Chris Smallen – Lenoir City School District
Some students are using 3D printers to retrofit vehicles for disabled individuals—installing brake and gas pedals on steering wheels, for example, or ensuring that seats are molded in such a way that occupants can safely remain upright.
Others students are working with local businesses to develop their online marketing, or they’re helping fellow students when their laptops revolt. An increasing number are taking advantage of virtual schooling.
At Tennessee’s Lenoir City School District, the focus is on customizing education and using technology with real-world implications, explains Chief Technology Officer Chris Smallen.
“Technology changes all the time; interesting and new capabilities are emerging all the time,” Smallen says. “You have to find the appropriate fit because you’re dealing with a child’s education.”
No longer bound by educational walls or school bells
Smallen, who has led tech initiatives at Lenoir for the past eight years, notes the success—and rapid growth—of the district’s virtual school model, the iLearn Institute. Launched in 2016, the program allows middle and high school students to take classes on their own time; this could be just a few credits a semester, a hybrid mix of physical and virtual classes or a fully online homeschool program, he explains.
The institute has been especially beneficial for traditional homeschool students, those with physical and developmental challenges, young mothers and even a student on the state rodeo circuit who is often in training or on the road, Smallen says. However, it is also gaining traction with students looking for a flexible education.
In its launch year, 32 credits were awarded through the program—as of 2019, that number had grown to 273. Similarly, what began as a simple set of five courses has expanded to numerous English, social studies, personal finance and even physical education prerequisites, as well as several courses that are only offered online, including Advanced Placement (AP) art history, AP biology, and fashion and interior design.
The iLearn Institute is also branching into more career-oriented courses such as introduction to agriculture and the fundamentals of health occupations. This academic year it is open for the first time to K-5 students. All courses are taught by Lenoir teachers, who receive a supplement for participating, says Smallen.
“We’re a big believer in personalized learning,” he adds. “That’s been one of our mantras from the beginning. With that comes a lot of voice and choice in and out of the classroom. We want to make sure in the end that everyone can be successful.”
Innovation across the board
Not that traditional classroom settings have been denied an update.
For starters, Lenoir students at every level have access to active makerspace environments, Smallen says. In using these labs, elementary students have created animated short films and participated in simple robotics and green screen use. Middle-schoolers have designed the adaptive pieces to retrofit mobility vehicles and used Tinkercad to learn code and to design robots—which they’ve then printed out in pieces and assembled in real life. High school students have access to video, audio and sewing rooms, T-shirt presses, vinyl cutters and 3D printers.
To provide hands-on experience, both middle and high school students operate help desks, repairing student equipment as part of a 1:1 Chromebook initiative for grades K-12. And in a project that has a dual benefit for students and the community, high school students are actively working with the downtown merchant association. They helped create a website for the association including a landing page for each merchant, designed ads and maps, and launched social medial campaigns.
“Most of these are upstart businesses, small cafes or coffee shops that don’t have a lot of resources,” notes Smallen of the dual benefit.
But tech is no less crucial for the educator side, of course: Smallen has four dedicated staff members who help teachers understand technology and blend it into their lessons, while also performing typical IT functions such as software launches and troubleshooting.
Don’t be afraid to dream
A 23-year veteran of education, holding a doctorate, Smallen kicked off his career at Lenoir as a high school science teacher. He then moved to Loudon County Schools—where he served as an eighth-grade science teacher, middle school vice principal and director of technology—before returning to Lenoir in 2011.
For the last several years, he has served as an adjunct professor at Tennessee Tech University, teaching courses in leadership and technology for business and secondary methods of education. He is also vice chairman of the board of directors for the Tennessee Educational Technology Association, as well as a certified educational technology leader with a designation from CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) held by only about 450 people worldwide.
A lifelong student, Smallen notes that he is “constantly trying to gain ideas.”
That goes for his role at Lenoir, as well, where he likes to analyze tough questions, he says—such as keeping pace with technological advances while also being mindful of public school system budgets.
“I enjoy working with kids, working with teachers, being able to really focus on big plans,” Smallen says. “I tell folks in our department: Don’t be afraid to dream.”
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