Q & A: School district's new chief technology officer Mike Morrison

Mike Morrison remembers geeking out on his Apple IIe, marveling at its capabilities. He thinks back to when email meant a once-a-day alert that a group of messages was ready to read. How times have changed. The former elementary school teacher and Laguna Beach Unified School District's newest chief technology officer enters at a critical time as students prepare to take new standardized state tests on computers, whether on traditional desktops or Google Chromebooks. Boosting speed to the Internet was one of Morrison's first tasks and he successfully negotiated a deal that will provide increased speed. Morrison, 46, a Trabuco Canyon resident and Southern California native, discussed this matter and his hopes for the district's technology infrastructure.

Question: What have you been working on?

Answer: One of my goals is single sign-on, which allows users to sign on to one location and access all of their applications. That is the base level of any IT project, to make sure your directory is set up right.

I renegotiated the contract with Cox Communications. Right now we have 50 MB to the Internet. Cox was willing to increase that to [1 GB], which is 20 times the speed at the same cost we have now. I also negotiated the line from [the district] to each school, which now is 500 MB. They were willing to increase to [1 GB], double the speed [for $360 less per month], which will be important for testing and future growth. (The board of trustees approved the contracts with Cox at its March 25 meeting.)

Q: How is the district moving toward one student for every tablet or mobile device?

A: We're going to have work with the community to find out how that will look. We have a few devices already. This might be a combination of students bringing their own device and us supplementing that with our own devices. I'd suggest parent surveys to find out what equipment they do have and what equipment they would be willing to bring in. There will need to be a lot of community outreach to get feedback.

Q: What lured you to Laguna from Saddleback Valley Unified School District?

A: I was at a point where I wanted to do something remarkable. I feel in Laguna we can be a model technology district. I didn't feel like the mechanisms, such as the size of the district [at Saddleback], to be able to do that in five to 10 years. Here, I'm certain we'll be able to do that. I've seen the parent support, and the teachers are already on board. I toured Thurston Middle School and almost every classroom was using technology, which was remarkable.

Q: Besides searching on the Internet, what can kids do to tap into skills such as leadership?

A: Building challenge-based projects, such as assignments based on a key question. Students would have to use skills to try to argue and complete that project or answer that question. That could mean talking to distant peers in other countries or tapping into local resources, such as an environmental challenge or working through politics to make that happen. Technology enables students to have the tools that they can solve these problems.

Q: Where is the district in regards to digital textbooks?

A: Most all publishers offer a digital textbook. It's not always very good. It might be a PDF of their existing book. Some publishers are building more interactive pieces. I think we should be looking at digital books in general. For example, some of the library systems offer the ability to check out books digitally so students can read them on their iPad, kind of like a Kindle. They can take notes, and the next time they check out the book the notes are saved. One company, Subtext (which is only on the iPad), allows one to ask questions in the margins. As they're reading the book, they can have an interactive experience with the whole class, almost like a virtual book club. If a kid has read 20% of the book it has the name right above the 20% mark. It also tells you whether the student highlighted certain words and looked them up.

Q: What intrigues you about technology?

A: I've always been drawn to it since I was growing up. I tried to do things on the Apple IIe that no one else could do. As a teacher, there's a lot of opportunity to use technology. I always saw the potential for communication and collaboration. We actually participated (when Morrison taught in the Claremont Unified School District) in a conversation with R.L. Stine (author of the Goosebumps series). Our kids chatted with him. Technology has always been a fascination. For me that was where my talents lied, and I pursued that.

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