By Mark Breen’s calculation, the pandemic has propelled his school district three to five years into the future.
Breen is the chief technology officer for the 14,000-student Vail School District near Tuscon, Ariz.
The question now facing him and his colleague Kelly Pinkerton—who, as the director of assessment and innovative learning at Vail schools, runs the district’s blended and online programs—is how to continue to meet the shifting expectations of families who have become accustomed to having options outside of traditional, in-person learning.
Education Week spoke with Breen and Pinkerton about what hybrid and blended learning models their district is using and how they’re measuring their success. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
The hybrid strategy the district used last school year, when students alternated between in-person and remote learning throughout the week, has evolved into two full-time online options: one offered in real time and the other self-paced. Kids enrolled in the virtual programs are still counted as part of their district school, guaranteeing them a spot when they choose to return.
Then there’s the district’s established blended learning program for its middle schoolers. For four days a week, students spend part of their school day with a teacher, and part of the day working on online assignments from laptops in the school’s atrium. Fridays are reserved for optional activities like field trips.
Finally, the district has also opened what it is calling a micro school to support families who have chosen to home-school their children, where classes and field trips are offered to families a la carte.
One option families won’t have this year is a “hybrid” program like the district used most of last year, where students alternated in-person classes two days a week and spent the rest learning remotely from home. Breen said the term became charged and undesirable during the pandemic and the district basically retired it this school year.
How did your district arrive at this current setup?
Pinkerton: Last year, when we went back in-person, we had quite a few families who chose to stay at home. Each individual school handled that themselves. Some sites said the teacher is going to teach both groups at the same time. Some sites said we’re going to shift some kids around and we’ll hire one remote teacher and they will try to teach the kids who are at home.
But what we found is that overwhelmingly teachers were overworked; trying to teach both groups at the same time was really, really hard on people.
This year, we hired a full staff to handle those students who wanted to be remote learners for longer periods of time. What we have now in our virtual program is a fully staffed K-8 group who handle all of the remote learners across the whole district.
We’re trying to keep those [online and in-person classes] really mirror images, so if you choose remote, you’re not choosing something that’s less than what you would get in an in-person classroom.
How do you go about judging that these models are working, both from a tech side and an academic side?
Pinkerton: We’re looking at data for our kids logging in. Are they coming to all the live classes? Are they showing up? Academic-wise, we’re looking at those same formative and benchmark results. So, the kids who are virtual students, they are taking the same exact benchmarks that our students that are in person are taking, on the same platform. So we can really put their data side-by-side.
And then, besides those pieces, I’m constantly looking at enrollment numbers and what that looks like. Who leaves these virtual platforms and why are they leaving? I want to make sure that if we are building something that we think is sustainable year after year, even after the pandemic, it needs to be something that families are choosing.
How are you judging these models from the tech side?
Breen: There’s a few different things we’re looking at to get feedback and sort of see where we’re at and where we need to improve. One of those pieces is just the sheer number of devices that were adding to our system in terms of pushing down 1-to-1 [computing] further into the elementary. Over the last six months, we’ve added thousands of devices to make sure we’re 1-to-1 for at least [grades] 3 through 12. Another thing that we’re doing to see where folks are at is we’re constantly just trying to stick the barometer out there and see how our principals are feeling. And then, we’re also surveying other district leadership staff. We survey our families. Through the analytics and dashboards within our learning management system, we can see what kind of engagement we’re getting, so between that and the sheer number of devices, we feel like things definitely are continuing to spike up in terms of technology usage, and we’re just trying to find ways to make sure we’re constantly getting that feedback from our community and the district leaders.
One other sort of exciting thing that’s definitely bubbled from all this: Our ed-tech culture has grown a lot, and we have some good leadership around that. We’ve built some ed-tech leadership teams. We have some cohorts that are going through ISTE [International Society for Technology in Education] certifications, and we’ve created our own, internal Vail ISTE-type certification, and we have tons of teachers just signing up for this completely optional ed-tech internal training course. And I think that kind of shows us that there’s a lot of momentum and excitement around that.
The one thing that hasn’t changed, and I don't think will ever change, is good instruction comes from a good teacher. And so we want to always make sure that's front of mind, and technology is really there to enhance the instruction.
How has your approach to teacher professional development around technology changed over the past year and half?
Breen: I think one of the things that we did last year in response to trying to get teachers trained up quickly on some of these new tools was we engaged them in more online opportunities. So not just live online, but we also created more self-paced courses that they could go through our learning management system and do some self-paced learning there. Probably, one of the most interesting things we’ve started to do because of this, and I think it’s something we’ll keep, is we created this really cool PD opportunity where teachers actually sign up to be presenters and leaders. So, instead of the ed-tech person from the district office running this PD, this has a little bit more of a grass-roots feel in terms of teachers teaching teachers. When teachers hear that from another teacher, who’s doing it right now, it just means a lot more to them.
How has the pandemic changed your district’s approach to technology and learning, big-picture?
Pinkerton: I think in so many instances we thought before the pandemic that, you know, it just makes sense that everything had to be done in person. Right? That kids couldn’t learn in this other way, that kids would learn slower or we wouldn’t get as far as we needed to go, and I think what we learned is that, yeah, there’s a population of students that struggle in that type of [remote] environment, but there’s a population of kids who do really well in that environment. We had so many parents that this year said they could come back [to fully in person instruction], but [decided the online environment] actually works better.
Over the summer, many parents reached out and they would say, “I’m not sure what I want to do.” And it was so nice to be able to say, “OK, how does this sound?” We just have this list of choices for families that we could say, “Which one of these choices meets your family’s needs?”
Breen: I think at a very high level, it’s made us realize that as a district we want to be very competitive. We’ve never really had to be that competitive because we’re a high-rated district. And we have a lot of families that move to our community specifically for our district, [but] these families can just go to an online school that operates out of Phoenix or somewhere else across the state. And so it’s sort of changed that competitive mentality to: We’re not just competing locally, we’re sort of competing globally.
Has the pandemic permanently altered the use of tech in learning, and how?
Breen: I think it has, and at a high level there’s sort of two things I think about. With how technology has changed with instruction, it’s become more of a must-have than a nice-to-have, especially if we have to pivot to being remote in an instant. The other part of that is, I think teachers are just feeling more comfortable with the tools. The one thing that hasn’t changed, and I don’t think will ever change, is good instruction comes from a good teacher. And so we want to always make sure that’s front of mind, and technology is really there to enhance the instruction.
Speaking of nice-to-have versus must-have, technology in general, whether we’re talking about the ed-tech tools or we’re talking about the Wi-Fi or just the internet connection, 10 years ago some of these things were just like, oh, that’s nifty but now it’s so critical to every part of the organization. So, that’s something that’s definitely front of mind for myself: making sure that we have high-quality, consistent technology. Not only is it robust and innovative, but we want to make sure that the foundational levels are working all the time and all the pistons are firing. The pressure has changed a little bit.