LearnBop's Future Ready Project

Interview with Director of Instructional Technology Dan McDowell of the Grossmont Union High School District

Posted by Zacc Dukowitz

Nov 10, 2015 7:30:00 AM

A little while ago we sat down to speak with Dan McDowell, Director of Instructional Technology for the Grossmont Union High School district, which serves students in multiple cities in San Diego County, CA. Grossmont Union is leading the way with the use of technology in the classroom, and Mr. McDowell has played a central role. In this conversation we dive into how technology is used in Grossmont, the process by which it came to be used, and the initiatives in place there to help teachers implement it effectively.

Below you will find more information on Grossmont Union High and Dan McDowellplease scroll down to read the interview itself.

About the Grossmont Union High School District 

Location: La Mesa, CA

Students: 22,162

Locale: Suburrban/Large City 

Grossmont Union High is a large suburban district located outside of San Diego. The district contains fifteen high schools, nine of which received gold, silver or bronze medals in the U.S. News Best High Schools rankings. In 2013 the growth in API at El Cajon Valley High School was greater than any high school in California, and two other schools were identified as California Distinguished Schools – Grossmont High and Granite Hills.

About Dan McDowell

Mr. McDowell is the Director of Instructional Technology for the Grossmont Union High School District. Before moving into his current position, he taught Social Sciences and Photography at West Hills High School for 18 years.  In 2008, he was selected Teacher of the Year for the Grossmont Union High School District.

Mr. McDowell has been involved in technology staff development since 1996.  He earned an MA in Educational Technology from SDSU and has taught graduate-level courses in that department; in 2007 he became a Google Certified Teacher after attending the Google Teachers Academy in Santa Monica, CA.He has led over 150 workshops and presentations focusing on the integration of technology into the curriculum throughout the Grossmont District, county, state, and national level. He also served on the PBS Teachers advisory board for five years and wrote web-based curriculum for PBS programing. Follow him @danmcdowell.


The Interview Starts Here!


Q: Can you tell us a little about how you became involved in edtech at Grossmont Union High?

A: I first started using technology in the classroom twenty years ago. As a teacher I was the leader of the digital program at my school that proposed professional development around not just accessing info, but how to use technology for instruction. Despite several leadership changes, the program continued to grow and I really wanted to build the same thing at the other schools.

When I first came on as Director of Instructional Technology at the district level, we hadn’t had an edtech person for two to three years, creating a vacuum and a need to focus on getting students, not just teachers, using technology to enhance learning in the classroom. . I came straight from the classroom into this role, and I’d been doing a lot outside of the district by being active on Twitter, attending and speaking at conferences, and doing my own use of research and implementation regarding the use of tech in the classroom. 

Q: Can you explain the history of edtech adoption in the district—where did you start, and what was the progression?

10_Questions_to_Ask_Your_EdTech_Provider.pngA: We first started using devices in the classroom in an organized manner with teams of teachers, using a cart system. We’d have a given team, say the 10th grade World History program, attend a two day training, then go back and get a cart of Chromebooks. At first we did this in bits and pieces here and there, a biology teacher here, a social studies teacher there. Those who received the training would help recruit others, since we know teachers often respond best to other teachers, and the use of technology expanded organically from these training efforts.

In April, 2014, I came up with the idea of trying to create a “super group” of teachers. This is what has grown into our Google Ninjas program, where we get teachers from different schools and disciplines in the same room to talk about their best practices, and learn some new tools and ideas along the way. When I did my first large training, I asked interested teachers to apply for 25 spots, and ended up getting 53 teacher applicants. I tried to pare it down—but I really couldn’t, because they all were motivated teachers that really wanted to do the training. So I proposed a group of 50 instead of 25 to Superintendent Swenson, and he said yes, and I got budgeted for that. This was our first cohort of Google Ninjas.

Interest has continued to grow. For the coming school year we had 150 people apply for 57 spots. We were able to do two cohorts of 50, and double the number going through from the first year. After this round of training, we will have had 150 total teachers that have done the training out of a total group of 750 teachers in the district. Those numbers alone will help us when it comes to spreading a culture of technology use.

