library staff worked to develop a cohesive strategy for providing support to students as the T3 initiative went live in the fall of 2013. Over the course of the next several months, we established seven principal collaboration points where libraries and various school district departments partnered to better leverage our collective resources.

1. Library Card Drives

After discussion with District 833’s library and media center coordinator, it was decided that WCL would begin its support by setting up a series of library card registration drives at schools throughout the district. The primary goal would be to make the library’s dozens of subscription databases available to students, both in school and at home. The anytime/anywhere accessibility of these online resources fit nicely with the district’s general goal to expand learning opportunities for students beyond the standard school day. But to make these services available, we needed to distribute library cards to as many students as possible.

The first part of our library card registration drive strategy would be to send staff to schools to register students on site. The SirsiDynix Symphony integrated library system (ILS) that WCL currently runs allows for remote card registration via a secured HTTP connection. Library staff would take one or more library laptops loaded with SirsiDynix Symphony ILS to the schools. We would be placed in media centers, lunch rooms, or hallways to register students throughout the day. We quickly found ourselves in a time crunch, though. Students were unable to wait in long lines because they had to move along to classes, and WCL staff members were limited by how quickly they could do the data entry. We, quite literally, couldn’t register students quickly enough.

So we worked with library administration to develop a second process involving paper registrations distributed and tracked by classroom teachers. Students who wanted a library card would complete the paperwork and return the applications to the teachers. Teachers would review the applications for completeness and then forward the applications on to the nearest public library. Our staff would process the cards for return and distribution in the classrooms.

In order to make this process work, library administration approved a special dispensation for any students with outstanding fees on their account. Any student with late fees would have the fees waived, up to an amount of $50. A new library card number would be assigned to the account and the student would have a clean slate with the library.

This modified registration process allowed us to register students en masse, covering entire classrooms at a time.

2. Resource Demonstrations

As the library card registration drives were occurring in schools around the district, library staffers were also scheduled for off-site demonstrations of online library resources. Staff demonstrated databases and research products in classrooms, in media centers, and also at special school events such as new student orientations, family night for English language learners, and the Disability Resource Fair.

For high school students, our demonstrations focused on resources that current juniors might need to use the following year as seniors. The goal of these sessions was to emphasize that whatever you are planning to do after high school graduation (Going to college? Enlisting in the military? Job hunting?), we can help. Our staff demonstrated SAT, ACT, and ASVAB study resources through Learning-Express Library. We also demonstrated résumé building and interview skills via JobNow.

At our back-to-school sessions for middle schoolers, we demonstrated simple research products, such as Biography In Context, Gale’s Discovering Collection, NovelList K-8, and BrainFuse’s HelpNow. And at all of the schools we visited, we were asked to demonstrate e-book access. WCL subscribes to both the Overdrive and 3M Cloud library products. When visiting T3 schools where every student had a district-issued iPad, we asked teachers to load the two e-book apps in advance of our visit. This enabled us to begin the book selection process without the time-consuming step of loading the apps. At schools that did not have tablets, we demonstrated e-book apps using one of the WCL staff-training iPads.

3. Media Specialist In-Service

Before the 2013-14 year officially began, WCL was invited to do a general presentation on e-resources to the district’s twenty-plus media specialists at their summer orientation session. Our three goals in this presentation were: (1) to demonstrate ebook access, (2) to demonstrate just a few of our most popular electronic resources, and (3) to reinforce our desire to assist the media specialists however we can as they work their way through the T3 process.

By happy coincidence, the district superintendent and assistant superintendent walked into the media center as we were wrapping up. After finishing our presentation, we ran into both superintendents in the parking lot. Both made a point of expressing their gratitude for our support of the T3 initiative.

4. Access Cards for Media Centers

Following our presentation to the media specialists, we began discussions with the library and media center coordinator about the possibility of remote access to WCL databases at the school libraries and media centers. WCL staff had recently heard about a resource-sharing strategy in place at a northern California public library, involving the assignment of library card numbers to school libraries.

We moved this idea forward to WCL administration. After several discussions, what resulted was the creation of a new type of library card for WCL: the e-resource card. These limited-use library cards provide access to the library’s suite of online research tools but cannot be used to check out books.

We made one of these e-resource cards available to each of the twenty-five schools in District 833. Media specialists are now able to do demonstrations of public library resources to students—but, equally important, they can also do demonstrations to district teachers who are looking to incorporate online resources into their new class curricula.

