How Districts Are Helping Teachers Get Better at Tech Under Coronavirus

Debbie Williams, a 1st grade teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Yakima, Wash., scrolls through a math book as she plans lessons for her students while school buildings are closed due to the coronavirus. Districts across the country are trying to provide professional development on the fly to help teachers better prepare remote learning lessons.
Debbie Williams, a 1st grade teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Yakima, Wash., scrolls through a math book as she plans lessons for her students while school buildings are closed due to the coronavirus. Districts across the country are trying to provide professional development on the fly to help teachers better prepare remote learning lessons.
—Amanda Ray/Yakima Herald-Republic via AP
| Updated: April 23, 2020
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When the School District of Philadelphia, where the vast majority of educators have never used Google Classroom, went live with remote learning this week, teachers were instructed to take it slow: “review and enrichment” only for now—no new material will be taught until early May.

In preparation for the debut of its distance learning program, the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township, a small district outside of Indianapolis, relied on more than tech coaches to help teachers with digital training: Librarians got in the mix, too.

And when Miami-Dade Public Schools joined the wave of coronavirus school closures sweeping the country coast to coast in mid-March, the nation’s fourth-largest school district rolled out a smorgasbord of online instructional offerings, including dozens of webinars and third-party ed-tech resources.

The three approaches highlight how professional development for educators is adjusting to meet the new reality of digital teaching during a pandemic, and how there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for districts facing the challenge of delivering remote learning on the fly.

Across the country, educators are being equipped with new tech tools—devices, apps, software, and online textbooks—in greater volume than ever before. So now the push to train teachers on how to effectively use that technology is in full swing.

The approaches are almost as varied as the districts themselves. Some have seemingly made training available to teachers for just about every video, podcasting or live streaming app available under the sun, letting educators pick from a wide menu of options based on their individual tech know-how. Other districts are minimizing their offerings for now to avoid tech overload.

PD ‘for the Forseeable Future’

At a time filled with uncertainty, and no shortage of individual district game plans for how to survive or even thrive in a total remote learning landscape, district academic officers and ed-tech leaders agree on this much: digital professional development has a long way to go.

“The need for this type of training is going to be ongoing for the foreseeable future,” said Jennifer Hall, an education tech specialist for the Atlanta Public Schools, a district of about 55,000 students.

Nestled in her home office, behind a crowded workspace equipped with a PC and two full-sized computer monitors, an iPad, a Macbook, and a podcast mic, Hall is one of about 15 education technology specialists with the Atlanta school district helping train teachers remotely to use different tech tools.

A typical day for Hall might involve one-on-one virtual help sessions with teachers, recording tutorials, writing tip sheets, or holding court about a new tech tool via a webinar broadcasting on public television.

Prior to the pandemic, all teachers in the district were already trained on Google Classroom in case of inclement weather closures. Since teachers and students were familiar with how to log on and navigate a basic online platform, the district was “ahead of the game,” Hall said.

And that’s opened the door for much more creative uses of technology, even during the early stages of remote learning this spring.

Teachers are holding live classes with Nearpod, an online engagement tool, in conjunction with Google Meet. Math and foreign language teachers are using Flipgrid to let students record short video responses during online classes. Jamboard is another common collaboration tool helping substitute for a lack of face-to-face interaction. Meanwhile, art and theater teachers are asking Hall how to use image and design tools such as Adobe Spark and Google Drawings to facilitate class projects remotely.

Hall said teachers who have never used technology before are now seeing its benefits.

“It can be overwhelming. There’s not an expectation that teachers use all the tools,” she said. “The goal has been to provide as many resources as possible for our teachers.”

‘Deal With This New Normal’

Long before the coronavirus forced schools into throwing together remote learning strategies, Miami-Dade district officials were steadily ramping up the use of technology over the past six years as part of a “Digital Convergence” initiative. It has included the acquisition of more than 200,000 new devices and continual professional development focused on e-learning. District officials say it allowed them to hit the ground running during the current crisis.

On the morning of March 16, when Miami launched its online curriculum following the sudden announcement three days earlier of district-wide school closures, teachers were able to access a fresh webinar guiding them through the newly-hatched distance learning curriculum. Staff spent a portion of that weekend at a district-owned television studio recording voice-overs so that new online instructional videos would be ready on day one.

“We were up with our phones in bed until 2 in the morning the night before because we were waiting for sound engineers to finish renderings, and for IT to upload the content to our YouTube channel, so we could hit send on an email to our teachers to let them know the webinars were ready to go,” said Marie Izquierdo, the district’s chief academic officer. “By 8 in the morning on Monday, we had 900 teachers that had watched the webinar. Overall, we had 18,000 views the first day of the webinars.”

The 355,000-student district has held dedicated PD days after negotiating with its teacher union, and offers webinars on how to use tech resources such as Microsoft Teams and Flipgrid, along with presentations from ed tech vendors ranging from Discovery Education to Khan Academy. Teachers can also access a variety of distance learning training sessions produced by the district, such as one showing them how to “navigate your remote classroom by exploring best practices for distance learning,” and a session providing an “explicit approach to plan for distance learning.”

“The commitment was there before we had an emergency we had to deal with,” said Izquierdo. “This is a very big aircraft carrier, and you can’t turn it on a dime. It’s because of that foundation that we’ve been able to turn and steer it so we can deal with this new normal.”

‘Not Comfortable With Remote Learning’

In Philadelphia, the school district is taking a slower approach to offering full-blown online instruction. Though remote learning began this week, teachers won’t start introducing new material and issuing grades until May 4.

Google Classroom will power the district’s digital curriculum in large part, but only 15 percent of its teachers were using the platform before coronavirus school closures. Professional development sessions started during the final week of March, said Fran Newberg, deputy chief of the district’s office of educational technology.

