Coffee With Elizabeth Hoover
ACPS' Chief Technology Officer on Artificial Intelligence in the Schools and More
Dr. Elizabeth Hoover, the Chief Technology Officer of the Alexandria City Public Schools, has a bookcase in her office with a sample of each device distributed by the Instructional Technology Services department to students and teachers since ACPS began using computers to enhance instruction in the mid-1990’s. Hoover’s self-curated display reflects her 28-year ACPS career.
Hoover, a parent of two George Washington Middle School students, has been a steadying presence in a central office administration that has seen its share of turnover.
“All I ever wanted to do was be a classroom teacher,” said Hoover. When she was at the University of Virginia pursuing a Master’s in Education, “technology and education was just coming on.” One of her professors, “told us about this thing called the Internet.” Intrigued, she wrote a thesis on the use of multi-media software in an elementary school classroom.
Hoover joined ACPS as a fourth grade teacher at Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology. In 1995, ACPS rolled out a technology plan in which select schools, including Cora Kelly, would be Internet-enabled. Every school was to get a server and every teacher was to get one desktop and one laptop computer—“cutting edge stuff,” said Hoover.
As a new teacher, she began leading technology professional development sessions. When the computer lab teacher left, Hoover applied for the position which she held for three years. When Samuel Tucker Elementary School opened, Hoover applied to be a Network Resource Teacher at the new school. In the summer of 2000 Hoover set up all of the computers and peripherals at Samuel Tucker.
She earned a Ph.D. from George Mason University in 2003 and became ACPS’s Director of Instructional Technology in 2005 and its Chief Technology Officer in 2008. “I was a little naïve,” she said, “I did not know I would be taking on the laptop initiative at the high school,” a large and complicated task.
The 2003 laptop implementation, which originated as a School Board initiative, was most difficult at its first implementation point—the high school—because teachers were not fully onboard. At the middle schools, “the implementation was seamless” because there was more time for teachers to adjust to the changes on the horizon. It was even easier to bring laptops to the elementary schools.
Hoover thinks that ACPS’ size offers advantages for integrating technology with instruction. “We [Technology Services] have the ability to be more connected to our schools and students,” she said, “I think we play a larger role in the day-to-day support of our schools’ use of technology than larger divisions.”
Hoover describes ChatGPT, the viral and much discussed artificial intelligence tool that instantaneously generates well-written responses to complex questions, as “big news.” She is evaluating ACPS’ possible responses.
Hoover is aware that some school systems, for example, Montgomery County and Fairfax County, have banned ChatGPT. Hoover and her staff are consulting with ACPS teachers in different content areas and grade levels. “We talked to some teachers last week about it,” Hoover said, “We have some teachers who are very interested in how it could work for them.” She added:
My experience here is that we make the best decisions when we include our teachers, so that’s where we are right now. I think what we need to do is to explore how they see it. I do think a lot of it is about instruction and good assignments and good process. If students are turning in their drafts you don’t need to worry about it [artificial intelligence] being a “gotcha” for the teacher.
Hoover believes that the pandemic reinforced the need for students to be resilient and to be self-advocates. Her staff met the pandemic’s challenges head on: “I was super proud of my team—people were up all night trying to figure out what would work, how to make things easier for teachers, professional development, Zoom and all of that,” she said.
The pandemic also revealed that a substantial number of students did not have reliable Internet access outside school. “We provided over 2,000 families Internet access. We are still continuing that effort,” she said, “That is something that kept me up at night because all of our work didn’t matter [if students could not get online.]” Another pandemic-related challenge was that some students were not regularly receiving mail. Hoover’s department had to develop other ways to reach and equip them.
The 59 Technology Services employees operate in three interdependent teams: infrastructure and support services, application and business support, and instructional technology which includes the 19 technology integration specialists (TIS) based in the schools. Many of ACPS’ most accomplished teachers have joined the TIS cadre.
A strength of ours is that our instructional technology team is part of the department. They are our boots on the ground, along with our computer and network techs.
Hoover believes that technology deniers (teachers who assert “I don’t do technology”) are diminishing, in part because students are accustomed to seeing assignments and instructional materials online.
One of Hoover’s biggest challenges is cybersecurity. “You can put a lot of money into fancy systems but if people are putting their password on a sticky note on their computer, then it doesn’t matter what we’re doing,” she said, “It’s a combination of training and systems.” Hoover regularly consults about cybersecurity with her network of school technology officers in other school systems and with ACPS’ technology vendors.
ACPS continues with Canvas as its learning management system. She believes that teachers have gradually increased in adopting Canvas. “We have a few teachers who don’t keep everything updated but we also learned how to make it easier for teachers to adopt,” she said and that students “get so used to going on Canvas to get assignments that [their] expectation was that it would be available.”
Hoover is significantly focused on several infrastructure projects that are funded and implementation-ready. These include new wireless access points in all schools that provide faster Internet access for students, new public address systems in each school, and new phone systems in the schools including a distributed antenna system at the high school’s King Street Campus to improve cellular service.
Hoover would tell prospective ACPS parents that her children attended elementary schools with “great teachers, great caring and nurturing teachers, and I see that in all buildings.”
She thinks there are “phenomenal opportunities for kids” in the secondary schools, one of which is her department’s student intern program. She said, “That program does a lot for us. We get to know our kids and we’ve hired our kids.”
Hoover believes that ChromeBooks, which are easier to maintain than laptops, will be the student and teacher device for the foreseeable future. “They’re workhorses and so much easier to manage [than laptops],” she said.
“It’s really important to me when I leave ACPS to leave my department and our technology in good shape,” she said, “I love this place and I’m very fortunate that my whole career has been here.”
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