Educators make countless decisions every day that can have an outsized impact on students’ learning and well-being. And during the past year, amid a global pandemic, that pressure has only been compounded.
That’s especially true when it comes to technology, which was activated like never before to help millions of students learn from home safely from March 2020 through this school year. Now, district and school leaders and teachers are preparing for next fall, when nearly all students will return for in-person instruction.
That transition carries with it a whole new set of complicated decisions: How do educators determine which technologies that were effective for remote and hybrid instruction should be integrated for full-time in-person instruction? And which ones should be ditched? How can principals help teachers make the best use of the new tech skills they picked up delivering remote and hybrid learning? How do teachers decide which tech tools will be best for students when nearly everyone is back in physical classrooms?
Education technology leaders are “feeling quite overwhelmed with how much is on their plate,” said Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. They are being asked to do a host of new things, including supporting families and students learning from home.
Many school districts purchased devices to help students learn from home. “They’re unlikely to be able to get [many of] those back or even know what shape they’re in,” said Krueger. “It’s not like the traditional end of school where they collected everything and had two months to get them cleaned and updated.”
What’s more, it is unclear whether there will be a resurgence of the pandemic, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates.
Here’s a look at how chief technology officers, principals, and teachers are tackling those difficult decisions:
Chief technology officers: ‘What are the options?’
Most chief technology officers are coming off a year of rapidly shifting from full-time online learning to hybrid instruction, and then back to more typical in-person learning. Each of those steps has required dozens of decisions, which tech leaders say they handled in part by carefully defining district needs and getting as much feedback as possible on the front end from staff and students.
Marlo Gaddis, the chief technology officer for the 161,000-student Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina, said she tries not to let her district become distracted by something that looks, “cool and new and shiny but really solves no problem and you probably have three other resources that do the same thing.”
Instead, she and her team try to first identify the gap or issue they are trying to resolve through technology.
Then, they take a hard look at what the district has on hand and consider whether the solution is already in their stable of tools. If something new needs to be purchased, Gaddis calls on whoever will be using it— say, the human resources and finance departments if it is a finance tool, or school leaders if it is something for curriculum—and gets their take on what’s needed.
Next, she said, “it’s about doing research. What’s out there? What are the options? What are we actually looking for?” Once the district makes its selection, it will test drive the new technology, sometimes offering it to students or teachers to get their feedback.
It’s about doing research. What's out there? What are the options? What are we actually looking for?
Gaddis applies a similar decisionmaking process when it comes to bringing about big changes in the district. For instance, when Wake County was considering whether to move to a 1-to-1 computing model—a decision the district made right before the pandemic—she and her team asked themselves, “‘What are the trends? What’s good practice?’”
Other district tech leaders also say they take a hard look at evidence before they make a move. For instance, the Desert Sands school district in Southern California noticed a number of its students were actually performing better and participating more in class during virtual instruction compared with in-person instruction before the pandemic, said Kelly May-Vollmar, the assistant superintendent for educational and technology services for the 27,000-student district.
May-Vollmar surveyed teachers and parents, even doing some one-on-one calls with families, to get a sense of whether there was an appetite for having online learning continue during the 2021-22 school year. She’s now aiming to offer a virtual academy in the fall, something her district has never done before.
She’s also noticed that parents were much more likely to participate in school meetings during the pandemic when they were held virtually, compared with participation rates for the pre-pandemic in-person meetings. After doing outreach to parents and weighing the pros and cons, the district has decided to hold half its parent meetings online next school year, and the other half in-person.
Doug Vander Linden, the director of educational technology for the 1,000-student Burlington, Kan., school district, has lost a fair amount of staff over the past year to retirements or transfers. He wants to make sure that educators in his district stay up-to-date on the technologies that Burlington used for remote instruction during the pandemic, in part because it is not clear that the virus is gone for good.
When “professional development and technology support services are not prioritized over the stuff, then you don’t have the effectiveness,” Vander Linden said. “When teacher confidence is shaken, it’s hard to get that back.”
Principals: Know the effect the tech decision will have on teachers and students
As instructional leaders, principals had to do some quick thinking when their school buildings shut down last year. Now they are putting the knowledge they gained during that experience toward ensuring that schools can smoothly transition back to in-person instruction and maintain the technology best practices started during the pandemic.
Marcus Belin, the principal of Huntley High School, near Chicago, actually put himself in his teachers’ shoes during remote instruction, leading a discussion on Zoom about race with a mostly virtual class when his school was in hybrid mode this spring. “I walked in super confident and prepared. I’m like, ‘I’m ready to go.’ I tested everything out,” he said.