About 6,500 teachers trained that week on the basics of Google Classroom, she said, and additional training was focused on using other Google tools such as Docs, Drive, and Meet.

Instructional coaches will work with Philly schools to build activities for teachers based on grade and content areas, all accessible through a Google site.

“We know many of our teachers are not comfortable with remote learning,” said Newberg. “At this point, we’re teaching them how to utilize a very simplistic platform, but if they are already comfortable with a technology or a platform, they can do their own thing.”

The strategy of sticking with basic tech tools is common. However, even that approach can go sideways.

Amy Hunter, the K-12 Mathematics Coordinator for the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, a district of roughly 188,000 students, said after “running the gamut” of virtual professional development sessions with teachers, her division opted for platforms already in use.

That includes Google Classroom, along with several digital textbooks and Blackboard, the district’s learning management system, as the go-to platforms for math teachers. Since starting distance learning in mid-April, however, major Blackboard technical glitches have disrupted lessons for teachers across the district—and on Thursday the fallout over the botched remote learning program resulted in Maribeth Luftglass, the district’s longtime information technology chief, stepping down.

Earlier this week, the district temporarily canceled face-to-face online instruction, and announced it was moving away from Blackboard, retaining a law firm in the process to review what went wrong, according to the Washington Post. Superintendent Scott Brabrand apologized to families in a message, saying the mistakes have been “frustrating and disappointing for everyone,” the Post reported.

But to a large extent, Hunter said that decision to use tools like Blackboard came down to equity: district officials wanted to use tools that all teachers, students, and even parents, could access. But Hunter said there was also a conscious decision to avoid putting too much on a teachers’ plates, given the current circumstances.

“We didn’t want one classroom having options that another didn’t. But to me it just seemed unfair to start introducing new resources that could overwhelm teachers,” she said. “We wanted to keep it as simple as possible for folks and make sure everybody has simple plug and play tools. Now, if you feel comfortable with that we can show you how to go deeper and do some fancy things.”

‘The Teachers Are My Students’

At the 11,250-student Metropolitan School District of Pike Township in Indiana, teachers are using Zoom, Google Classroom, and relying heavily on a learning management system called Canvas, said Mary Kay Hunt, director of instruction and professional development.

Since the district shut its schools in mid-March, teachers had been doing “some kind of digital learning” nearly daily leading to the launch of remote learning earlier this month. Training has also become a team project, with librarians pitching in to help digital coaches by showing teachers how to use basic tools like Zoom and Google Hangouts. Hunt said: “Anybody who has a level of expertise is helping teachers.”

But officials at the small district admit they were caught somewhat flat-footed.

Teachers in the district’s high schools had received two days of e-learning training earlier this school year. The rest of the district was going to receive that training next school year, and some teachers seemed somewhat dismissive of the notion altogether, said Hunt.

“We were using this year as a get-ready year, but we were forced into it,” she said. “Teachers were kind of hanging back and saying this was going to go away. I think they thought, ‘That training is next year, so we don’t have to worry about it.’”

Still, Hunt said the district started seeing positive results early: teachers overcoming initial tech trepidations and successfully creating lessons in Canvas, integrating digital training tips to create new ways to engage students.

“We had one teacher videotape herself with the periodic table of elements and explain all the elements,” she said. “There are different levels. The high-level learners have been going really gung ho with this.”

Inevitably, teacher progression with new tech tools is going to vary.

About 25 miles northwest of Cincinnati, Rebecca Dwenger spends most of her days coaching teachers “with whatever they need.” Dwenger, an instructional technology consultant for schools in Hamilton County, said those personalized virtual training sessions are tailored to the subject area and a teacher’s familiarity with technology.

PD sessions were made available for teachers within days of school closures in the district that Dwenger spends most of her time helping, but even with continual sessions “you don’t just teach them something one time and say ‘you’re good.’”

“The teachers are my students. You can’t do a one-time training and tap out,” she said. “I have teachers I have to show the tool to 12 times before they become comfortable using the instruction. I might have some teachers I can show a tool to once, and then they can become teachers of that technology.”

‘Jumping on the Bandwagon’

Jennifer Tatum, a 6th grade teacher at Cane Creek Middle School in North Carolina, is one of the more digitally advanced educators in the Buncombe County Public Schools, a district of about 24,000 students. As a result, she helps out as a liaison of sorts between the district’s technology coaches and its teachers, vetting new tech tools for educators and providing guidance on how to use them from an in-the-trenches perspective.

She has noticed reluctance by some to fully embrace tech tools, but “those teachers are surviving right now because they’re asking questions.”

“They want to know because they have to know,” she said. “Are they moving as fast as the teacher that feels comfortable? No. Do they have an LMS and a way to help kids? Yes. In a week or two will they be ready for something new? Yes.”

Jennifer Hall, the education tech specialist for the Atlanta Public Schools, said she’s encountered similar scenarios. Some teachers don’t pay attention during digital PD because “they say ‘I’m old school paper and pencil.’”

“But a lot more teachers are jumping on the bandwagon,” she said. “More than one teacher has told me that they’re excited about how they’ve leveraged something new and how they want to implement it in a regular school setting next year.”

Despite a lot of fear and trepidation, teachers seem to be jumping into the technology and are having some seemingly amazing experiences, said Lynette Guastaferro, CEO of Teaching Matters, a nonprofit that supports teachers.

In response to the pandemic, Guastaferro’s organization provided free online lesson plans that it estimates have been used by about 58,000 educators around the country to help with mass distance learning. She said every teacher is going to bring some element of their new digital learning back to the classroom when brick-and-mortar teaching resumes.

“This has been learn by fire. Every teacher right now is a first-year teacher,” she said. “When we come out of this the adoption curve on technology will be through the roof.”

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