5. Wireless Access at Public Libraries

One of the first topics discussed when preparing to support the T3 initiative was the matter of wireless access points in the community at large. Because the school district was distributing iPads to the lowest income areas of the district, there were initial concerns about students having access to wireless networks at home after school. Specifically, the question was raised: If a child is given a tablet because his or her family is unable to afford to purchase a tablet, is it reasonable to assume that they will have wireless access at home?

So we asked the district how students without Wi-Fi at home would be completing their online assignments. The initial thought was that students would be able to visit local businesses with wireless access (coffee shops, restaurants, and so forth). This again raised the question of affordability. Can a student whose family can’t afford to install a wireless network at home be reasonably expected to pay the price of a cup of coffee in order to do their homework? (Should they have to?)

A better alternative, we suggested, would be to market the public library as a resource for students who need to get online with their wireless devices. At the library, students are welcome to stay as long as they would like, there are no fees charged for wireless access, and there are meeting rooms available for any group projects the students would need to complete.

It was at this point that we realized that we had a problem. We had assumed that the district iPads would be fully compatible with the library’s county-provided network. They weren’t. Proxy configurations on the library network and on the district iPads were in conflict, so we quickly pulled together a meeting of county and district IT staff to discuss the situation.

After several weeks of discussion and testing, the school district offered to install district-owned wireless networks in both the Park Grove and Stafford branches.

At Park Grove, the district funded a quarter-mile cable run from their nearest elementary school to the library. The Stafford Branch is located in a multipurpose facility that includes the local YMCA, an indoor park, an amphitheater, numerous meeting rooms, and a branch office of District 833’s Early Childhood and Family Education (ECFE) division. The district was able to pull cable approximately one hundred feet from the lower level of the facility, where ECFE offices are located, to the upper level where the library is located.

Access points were installed at both the Stafford and Park Grove branch libraries. When these access points went online, each library now hosted two wireless networks: one from Washington County and one from District 833.

For students, walking in the front door of their local library is now the same as walking in the front door of their school. As soon as their tablets detect the school network, they are automatically connected and online. Library staffers are entirely removed from having to troubleshoot any compatibility issues between the school network and the student devices.

6. Cloud Storage

Prior to the 2013-14 academic year, all WCL Internet workstations were imaged with just two browsers for accessing the web: Internet Explorer and Mozilla’s Firefox. As the academic year progressed, staff saw an increase in compatibility errors associated with students’ Google Drive accounts. The Firefox and IE browsers installed on library workstations were several versions old. Both were missing key plug-ins and other components necessary to operate the newest version of the Google Drive product.

County IT did not have the time to create a new profile or to reimage the hundred-plus PC workstations at the library. But IT was able to push an installation of the Chrome browser out to our PCs. The addition of Chrome had the immediate effect of giving seamless entry into the Google Drive product for all students, while removing the staff need to troubleshoot compatibility issues associated with other browsers.

7. Staff Training

Throughout the 2013-14 academic year, library staffers have been receiving updates about a variety of T3-related concerns, including accessibility, Apple iOS upgrades, and miscellaneous hardware issues.

Initially, however, staff members were most concerned about the apps that were preloaded on the students’ iPads. All WCL information services staff had received general iPad (and Google Nexus) training in order to demonstrate e-book services to our customers. So our librarians were already familiar with the mechanics of operating tablet-based technologies.

However, none of our staff had any experience with the core apps installed on the district iPads. We also learned that the iWorks software was not an approved (supported) app with our county IT department so we were unable to load this suite of software onto our library tablets.

We contacted the district’s continuing education coordinator to request recommendations about training exercises for library staff. He responded with a generous offer: They would make available several online continuing education courses for library staff to attend. These included online sessions on SAMR, Google Drive, Notability, iWorks, and Moodle. With this offer, library staff members were now able to receive the same training that district teachers received in preparation for the 2014-15 school year.

Year in Review

With the 2013-14 school year coming to a close, library staff from the Park Grove and Stafford branch libraries began comparing notes on which initiatives worked, and what did not.

What Worked

We registered approximately two thousand students for library cards during the 2013-14 school year. Onsite registration was a popular option, but not an efficient one. We could process paper applications more quickly (and in bulk) back at the branches, using a team of circulation staff. Sending one or two individuals onsite to register students at the schools themselves was a nice bit of outreach, but did not net us the volume of registrations we wanted to achieve.

