Knowing How Students and Teachers Use Tech Is Vital

Ainslie Illig, 8, works on her computer at home in Ebensburg, Pa., during school closures last spring. Schools are putting together strategies for improving student and teacher engagement with online learning tools for the 2020-21 academic year.
Ainslie Illig, 8, works on her computer at home in Ebensburg, Pa., during school closures last spring. Schools are putting together strategies for improving student and teacher engagement with online learning tools for the 2020-21 academic year.
—Kara Illig via AP
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Finding out how many students and teachers are using tech tools can be informative and interesting. But the numbers can also be overwhelming, and they rarely tell the full story.

Schools face steep challenges this fall: balancing pressure to teach students in person while facing the serious threat of COVID-19 transmission; reaching students who struggled to access learning materials or stay connected this spring; narrowing equity gaps that have only become more pronounced and visible in the last few months.

Data can provide districts with a concrete sense of progress and challenges, and a roadmap to addressing issues. Education Week consulted district technology leaders and software platform providers to get a sense of what technology usage looked like this spring, and to ask a critical question for the fall: How can schools use these findings to improve remote learning and technology-based offerings?

Link Low Login Rates to Internet Needs
Little Rock, Ark., School District

For the Little Rock school district, usage data helped paint a picture of access gaps among groups of students that needed extra help.

District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day
Part 2: Scheduling the School Year
Part 3: Tackling the Transportation Problem Part 4: How to Make Remote Learning Work Full Report: How We Go Back to School

The Finding: Early on in the pandemic, the district’s tech team noticed that schools with higher percentages of English-language learners had lower login rates to ClassLink, a single sign-in portal the district used to remotely connect students to learning materials. All district parents had been asked to fill out a survey indicating what they had for at-home internet access. But some nuances of that access might not have been clear, such as whether the internet connection was on a smartphone or a computer.

The Follow-Up: The district then reached out to students in those schools who were lacking internet access, and, in many cases, sent them hotspots and digital devices, said Travis Taylor, an instructional technology specialist for the district.

“You always have to look for the story behind the numbers,” Taylor said. “You should look at data and it should make you ask more questions.”

Scrap Poorly Used Digital Tools
Roxbury School District, New Jersey

Over the last few years, technology has become a major priority for the Roxbury school district, which has a steadily expanding 1-to-1 computing program and a growing number of technology resources for students and teachers to use.

But the platforms have become increasingly scattered, and it was difficult for the district’s tech team to separate programs that generated meaningful engagement from programs with only superficial use. In some cases, getting students and teachers to use technology tools the district had was a big challenge, said Teresa Rehman, the district’s director of technology.

The Finding: “For the past few years, we had a subscription to a video streaming service that has a lot of educational videos on it,” said Rehman. “We pay a lot for that service on an annual basis for access for all of our students. The usage was extremely low, but the usage of YouTube and finding free educational videos was working for everyone.”

The Follow-Up: Next year, the district will abandon the video streaming service. “That frees up money for us to pay for the purchase of a new assessment program.," Rehman said. "It allows us to shift that money around and put it towards tools we really need.”

In other cases, technology products that could be useful aren’t being used because teachers don’t know about them. Rehman’s team saw low usage numbers for the PDF editing tool Kami, so it organized “a couple of mini-sessions” to help explain its value.

Understand When Students Do Their Work
Madrid-Waddington School District, New York

The Madrid-Waddington school district in rural upstate New York paid special attention this spring to the websites students visited—and when they visited them.

Prior to the pandemic, usage of certain websites would spike among groups of students who were doing a project on a particular subject. “After the pandemic hit, the number one site was always Google Classroom because that’s where the kids go to get everything,” said Michelle Burke, an instructional technology specialist.

The Finding: Some of what happened was predictable: visits to ed-tech programs like Kastle Learning, Edmentum, and Study Islands were up as students looked for resources to replace some of their in-person instruction.

Others were more surprising: “Our ‘use of video’ statistics has actually gone down. That is not something I thought I would see.”

Students often used to watch videos for fun during study hall or periods of down time during the school day. But when they’re at home, they’re busy on their own devices or doing other things, rather than using the school computer to watch videos, Burke speculates.

The Follow-Up: Taking a more sophisticated look at the usage of technology in the district helped provide a better picture of when students are learning. Approximately 30 percent of students completed much of their work outside of nontraditional school hours, “which really shocked me,” Burke said.

Approximately 5 percent did it very early in the morning. It’s likely that many of those students live in rural areas and have daytime responsibilities on family farms, Burke said. Indeed, the usage data reflect that many of those students are in high school.

“As long as our kids know we’re behind them, we’re happy to connect with them [at anytime].”

Produce Resource Guides for Families
Brighton School District, Michigan

Chris Turner, director of technology for the Brighton School district in Michigan, often spends his time troubleshooting Wi-Fi and network issues at school buildings. He had developed a data-driven approach to identifying and resolving those problems that came in handy during the pandemic. “We knew that pivoting to the online environment would reveal how important it was that technology was performing for our teachers and students,” he said.

The Finding: The pivot to remote learning this spring for the district led to a massive surge in usage of the Google Meet videoconference tool. On average, during the first half of the school year, the school’s platform was used six minutes a day. Once school buildings closed, that number went up to more than 40,000 minutes per day, among both students and teachers.

The Follow-Up: Turner attributes the rapid growth to his team’s decision to designate Google Meet early on during school closures as the platform everyone was expected to use. Turner also collaborated with curriculum and library media specialists to quickly assemble resource guides families could use. Those employees were also on call to answer questions.

Turner recently sent a message to all families in the district outlining the district’s usage stats from the spring. This transparency helps parents understand the role that technology is playing in the district, and gives them confidence that the district is working on refining its offerings.

> For more on this topic, read: How COVID-19 Is Shaping Tech Use. What That Means When Schools Reopen

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