Too little technology makes remote instruction nigh impossible. Too much makes it a hassle. Such was the two-sided dilemma that many educators experienced in the spring. Computers, hotspots and other devices were in short supply. At the same time, the number of digital tools used across schools and districts seemingly multiplied.
Across Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District in Texas, teachers used a “hodgepodge” of learning management systems—Canvas, Google Classroom, Google Sites, Seesaw, Schoology and other tools—recalls Khadijah Gordy, the district’s digital learning specialist. That proved problematic for parents, she adds: “It was overwhelming when your kids’ teachers are all using something different.”
Over in Massachusetts, Becky Csizmesia, who was teaching music to elementary students at Silvia Elementary when schools closed, had a similar problem with communication apps. “All the teachers were using something different. ClassDojo, Remind, ClassTag… There was no consistency.”
For a growing number of districts, going back to school means a return to remote instruction. And for district technology coaches, whose job it is to help teachers use digital tools effectively, such experiences from the spring are top of mind as they prepare during these last few weeks before school starts.
One of their top goals: getting a better handle on all the apps and software used across the district.
“Our priority this summer, as we go into the fall, was going with one learning management system,” says Gordy. The district, which serves about 26,000 students, has decided on Canvas. It will also publish a list of other online tools that have been approved for use.
“We’re very cautious of how many edtech apps we license, because we need to vet them [and] review their terms of service to make sure they follow our privacy policies,” she says. “It’s extremely discouraged to have teachers just use any tech tool they find.” So far, Gordy adds, there are about 30 apps that have passed muster.
And to make life easier for teachers (and hopefully to obviate their need to search for online tools), the district’s curriculum and content specialists have used the summer to create remote lesson plans to guide teachers throughout the year, according to Gordy.
Carrollton-Farmers Branch will begin the new year with remote instruction on August 17. Starting September 8, in-person classes will start for students whose parents choose that option.
With the first day of school nearing, the district held its annual, mandatory three-day professional development conference this week for all teachers, counselors, paraprofessionals and other staff. As expected, technology training and best practices for remote instruction are priorities this year. “Canvas has been a very hot topic,” says Gordy, as it will be the platform where lessons and videos are posted, and where student attendance will be tracked.
For Csizmesia, the remaining weeks of preparation are rife with anticipation as her district, Fall River Public Schools, has not decided how classes will start yet. Like others in Massachusetts, the district submitted its plans for three reopening scenarios—in-person, fully online and hybrid—but has not committed to one.
Preparing for a trio of very different possibilities has been challenging, to say the least. And especially so for Csizmesia, who recently transitioned into a new role. In June, she became the instructional technology coach for two middle schools in the district: Doran Middle School and Henry Lord Community School.
“You want to have the best plan moving forward,” says Csizmesia. “But it’s hard when the exact plan hasn’t been decided yet. And a lot can happen in a month, so you don’t want to commit too far in advance. It’s really like a Catch-22.” (At least, she adds, the district has settled on a single communication app: Remind.)
Over the summer, Csizmesia says she has been attending as many webinars and professional training sessions as possible. When she comes across useful tools and resources on digital learning, she shares them via Wakelet, a content-curation tool popular among educators.
She has other support to lean on as well. The schools where she works are part of the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program, an effort from the telecoms giant and the nonprofit Digital Promise that provides devices and data plans for all students, teachers and administrators in participating schools. (Only those with at least 65 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch are considered for this program.)
Through the program, five middle schools in Fall River Public Schools will be outfitted with enough Chromebooks to enable at-home learning for every student. Along with that, Csizmesia and her colleagues are getting technology training via a “Back to School” workshop led by Digital Promise instructional experts. The agenda covers the basics of blended learning and introduces online tools, such as Flipgrid, Nearpod and Screencastify, that teachers can consider using. Future sessions will dive deeper into different kinds of blended instructional models.
The additional training is welcome by many teachers, Csizmesia adds. “I don’t think what we did last spring was really remote or distance learning. It was more like emergency crisis learning. At least this time, we’ve had more time to plan for it.”
In Massachusetts, the first day of school was originally set for September 2. But after a push from the teachers union, state officials are allowing districts like Fall River to push that date back by two weeks to allow for additional teacher training.
Other states have followed suit in giving districts more time for teacher training. Among them is Nevada, which has allowed them to devote five additional days to professional development. Its largest district, Clark County, is committing 10 full days this way before the first day of remote learning starts on August 24.
To ease the transition to digital learning, the state department of education also launched a website, the Nevada Digital Learning Collaborative, on July 17. The website includes resources, instructional strategies and online materials for different subjects to help teachers engage with students and families virtually. Additionally, the state has created a network of “Digital Engineers,” composed of experienced education technology coaches who are available to support educators across the state.
The state, which has 17 districts that serve anywhere from 70 to 300,000 students, is no stranger to remote instruction, says Jhone Ebert, the state’s superintendent of public instruction. “Distance learning is really baked into a state like Nevada, where we have some extremely rural areas,” she says. Creating that statewide network of resources, she adds, will coordinate and connect the remote-learning expertise with schools that are doing it for the first time.
The Nevada Department of Education also recently signed statewide contracts to provide Canvas licenses to every district, and similarly with Discovery Education to make its K-12 digital curriculum materials available. Each district decides how much it wants to use them, but Ebert’s hope is that the two platforms will provide some consistency in the resources available to teachers.
“Everybody was using different tools to provide support for our teachers in the spring,” says Ebert. “If we can bring it together into a more cohesive system, we can leverage that to provide better professional development.”