Features

John Collins – Lynchburg City Schools

IT leader brings passion to school in Lynchburg

As festivals go, this one won’t conjure up memories of Woodstock, Live Aid or Coachella. No one gets inundated by storms causing seas of mud, no rock stars take jets to play multiple venues in a day, and the setting is south central Virginia, not the California desert.

But John Collins has very high hopes for Techstravaganza, the one-day event held at the end of July in Lynchburg to provide tech instruction for educators from the area and beyond.

Collins, the IT director for Lynchburg City Schools, organized the first Techstravaganza in 2019 as a free conference with workshops and a “demo slam” that doesn’t resemble a mosh pit but does allow people to demonstrate what they’ve learned using software and hardware to teach.

Attending Techstravaganza is required for all new Lynchburg City Schools teachers, but as it has grown from 80 attendees in its first year to more than 500 in 2022, Collins says educators from as far away as Maryland have joined in. There’s even a kids’ camp for people who need to bring their children along, although he does worry about finding a new venue when it outgrows the theater at Heritage High School.

The conference also has an annual theme—this year it’s racing, and Collins is eager to wave the starter’s flag.

“Participants can expect to be really immersed in learning,” Collins says. “This isn’t just a pitstop, it’s the starting line for a fast track to great instruction being made even better by gassing it up with technology.”

More Wi-Fi = more learning

Techstravaganza isn’t the only way Collins and his team have helped incorporate technology into K-12 education at Lynchburg City Schools. There’s also Project WISH, an initiative to expand Wi-Fi access throughout a district serving more than 7,800 students with 11 elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools and eight specialty schools, including a virtual academy.

Though Lynchburg students enjoy equity in the devices they’re provided—iPads through kindergarten and first grade, touch-screen Chromebooks in second grade and regular Chromebooks after that—there’s a gap in how they can learn at home because of a lack of high-speed internet.

Project WISH (the acronym for Wireless Service at Home) is a public-private initiative where Collins and his team are working with Lynchburg’s municipal IT department to add 4G radios provided by Cable AML and CDWG to towers and other infrastructure.

Project WISH is fully funded with federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act money and Collins says more than 40 4G radios will be installed on 30 towers. He expects installations to begin in the fall, addressing the areas of greatest need first, as measured by mapping out data on families that receive free and reduced cost meals at schools. Project WISH should be completed by fall 2024.

“The whole city recognizes it as a need,” Collins says. “It’s not the first time we’ve collaborated with the city’s IT department, but it’s imperative that city residents know we do strive to ensure we meet the needs of our students.”

Collins leads IT teams that support business applications and managing records for the district as well as an instructional technology team that includes former teachers tasked with instructing district faculty on using technology.

He says teachers are probably the most undervalued group in America—they’d be earning six figure salaries if he had his way. Ensuring they’re comfortable using technology—and learning from it—is crucial because he expects innovations such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence will be coming to classrooms in the future.

“I have at least 10,000 customers,” he says. “Having worked in education and in the private sector, I have a good understanding of the unique IT challenges and solutions that present themselves. My lack of a specific track helps me address things in a more well-rounded way and I can put myself in my employees’ shoes.”

A passionate approach

Collins is a Lynchburg native who began college with the intention of being an art major and also considered pre-med. However, he’s been working with computers, including programming, since he was very young.

He earned a cybersecurity certification from Radford University in 2019 and has had IT roles in business and education, including as a Windows systems administrator for Spherion at Genworth Financial and Areva NP. He’s also been a computer technician for Amherst County Public Schools in Virginia, and from March 2009 through November 2013, he was an IT trainer, web developer and business process specialist II at Liberty University.

Collins joined Lynchburg City Schools as supervisor of support technology after leaving Liberty University. In October 2016, he became a network engineer and was promoted to his current role in September 2020.

The varied tech roles Collins has had help him relate with his staff and the challenges they face. He says helping teachers and students make the most of innovations to learn is his passion.

“Technology exists to provide us with tools that simplify and enhance existing processes, but we don’t put technology in a classroom just to say we did it,” Collins says. “What’s important is that we give students and teachers tools to build out different content using what they have available.”

View this feature in the Summer I 2023 Edition here.

Published on: July 20, 2023

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