Note: this post is part of a series about Noble’s preparation for the upcoming school year.

When Illinois closed schools in March, educators had to shift everything in an instant. In-class assignments had to become remote assignments, lectures became videos, group work happened via video chat – everything had to move online. The big question was, how were we going to ensure that all 12,300 students had access to our new remote learning program? 

Noble’s Operations team leaped into action and over the course of 12 weeks distributed 7,200 Chromebooks and 2,200 Internet hotspots to our students. The devices were free for our students and the hotspots came with prepaid high-speed Internet service. The team also set up a toll-free phone number (833-NobleIT) that families could call if they needed support with using their new technology.

Mike Madden, Noble’s Chief Operating Officer, led the effort and we sat down with him to understand how it came together and what’s to come for this fall’s remote learning. Mike has been with Noble for more than 11 years.

McCabe: Mike thank you for making the time, getting thousands of laptops and hotspots out to our students is a herculean lift – how did it all come together?
Madden: Thank you Matt. I’ll start by giving the credit for this outcome to the incredible staff at our 18 campuses who did so much of the extraordinary work required to make this happen for our students. Their love and care for our students is unbounded and heartening, with the distribution of technology being just one of many great examples of their commitment to supporting our students in these extraordinary times. 

With regard to how it came together, we knew early on that access to a laptop and the Internet was essential for each student to successfully participate in our remote learning programming. Not having this technology wasn’t just a barrier, it was a stop sign. 

Equity and access took center stage from the start of the distribution process. Technology would not be a stop sign for Noble students. Rather we would do whatever necessary to give our students what they needed to propel forward and engage fully in remote learning. With these ideas being top-of-mind, the process became clear: students who expressed a need for a Chromebook and/or a hotspot received one or both. From that point on it was just a matter of finding the laptops and hotspots and then shipping them to our students.

McCabe: There were supply chain interruptions all over the U.S. in the spring, did that throw a wrench into anything?
Madden: It was wild. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was like there was this single moment in time back in March when every school district in the country realized that remote learning can only be successful if students have the technology needed to participate. This led to a near-instantaneous and unprecedented demand across the country for Chromebooks and hotspots. 

After an exhaustive search, where we often came up empty, we finally found two vendors through which we were able to satisfy most of our needs. CDW provided most of the laptops and Hyperion (in partnership with T-Mobile/Sprint) came through with what we needed for hotspots. As importantly, both companies agreed to ship the devices directly to our students’ homes, something neither had ever done before in such high volumes.  

There were, of course, some bumps along the way, such as when the supply ran dry and our vendors had to search high-and-low across the country for more devices, but generally, we ended up in a good place with thousands of Chromebooks and hotspots landing at our students’ front doors in the spring and early summer.

McCabe: And the decision to mail directly to students, how did that happen?
Madden: From the start, Constance and the entire leadership team were unwavering about our top priority being the health and safety of our staff, students, and families. While we discussed the idea of personally dropping off Chromebooks and hotspots at our students’ homes, we could not get past the thought that doing so would put lives at risk. 

As a result, we quickly moved to the idea of sending devices directly to students. We had never done such a thing before, nor had our vendors, so there were definitely some sleepless nights, by many of us, as we set this in motion. But thankfully, after a couple of weeks and with the support of our great vendors and so many amazing Noble staff, we got into a good rhythm and continued the shipping process into early August.

McCabe: What’s the plan to support this effort going forward?
Madden: Starting this year and going forward, every student will receive a Chromebook to use during their time at Noble. And even better, the laptops will be gifted to students upon graduation. Just one more great reason to attend Noble!

McCabe: Anything else people should know about this effort?
Madden: As I reflect on it now, all these months later, I see this singular effort during extraordinary times as analogous to who we are as an organization and the impact we can have that stretches far beyond the walls of our schools.

We can and must, through purposeful and unapologetic action, dismantle inequities and partner with our students and families to bring the school experience to life in ways that we never before dreamed. Pushing against digital inequity is just one example of the power and responsibility we have to the students we serve and I will be forever proud to be a small part of it. 

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