Q: What is the structure of these trainings? That is, what does it take to become a Google Ninja?


A: We do three days of face-to-face workshops. During those, we barely talk about the tools, the specific devices, themselves. We do lots of activities that use tools, but we don’t talk much about how to use the tool.

The third day of the training is telling your story through social media. Using Twitter, Instragram, and staying connected on blogs—ongoing effort, not just workshop and we’re done. Continue to revisit w/ teachers and admins.

Everyone who participates gets a T-shirt, which is just another small way to bring people in and make them feel like they’re part of a real movement in the district. They wear their shirts to school on specific days and to edtech events in and out of the district. 

Q: Are you doing any trainings on the administrator side?

A: Absolutely. Simultaneously to the Google Ninja programs, we’ve had all principals, vice-principals, and other admins in the district go through our Google Samurai program, which is focused on instructional technology.

We go through the 4Cs (Critical thinking; Communication;  Collaboration; Creativity) and other related jargon so they can have a meaningful conversation with teachers, and can ask questions that teachers can understand about what is actually happening in their classrooms. This way we hit tech adoption from both sides, and make sure there are no gaps when it comes to creating this new culture of edtech in the classroom.

One interesting challenge about doing this is that none of our administrators have taught in a 1:1 environment. We need them to understand that teaching looks different in this new setting.

Q: What other edtech initiatives do you currently have in place in the district?

Over the next three years we are going to be going 1:1 with devices. However, our FutureForward initiative is more focused on a shift in teaching and learning, not on computers. The computer allows teachers to do more and expand their innovation with their teaching practices.

In anticipation of the rollout we’re going to be doing a series of bootcamps for each of the core subjects. About half of the participants are ninjas coming or ninjas coming up, who know they want to be ready to go and want a head start. There is a lot of excitement and there is also a lot of anxiety. The idea is to build excitement and get as many people in the middle buying in.

In addition to the Google Ninja and Google Samurai programs, we have an edtech teams that organizes events, such as Google Summits. We travel to conferences, and bring in featured speakers so that we’re learning the best practices that are out there, sharing our own, and bringing those innovations back to the district to share with all the teachers.

It’s important to say that leadership at the top level has been crucial to get things going, which is not to say that efforts have been top down, rather that Superintendent Swenson has done a terrific job letting me and others get going without any impediments. Superintendent Swenson really has been an incredible advocate to the board and the community for why these new initiatives are essential, and signing the Future Ready pledge is one big and symbolic instance of his leadership in the district.

Q: What have the outcomes been of these Google Ninja and Google Samurai programs?

After these trainings, the effort with tech adoption has really taken off. Many of the schools that had teachers participate have then started doing their own training, so the knowledge and the passion about it gets passed on in a very grassroots way, from one teacher to the next.

I love that we get different disciplines interacting. One of the great things that happens is those teachers from different disciplines will team up and end up going back to their schools and asking their principals if they can work together. It’s empowering for teachers to be creating their own visions of what education can look like, and it’s also empowering for principals, who have been following suit and making changes at a site level.

Topics: State News, Leadership, Innovation, Inspiration, Connected Educators, Educational Technologies


About LearnBop's Future Ready Project

The Office of Education Technology (OET) rolled out the Future Ready pledge in 2014 in an effort to unite and motivate superintendents around the common cause of moving their districts into the 21st century. Currently about 2,000 superintendents have signed the pledge, with more being added to the list every day.

LearnBop, an interactive learning system for K-12 mathematics, began The Future Ready Project in the fall of 2015 to collect and share best practices from those superintendents, and their teams, who have signed the pledge and committed to using technology in their districts. Topics covered in these interviews includes possible funding sources for education technology; best practices for identifying and implementing edtech; and specific information about the benefits of signing the pledge.

What Is LearnBop?

LearnBop uses a unique step-by-step system to help K-12 student learn math. Every step addresses a prerequisite concept needed to understand the original problem, providing students with close support in learning prerequisities and teachers with in-depth data on student knowledge gaps.

→ A recent efficacy study found that LearnBop helped students achieve 7-9 percentile points more growth than their peers on post-assessments in math.

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