Fostering education: How technology drives collaboration in the Canyons School District
Scot McCombs, Director of Information Technology at Canyons School District, recognizes the importance of balancing consumption and creation when it comes to school technology.
Draper, Utah (November 14, 2023) - “The Canyons School District fully recognizes that great technology will never replace a great teacher,” said McCombs. “But when tech collaborates with traditional teaching methods, it gives our students the best chance at an excellent education.”
The Utah Education Network (UEN), in partnership with the nonprofit Connected Nation (CN), is in the midst of a technology inventory of Utah’s public and charter schools. The Canyons School District is taking part in that inventory, which McCombs said has provided essential data to help identify what areas need better access to broadband (high speed internet) and why tech can help its students excel, both in and out of the classroom.
In 2015, UEN began tracking how technology is used in the classroom, as well as the access teachers and students have to digital materials, devices and platforms. Data from the most recent inventory was released in 2021.
An opportunity for a new technology plan
The Canyons School District is unique. It was one of the biggest districts in the state when, 15 years ago, residents in five cities voted to split the district in half. It now comprises schools in the following cities: Alta, Cottonwood Heights, Draper, Midvale and Sandy. These changes created an opportunity to prioritize the development and implementation of a new school technology plan, which was something district leaders had wanted to do for a long time.
“When we started with technology in our schools, it really was [only] a lab — tech was something down the hall,” said McComb. “We wanted to make it more accessible for students [and] something that was embedded appropriately into the curriculum.”
When the district’s geographic boundaries were modified in 2008, its schools were nowhere near a 1:1 ratio of technology to students. But part of the district’s mission is to make sure that its students are college-and-career-ready. So, that meant increasing technology in an appropriate way.
The first step the district’s IT department took was to implement an ed tech coaching program. Ed tech coaches are certified teachers who train other teachers on how to use tech.
According to McCombs, the coaches model the tech, or work one-on-one with a teacher during their prep period, to provide professional development. They then train teachers on how to use that technology appropriately and effectively in the classroom.
“Our first five-year technology plan was actually less about devices and more about teacher technology, making sure that teachers all had a projector, working audio and […] a document camera that functioned correctly,” said McCombs. “We made sure that teachers had portable technology because we didn't want them to be stuck, tied to a desktop computer at the front of the classroom.”
Fifteen years later, Canyons schools are now fully equipped with teacher technology and devices for their students. Currently, the school district is 1:1 with the following devices for each grade:
- Kindergarten — 1st grade has iPads in classroom sets (these do not leave the classroom).
- 2nd — 5th grade has Chromebooks in classroom sets (these do not leave the classroom).
- Secondary schools are 1:1 (also known as the 24/7 model) with laptops if the students, or their families, choose to take home their devices.
While district leaders believe technology is essential for students, they also want to make sure that it serves as a collaborative tool and does not replace traditional methods of teaching.
“I think that technology is really terrific [for] creation,” said McCombs. “We want students not necessarily to consume the technology, but really to create with the technology, and that's really one of our focuses.”
The importance of broadband access for students
It’s not just about device access and usage. Another key piece of the equation is ensuring access to high speed internet for all students—in the classroom and at home.
“We were very forward-thinking about making sure that we provided opportunities for families to have internet access at home,” said McCombs. “We surveyed all of our students and families to figure out who had access and who didn't.”
Right before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canyons Board of Education supported its schools with a hotspot initiative. The district partnered with T-Mobile to provide hotspots to students in need.
“When the pandemic came, we were actually very well-positioned and focused on those classroom sets of technology,” said McCombs. “We were able to provide devices to students who needed them, and then Wi-Fi access to students who needed that as well.”
How UEN helped make a difference
Being able to identify what technology teachers need, how often students should be using tech and what areas in the district need better access to high speed internet are very important issues to not just the Canyons School District, but families across the district as well.
This data was made possible by the statewide UEN technology inventory, in which the district has participated for the last several years. McCombs was also fortunate enough to be on the team that reviews the data at a statewide level.
“The inventory helped us to measure, helped us to be accountable and helped us be able to really set out what our vision and our goals are and go after them to hit our target. For us it's been beneficial,” said McCombs. “I don't know how a student can learn if we are not providing the right opportunities for them beyond the school day. And so, the inventory helped us identify and work through overcoming that Digital Divide. That is so important to not just our community, but the whole state.”
Canyons School District Students