But the lesson was anything but smooth. Zoom kept kicking students out. The computer’s camera wasn’t working.
That drove home to Belin that the hard part in making decisions about technology is “knowing the effect that it will have on the people who are on the frontlines in the classroom.”
He said he always makes sure he runs his technology ideas by his instructional coaches first, asking “Are people going to value the change we’re making or is this just going to piss a whole bunch of people off? And if it’s gonna piss a whole bunch of people off, we don’t do it. Or we do it and we leave it as optional.”
Are people going to value the change we’re making or is this just going to piss a whole bunch of people off?
Kathryn Procope, the principal of Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science in Washington, is also a fan of getting teacher input. She tries to make sure that every piece of technology the school takes on passes a special test: Can the school’s least technologically savvy teacher use it without too much hassle?
“If it’s not going to give her a headache, and it’s going to accomplish what the students need, then we’re good,” Procope said.
Her teachers picked up new tech skills when instruction was mostly remote during the pandemic. Procope will get educators’ input in deciding which programs and procedures to keep from remote learning and which to jettison once everyone is back in classrooms.
“I want to make sure that the things that we are renewing are the things that our teachers are absolutely going to use and things that they absolutely think are good for our children,” she said.
Trevor Goertzen, the principal of Spring Hill Middle School near Kansas City, Kan., has a similar strategy. Any new program or device the school chooses must be run through a technology committee, consisting of teachers, administration, and district technology staff. The committee gives teachers a chance to pilot the tool and examines additional considerations, like privacy and cost.
Good teaching, he said, is key to the success of any technology. “ It doesn’t matter how shiny the service is, if you don’t have a good teacher, it doesn’t matter,” he said.
Teachers: Ask for feedback from students
Teachers’ tech skills improved by leaps and bounds during the pandemic, with nearly half of teachers saying their ability to use technology had “improved a lot” during the 2020-21 school year, according to a survey of 386 teachers by the EdWeek Research Center in March. Another 39 percent said it “improved a little.” Teachers now must decide how they are going to take that newfound prowess and use it to reshape their practice.
Tricia Proffitt, who teaches 6th and 7th grade English/language arts to both native English and Spanish speakers at Belvidere Central Middle School in Illinois, said she finds tech that works with her students through trial and error. For instance, before the pandemic hit, she was using a grammar program that she really liked. But many of her students “couldn’t handle it,” she said. “It wasn’t breaking things down enough, and I was pulling them aside re-teaching and using pencil and paper techniques.”
So Proffitt looked around and rediscovered an improved version of a program that she’d abandoned years ago, which did a better job of customizing instruction to a student’s particular level. It even offered instructions in Spanish, which Proffitt called “a huge game changer, especially with being remote.”
Finding that more-effective program was typical of her decisionmaking process, Proffitt said. And she’ll often ask a student who is caught up on their work to be her “guinea pig” when she finds a promising new tool.
She’ll ask the student “‘Can you play around [with this technology]? Give me your feedback.’ .. And then I’ll sit with them. And we’ll talk about what worked, what didn’t work. What might be confusing for someone else?”
Theresa Goltermann, a STEM teacher at Tabb Middle School in Yorktown, Va., also relies on student feedback to help her make tech decisions. For example, in the fall of 2020 during virtual learning, she frequently used Kahoot, a game-based learning platform that allows its users to create multiple-choice quizzes.
“It’s a big, big motivator because of the music, the countdown, the big screen colors and all that fanfare,” she said. “It’s just really engaging.”
But her students grew tired of it. “After a few months, they were like, ‘Oh, no, not a Kahoot again!’ So I would try to switch it up. I listened to the students.”
When some of her students returned for in-person instruction earlier this school year, she felt that the students had online learning fatigue, so she said she cut back on the virtual tools, in favor of robots and Micro:bits, a pocket-sized, programmable computer.
Proffitt also finds limits to technological tools. This school year, her students struggled with organization. “Because everything had to be tech-based this year, there was a lot of like, ‘I can’t find it in my drive,’ or they would make a copy of something like 10 times and then send you the wrong one,” she said.
She normally has each kid use a binder to stay organized. “It definitely made me realize that tangible and tactile is still really important. Tech is wonderful, because it allows me to do a lot of differentiation and allows the kids to work at their own pace. But now I realize we can never go all tech in school. We still have to have, you know, some paper, we still need projects, we need a lot of choices.”
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