For years, incorporating technology into blended learning environments has been a luxury for the districts that can afford it and an aspiration for those that don’t have the resources for device rollouts.
But with coronavirus-related closures going through April and extending through the end of the school year for some states, 1:1 devices have suddenly become the preferred avenue for instruction.
This means districts are now focusing heavily on tech-centered professional development as teachers remotely learn how to teach online — something the U.S. Department of Education recently allowed the repurposing and rollover of the previous year’s state funding for.
“There’s definitely a very sharp learning curve for everyone involved at this point,” said Susan Bearden, chief innovation officer for the Consortium of School Networking and a former school technology director.
But some are better prepared for closures than others.
A ‘menu’ of PD options for a ‘mixed bag’ of educators
Los Angeles Unified School District, which had in place a comprehensive instructional technology program, is ramping up and repurposing for online its ed tech professional development program. The process began with a top-down effort in the first week of closures. The district’s division of instruction, local district offices and administrators took part in a three-day PD series on pedagogy, content and how educators can work with existing collaborative digital tools.
Now, Sophia Mendoza, the executive director for the district’s instructional technology initiative, and her team are parsing through more than 130 PD sessions for teachers. The team will repurpose and tailor what used to be mostly face-to-face sessions into virtual synchronous and asynchronous learning.
“Right now it’s critical that educators have a person to connect with, even if it is on a computer screen, and ask questions to and get immediate responses to help them as they set up their virtual classroom,” Mendoza explained. “But we’re not just converting 130 sessions, we’re being very intentional on which ones are most relevant to today’s [educator].”
Considering LAUSD educators are a “mixed bag” when it comes to experience with online instruction, according to Program and Policy Development Specialist Vanessa Monterosa, the district is trying to meet them halfway through a menu of options teachers can pick from to suit their experience level.
As LAUSD teachers work through sessions on using applications like Zoom and Google Hangouts, tech support teams are available to help with any issues. Facebook support groups have emerged in other districts, like New York, where educators can share and exchange information.
“We teach them standards and differentiate,” Mendoza explained, “as well as scaffold [the sessions], but ultimately personalize their learning experience…because everyone is going to progress at a different pace.”
A changed game
While LAUSD laid the groundwork for online learning years in advance, California’s Berryessa Union School District, like many others, is doing much of this for the first time. District Tech Director Martin Cisneros said closures “changed the game” for everyone.
“It just made me realize that we needed to develop a system where we took [teachers] through what distance enrichment looks like,” Cisneros explained. “How do you build a digital classroom?”
From there, BUSD put together a plan that included at least two tools: Seesaw, a content management system, for TK-2 and Google classroom for grades 3-8.
A week before the district deployed its first wave of chromebooks for its students, it also launched online live sessions and a separate professional learning series. Together, the live sessions and ongoing series begin with the basics of what distance learning should look like and then walk staff through the elements and digital tools to support that.
“Every week we find some answers,” Cisneros said, “but then we find more questions,” which are submitted weekly through a form on the teachers’ staff portal. The most frequently asked questions are turned into topics for the live sessions, which always end with a Q&A so teachers can interact in real time. The sessions are later posted online for others to tune into at their convenience.
“What we’re finding out through these live sessions is that people just need [them], because that may be the only other adults they’re talking to,” Cisneros said.
Slow transition, patience with a focus on learning
With a barrage of new digital resources available, taking on too much too quickly could overwhelm staff and students, Bearden said.
“What we’re trying to do is that we go slow and just focus on a few [things],” Cisneros said. “That way we can go deep with those tools.”
And instead of focusing on the new digital resources, Mendoza stressed “to not allow the technology to lead your efforts.”
Begin with an instructional lens and determine how online tools fit that frame instead of the other way around, she said, because learning — not tech — should be the priority. That is what will ultimately be transferred to the classroom once buildings reopen.
“The goal is to get [educators] the most out of the learning experience given what’s going on around us,” Monterosa added.
And ultimately, patience is emerging as the game changer across the board.
“One of the biggest pieces is to remind our educators that this is a process,” Mendoza said, and “to be patient with this process, especially those who this is new for.”