Welcome to the Classroom of Tomorrow

Peel District School Board’s Mark Keating enables education on the cutting edge of technology by connecting the real world with the schoolroom

Technology hasn’t always been welcome in the classroom. Previously seen as either a distraction or just another way to cheat, technology in education has shifted drastically—and so has its perception. The Peel District School Board, equipped with a vision for 21st-century teaching and learning that embraces technology, is doing its part to lead the charge. An important piece of that puzzle is chief information officer Mark Keating, who joined the district in May 2012 to help drive and manage that change—something that would require a massive reevaluation of staff, students, and parents.

“What we’re trying to do with education inside the classroom is mirror life outside the classroom,” Keating says. “Why would we ever ask a teenager who is immersed in social media and technology outside the classroom to pretend it doesn’t exist inside the classroom? That simply doesn’t make sense.”

A generation ago, kids had encyclopedias at home, and at school they were taught the Dewey Decimal system and how to look up information in books. “As an educational system, it is incumbent upon us to teach our students how to use the resources and unlock information,” Keating says. “How this is done has totally been turned on its head. Now students have vast abilities to gather information. [They need to be taught how to] sort through this myriad of information, the best ways to cultivate that information, and, more importantly, create their own thoughts and opinions around it.”

With two decades of IT experience, Keating has helped the Peel District School Board become a leading innovator, praised for making impressive strides in technological advancement in just a few years. Under Keating’s leadership, the district rolled out a board-wide bring-your-own-device and wireless program, launched an interactive student portal, and installed a 10-gigabit Ethernet link to the Internet—more than any other board in Canada.

The district’s network hosts an average of 65,000 devices per day, and it has integrated Office 365, Google Apps for Education, e-learning solution Desire2Learn, and other cloud solutions into its student portal. It also enabled dynamic single sign-on to ensure seamless access.

“We encourage staff and students to bring whatever technology they are comfortable with that will help them on their learning journey,” Keating says. “This includes whatever applications they wish to use to achieve the assignment goals and student outcomes.”

Today, with technology more accessible and supported throughout the district and at home, Keating is focused on analytics. “That is on the cutting edge of education at this point,” he says. “It is vitally important that we understand where all of our students are on their learning journey and what students may be struggling and what the contributing factors are. And, more importantly, we need to be in a position to easily predict when a student is about to become at-risk, with information readily available. We have a great deal of information on that particular student, but if we’re not farming that information and making it readily available to staff, we can’t expect them to try to find it. They are very busy people.”

The district is building dashboards to disseminate that information directly to its staff. Teachers and principals can go to a website and, with a click of a button, find out which buses are late, which students are absent, which students are at-risk, and which students are about to become at-risk. “Analytics are going to be the key to really unlocking the district’s potential,” Keating says.

That information can also help evaluate the effectiveness of programs. “When we’re spending taxpayer dollars, we want to make sure it’s in the most effective, comprehensive fashion possible,” Keating says. “We want to make sure the programs are effective and are having the intended benefits, and we want to be able to recalibrate and fine-tune them in those areas or schools that they might not be as effective as they could be.”

Keating is also using technology to increase parent engagement. “We all know that parents’ involvement is critical to student success,” he says. The district is currently building a parent-student portal that will help parents stay up-to-date with their children’s progress and take an active part in their learning.

“This is a redefining moment for education globally, and Peel has taken a lead role in Canada,” Keating says. “I hope to continue to play a key part in its journey as it inspires success, confidence, and hope in its students.”

5 Questions with Mark Keating

What does innovation mean to your organization?
Being a leader and not letting the past dictate the future. Not being afraid of making mistakes but rather understanding that mistakes are in fact a reality of innovation. What is important is learning from the mistakes and recalibrating.

How do you innovate on a day-to-day basis?
I work very closely with my senior admin team, and they are a great sounding board. Decisions are made jointly and not in isolation and with a measurable goal in mind. My managers and team know the outcomes and the reasons why we have undertaken projects and what the objectives are. Transparency is the key to ensuring buy-in and teamwork.

How has the notion of innovation changed in the past decade?
It went from something that large corporations did to something that every person is required to own and take part in. It is pervasive.

What defines an innovative company in the 21st century?
We do.

How can a company encourage innovation without breaking the bank?
To not innovate costs more in the long run than to innovate. However, when you innovate, you can’t forget the basic principles of a business case. In most cases, you still need to justify an ROI—you can’t just innovate to simply appear more cutting edge.