The pandemic is fueling technological advances in schools. This is what it looks like

by Mark Bren By calculation, the pandemic pushed his school district three to five years into the future.

Breen is the chief technology officer for the Vail School District of 14,000 students near Tucson, Arizona.

The question he and his colleague Kelly Pinkerton now face — who, as the director of assessment and innovative learning at Vail Schools, runs blended and online programs in the district — is how to continue to meet the changing expectations of families who used to have options outside of traditional in-person learning.

Education Week spoke with Brian and Pinkerton about the blended and blended learning models their district uses and how they measure their success. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

The mixed strategy the district used last school year, when students alternate between in-person and distance learning throughout the week, has evolved into two full-time online options: one delivered in real time and one that is self-selected. Children enrolled in virtual programs are still counted as part of their district school, guaranteeing them a place when they choose to return.

Then there is the blended learning program created in the district for middle school students. 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 lobby. Fridays are reserved for optional activities such as field trips.

Finally, the district has also opened what it calls a small school to support families who choose to home-school their children, with classes and field trips being offered to families in the form of an à la carte menu.

One option that won’t be available to families this year is a “hybrid” program like the district it used for most of last year, where students swapped classes in person two days a week and spend the rest learning remotely from home. Brin said the term has become fraught with and unwanted during the pandemic and that the district has essentially retired this school year.

How did your area come to this current setting?

Pinkerton: Last year, when we came back in person, we had quite a few families that chose to stay home. Each school individually dealt with it themselves. Some sites said the teacher would teach both groups at the same time. Some sites said that we are going to relocate some of the children and we will assign one remote teacher and they will try to teach the children who are at home.

But what we found is that most teachers were overworked; Trying to teach both groups at the same time was really hard for people.

This year, we assigned full staff to handle those students who wanted to be remote learners for longer periods of time. What we now have in our virtual program is a fully staffed K-8 group that deals with all distance learners across the entire region.

We try to keep it [online and in-person classes] The images are truly reflective, so if you choose remote control, you’re choosing nothing less than you might get in a personal classroom.

How can you judge that these models work, both technically and academically?

Pinkerton: We look at the data of our children who log in. Do they come to all live classes? Do they attend? Academically, we look at the same formative and normative outcomes. So the kids who are virtual students, take the exact same criteria that our students take in person, on the same platform. So we can really put their data side by side.

And then, along with these parts, I am constantly looking for registration numbers and what that looks like. Who leaves these virtual platforms and why are they leaving? I want to make sure that if we’re building something that we think is sustainable year after year, even after the pandemic, it has to be something that families choose.

How do you judge these models from a technical point of view?

Brin: There are a few different things that we look forward to to get feedback and sort of see where we are and where we need to improve. One of those pieces is just the sheer number of devices that have been added to our system in terms of one-to-one hardware stress. [computing] More elementary. Over the past six months, we’ve added thousands of devices to make sure we’re at least one to one [grades] 3 to 12. Another thing we do to find out where people are is we constantly try to stick the scale in there and see how our officials feel. After that, we also conduct a survey of other District Command personnel. We survey our families. With 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 keep going up in terms of technology use, and we’re just trying to find ways to make sure we get Constantly getting those comments from our community and area leaders.

There’s another kind of exciting thing that definitely grew out of all of this: Our edtech culture has grown a lot, and we have some good leadership around that. We’ve built some leadership teams in educational technology. We have some groups that pass through ISTE [International Society for Technology in Education] Certifications, we created our own Vail ISTE in-house certification, and we have a lot of teachers who just signed up for this in-house elective course for education technology. 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 it will ever, is that good instruction comes from a good teacher. And so we want to make sure that that’s always top of mind, and that the technology is really there to improve the instructions.

Mark Brenn

How has your approach to teacher professional development in relation to technology changed over the past year and a half?

Brin: I think one of the things that we did last year in response to trying to quickly train teachers on some of these new tools is we engaged them in more online opportunities. So, not only are we live online, but we have also created more self paced courses that can go through our Learning Management System and do some self learning there. Probably one of the most interesting things that we’ve started doing because of this, and I think it’s something we’ll keep, is that we’ve created this really great professional development opportunity where educators sign up to be presenters and leaders. So rather than being the education tech person from the district office who administers this PD, this has a little more grassroots feel in terms of teacher education for teachers. When teachers hear it from another teacher, who is doing it now, it means a lot to them.

How has the pandemic changed your area’s approach to technology and learning, the big picture?

Pinkerton: I think in many of the cases that we thought about before the pandemic, you know, it makes sense to have it all done in person. right? that kids can’t learn that other way, that kids are going to learn slower or we won’t get as far as we need to, and I think what we’ve learned is that, yeah, there’s a group of students who have that kind of [remote] environment, but there is a bunch of kids who do really well in that environment. We had so many dads that this year they said they could come back [to fully in person instruction], But [decided the online environment] Actually it works better.

Over the summer, many parents reached out and said, “I’m not sure what I want to do.” And it was cool to be able to say, “Well, what does that sound like?” We only have this list of options for families in which we can say, “Which of these options meets your family’s needs?”

Brin: I think at a very high level, it made us realize that as a region we want to be very competitive. We never had to be this competitive because we are a highly ranked area. And we have a lot of families moving into our community specifically for our area, [but] These families can only attend an online school that operates outside of Phoenix or elsewhere across the state. And so it kind of changed that competitive mindset to: We’re not just competing locally, we’re kind of competing globally.

Has the pandemic permanently changed the use of technology in learning, and how?

Brin: I think it’s like that, and on a high level, there’s kind of a couple of things I’m thinking about. With technology changing instructions, it’s becoming more of a necessity than just having it, especially if we have to switch to remote control in an instant. The other part of that, I think, is that teachers feel more comfortable with the tools. The one thing that hasn’t changed, and I don’t think it will ever, is that good instruction comes from a good teacher. And so we want to make sure that that’s always top of mind, and that the technology is really there to improve the instructions.

Speaking of nice technology versus must-haves, technology in general, whether we’re talking about edtech gadgets or we’re talking about Wi-Fi or just an internet connection, 10 years ago some of these things were like, oh, that’s neat but now it’s very important to everyone part of the organization. So, this is something that should definitely be on my mind: making sure we have high quality, consistent technology. Not only is it powerful and innovative, but we want to make sure the base levels are working all the time and all the pistons are working. The pressure has changed a little.

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