O’Dea High School’s story of digital transformation

Letting go of old habits takes time, unless you’re the dedicated and innovative educators of O’Dea High School.

Beginning in August of the 2017-2018 school year, O’Dea launched a one-to-one single device program featuring the Microsoft Surface.  Shortly after the launch, in October, Microsoft’s EDU Product Manager, Mike Tholfsen, visited O’Dea.

He visited some classes to observe how our educators and students were using Microsoft Teams and OneNote Class Notebooks. Mike took some student questions and offered students some tips and tricks in OneNote. He also showed off the roller-skating unicorn sticker, to the great joy of an all-boy 12th grade class.  After a few classroom visits, Mike turned to me and asked, “How long has O’Dea been using OneNote?” Mike’s jaw dropped when I answered. “Two months.” As we walked down O’Dea’s hallway, we saw that almost every educator was giving their lesson under the purple banner of a OneNote Notebook. Mike enthusiastically asked me to write this guest blog to tell you about O’Dea’s digital classroom transformation.

In many respects, it’s unexpected for O’Dea to be a model of transformational change and innovation in ICT. A boys school founded in 1923 by the Congregation of Christian Brothers, O’Dea takes pride in its long tradition of developing men of character, faith, and service. As an organization, O’Dea retains its talented educators and, as a result, has low faculty turnover and a high number of skilled legacy educators who are proud of their contributions over the years.

When I was hired as O’Dea’s Director of Educational Technology in June of 2016, Principal Walker’s vision was for O’Dea to become a leader in the use of technology in the classroom, and to have a one-to-one program launched in August of 2017 – fifteen months from when I joined.  At the time, O’Dea had a limited wireless network, one computer lab, and a faculty with little experience using technology for teaching and learning. This transition was going to need everyone on board and, in many respects, O’Dea already had the right people in place to carry it through.

I quickly learned why O’Dea is so successful in team sports. O’Dea’s faculty and staff built this vision and transformation as a team and worked together to achieve it. While our CFO and Director of Financial Aid worked on securing the necessary resources, our Director of IT redesigned and managed the installation of a new network, and our Director of Facilities managed a remodeling of our classrooms. It was my charge to help our educators ideate how technology could benefit our students and strategize how best to harmonize our educators’ use of technology during this transformation.

As I listened to the O’Dea community’s concern about transitioning into a technology focused school, it became clear that, while many people were supportive of the change, they were also anxious about what the change meant regarding lessons and resources they had built throughout the years. Many of O’Dea’s educators have over ten years invested into the school and have developed curriculums and resources that are effective and valuable. Any successful adoption of technology advanced at O’Dea would need to easily integrate into the learning environments our educators have developed over the years and play nice with their resources. It was this concern that drove the decision to adopt the Microsoft Surface as our one-to-one digital inking device and ground our integration and training efforts around Office 365 and OneNote.

I think that O’Dea’s successful digital classroom transformation can be credited to three elements: O’Dea leadership’s shared vision, Office 365’s adaptability paired with the Microsoft Surface, and O’Dea’s Educational Technology Leaders.

Our Ed Tech Leaders are a group of seven educators from different content areas, with varied technological backgrounds, who agreed to put themselves in front as our early adopters. They led two professional development days during the 2016-17 school year, training our faculty on OneNote, Digital Inking, Microsoft Forms, and the Microsoft Surface. None of these educators had experience using these products in a one-to-one classroom, yet their willingness to take the risk and present on these topics helped generate a “we’re in it together” feeling amongst our faculty. This team continues to offer weekly support sessions and develop professional development opportunities for our faculty. Their efforts helped overcome the natural resistance to change most institutions face when advancing new initiatives.  I will be forever grateful to David Watson, Tim Greenan, Rory McNulty, Lawrence Kight, Nick Baker, Joseph Balinbin, and William Chambers, for their commitment to advancing O’Dea’s mission. They are the change makers.

O’Dea’s community is excited about our new environment. Assistant Principal Dr. Gregory Cox is impressed with how technology has deepened the O’Dea experience, stating: “O’Dea has a uniquely diverse population for a private Catholic High School and I’m thrilled with the opportunities Teams and OneNote provide for personalizing the learning experience. Our Microsoft environment helps educators address individual learning gaps and provides new avenues for our students to explore their own interests.”

Math teacher Ms. Donna Popich states, “It didn’t take long for me to become completely sold on the Microsoft Surface and on Office 365! There are no more loose homework papers wadded up at the bottom of a backpack or left forgotten under the bed at home. When I asked students about all the new changes a student stood up and shouted, ‘I love this!’ His sentiment seemed to echo the sentiment of the majority of the class. And, even this old-school, paper and pencil math teacher has come to love all this change, too!”

Tom Schutte, who has taught at O’Dea for 26 years, said, “Before the launch of the Surface program I was concerned that my effectiveness would suffer, because I did not fully understand the environment, but after working with the Surface I think this is smart, fun, effective and highly professional. It’s a new pinnacle of my life as an educator.”

Our educators’ positive experience was enhanced because they had to do very little setup. Microsoft’s School Data Sync created a Microsoft Team for each course and automatically populated it with the students. Teams then made it easy for teachers to use the most popular learning tool in the 365 Suite, the OneNote Class Notebook. OneNote revolutionized the way our educators design learning experiences, organize and distribute materials, and assess student learning.

O’Dea’s Music Director, Dan Ruiter, is using OneNote’s ability to record audio through the Microsoft Surface in order to personalize feedback he gives musicians in Band and Choir. “The students just record their practice sessions and I’m able to leave feedback right on the page,” Dan says. “It helps me personalize instruction and effectively hold students accountable.”

Teacher and Counselor Lawrence Kight has quickly become a skilled OneNote user and spoke about an early discovery he made. “One of the things I found about OneNote is that I could take teaching materials from my voluminous file directory and ‘print’ them into the appropriate sections, section groups, and notebooks for greater ease of review and use,” Lawrence said. “Doing so enabled me to see, more clearly, the many great teaching ideas and lessons that I had accumulated over the years in so many files. Being able to see my library of useful and adaptable teaching materials more easily was an important moment in my efforts to transition to a more digital way of teaching and learning.”

There is still so much growth we look forward to in our digital classroom transformation.  Personally, I’ve been inspired by the O’Dea community’s gritty nature, adaptability, and openness to new ideas. Together, they have positively embraced this new paradigm and are curious and exploring the many exciting possibilities technology opens for teaching and learning.

O’Dea High School has partnered with Microsoft to host a free Microsoft Showcase School Event featuring real-world professional development for educators, principals, IT staff, and counselors seeking a holistic approach to school transformation. It showcases how interrelated initiatives in social and emotional development, digital classroom transformation, and ongoing professional development, coaching, and mentoring come together to transform the teaching and learning experience in schools.


To learn more, please visit the conference website.


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