The presentation we made to media specialists established school contacts for each building in the district. This resulted in numerous invitations to present content at not just media centers but also at individual classrooms for teachers interested in demonstrations of library research tools, e-books, and more.

District administrative staff members were extremely grateful for the regular feedback from public library staff about student experiences with their tablets. This frequent exchange of information demonstrated both the frequency with which students visited the libraries and also our commitment to supporting this educational initiative. All of these factors contributed to the district’s decision to invest the necessary funds to install their wireless networks in two of our buildings.

The collaboration with the district gave us further insights into the scale of similar operations in other districts around the state. The collaboration has also given us a better picture of how technology and online resources were being used in the classroom. And by understanding how the technology is being used in the classroom, we are better prepared to market our services in a form that is both meaningful and useful to teachers and to students.

What Didn’t Work

Wireless access should have been tested well before the beginning of academic year. As project lead for WCL, this oversight was entirely my fault as I assumed compatibility would not be an issue, that students could use our county wireless network without any problems. Because of this, we didn’t do any testing until the school year had begun. By the time we found out that there were problems, we were unable to get to a solution until a large portion of the school year had passed.

Training was an ongoing concern for library staff, but ended up not being the problem that it might have been. Students with iPads were unexpectedly (but happily) very familiar with the usage of most of the iPad apps. And the core suite of apps loaded on the iPads were not utilized very heavily by district teachers this first year so we saw only a few questions about iWork apps.

What’s Next

The library’s watchword for the 2014-15 school year is “sustain.” We want to continue our support, including library card registration drives and resource demonstrations. We want to continue in our role as a technology access point for students. And we want to maintain the communication channels we’ve opened, not only with district administration but also with the teachers and media specialists who work in the district schools.

If staffing and time permit, we would like to duplicate our summertime presentation to media specialists and expand this area to include teachers in other disciplines as well. The district has also invited us to attend some of their in-service training sessions as audience members so that library staff can see what new technologies and learning strategies are being rolled out for the coming year.

Library staff may present on this partnership at the annual Minnesota Library Association conference and it has also been suggested that we consider a similar presentation at the state’s annual teacher conference.


Numerous other school districts in Minnesota are investigating ways to incorporate more digital resources into their curriculum. To date, fifty-plus districts statewide are actively engaged in creating their own peer-reviewed digital content for use in the classroom. Locally managed digital content has the potential to be more responsive to current trends, current events, and STEM advancements—which often date paper texts. And the cost of these digital curricula is less than the cost of textbooks, potentially saving districts thousands of dollars for other projects and programs.

Minnesota’s public school system consistently ranks in the top tier of many national surveys about public education. And Minnesota’s high school seniors have scored highest in the nation on ACT exams for the past eight years.2 A key component to maintaining these performance levels in the future will be the ability of our school districts to stay in front of tech trends that have the potential to improve the delivery and comprehension of classroom content for students.

With a growing suite of online resources, public libraries are ideally positioned to demonstrate online content options to educators. Similarly, we are well positioned to support initiatives involving the digitization and distribution of previously printed resources because, as a profession, we have witnessed this digital migration of our print resources for the past twenty years.

By working collaboratively with school districts as they navigate their way through new digital learning models, libraries have a unique opportunity to demonstrate their utility to the next generation of students and educators. And having walked this path ourselves over the past two decades, we are in a position to assist school leaders in their planning and execution of the new curricula being launched in our service areas.

By forming these strategic partnerships with our local schools in the years ahead, we have the potential to raise the community profile of both organizations. Libraries that actively seek out these collaborations appear timely, responsive, and supportive of education efforts in our communities. School districts gain a recognized and respected ally to cite as a supporter of their efforts.

By observing how another important local organization is adapting to the technological developments that are changing the way services are delivered, we are given a frame of reference for mapping our own future. And we gain insights on how we might deliver library services in a way that is both familiar to students and relevant to their evolving academic needs.


1. Minnesota Partnership for Collaborative Curriculum (MPCC) homepage, accessed May 7, 2014. MPCC is actively engaged in the creation of open digital curriculum for more than fifty partner districts throughout the state of Minnesota. MPCC content is peer-reviewed, meets state education standards, and is designed by education professionals who support the collaborative creation and distribution of education resources.

2. “ACT and SAT Test Scores: ACT Scores of Minnesota High School Test Takers,” Minnesota Office of Higher Education, accessed May 7, 2014.

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