Across the world school districts and their teachers have been battling to maintain educational access in the face of unprecedented circumstances. With classrooms closed and educators separated from their students, it’s been instructional tech and quick thinking that has allowed the show to go on.
So what have the districts behind the scenes been doing to support their teachers and students in taking their learning online?
In Colonial School District, Delaware US, the shift to remote learning presented an opportunity to craft a comprehensive strategy to support everyone. In just a few weeks the district team pulled together a multi-staged game plan complete with resources, professional development for teachers, and online curriculum content. We caught up with Tom Gavin, Supervisor of Instructional Technology & Libraries at Colonial District, to discuss Colonial’s remote learning plan.
Colonial School District
Colonial School District is proud of their Personal Development (PD) offerings. A medium-sized district with around 9,400 students, Tom Gavin worked hard to provide quality, monthly in-service days, tech nights, online training, and active classroom support. The emphasis on learning tech tools had led to some notable successes, specifically the adoption of the Learning Management System Schoology in 2012, Kami in 2017, and a general move to 1:1 Chromebooks in the classroom.
But even with these huge wins, uptake of educational tech was still confined to enthusiastic pockets of staff, with most committed to their traditional modes of working. Tom estimates that prior to 2020 not even 80% of the district’s educators used the apps available.
That was all to change.
Taking the district remote
“Reality really hit a few days before March 12th. We realized that shutdown was inevitable and there was a real sense of fear about this unknown.”
Like many school districts across the US, Colonial had never previously facilitated remote learning in any fashion. But as March 12th, 2020 loomed and became the last day students would be allowed to attend a physical classroom, remote learning was clearly the only way to preserve educational access.
“It was so clear that the amount of lift we would have to provide these teachers would be huge…we needed a primarily analog workforce to switch to entirely online solutions.”
Tom and his team made an early decision that would prove to be the underpinning of their district’s remote learning,
“We decided then and there to be proactive – we did not want to be just reacting to situations.”
Remote learning: the plan
“We had 3 weeks. April 6th was the hard date when online learning officially began for the students so we needed to have everything ready by then.”
Planning for remote learning at Colonial District began in earnest as the team raced to find solutions to keep their students connected to education. Their plan consisted of 4 key elements:
Part 1. Devices for students
Online learning needs devices. So the first issue to engage with was disseminating the districts 1:1 Chromebooks out to their student’s homes.
Fortunately, Colonial District already had 1:1 system in place and all students had access to a Chromebook, but only at school. Firmly held assumptions about home internet access or tech awareness meant that the Chromebooks had previously never been allowed to go home. A factor that Tom notes in hindsight had severely limited the widespread adoption of edtech.
With remote learning looming these rules were instantly set aside and Colonial’s leadership teams arranged 3 days that students could go into their schools and collect a device:
“We deployed almost 7,500 devices. That’s multiple million dollars of equipment just given out. But what’s been pretty neat, is that we can see on our Google Admin Console that almost all of our devices have been active every single day – it’s almost never lower than 6,400.”
Though there were some cases where students needed to be provided with digital access points to access the internet, they were very much in the minority. For Tom, this goes to show that technology is a much needed and powerful learning tool in the classroom and at home.
“We are finally at a point where technology is not a luxury … and this data proves that traditional barriers are no longer there.”
Part 2. An inventory of tools
The next challenge was nailing down which edtech tools were needed for teaching and learning success.
“I’m a big believer in less is more.”
Tom and his team outlined 5 essential tools and advised their teachers to focus only on them.
“We said these are the only 5 tools you need to be successful at remote learning. We didn’t want this time to be spent with teachers just frantically learning new tools. We wanted them to be able to actually get comfortable with using these tools and then be able to develop their instruction and curriculum using these tools.”
Colonial districts top 5 tools are:
- Schoology – key learning management system
- Zoom – to connect with students and other staff members remotely
- Kami – for creating work and completing it
- Google Drive – for easy online storage
- Screencastify – to share lesson recordings and videos
Part 3. Onboarding staff
The next step in the process was onboarding a little over 600 instructional staff. Tom’s team needed to make sure the district’s teachers could master their tools and hit the ground running on the 6th of April. It was a PD session but times 20!
The first phase was creating a central hub where teachers and students could access the information and tool logins they needed. Tom created a website (Colonial #techcsd) to host all of this information in an easily navigable fashion. For instructional staff, this was supplemented by a 6 module PD course created in Schoology. This covered each of the top 5 tools from a basic to advanced level.
“The expectation was that staff would participate in 2-3 trainings a week and we calculated that each module would take no more than 2 hours… We wanted it to be flexible. Everyone could choose which modules they took and when… the goal was that they would eventually do it all but at their own pace.”
Part 4. Getting the curriculum made online
The final piece of the puzzle was the backing of the district’s curriculum developers.
“What’s been great about the remote learning strategy is that our curriculum content people have really got behind the move towards a comprehensive homogeneous online plan. They have begun building their curriculum content using our 5 tools, particularly Kami. Having their support has been a great tie in for the whole process.”
Colonial’s current remote learning strategy gives two days to math curriculum and then 2 days to ELA subjects. Curriculum for each is now made using Kami or Screencastify and then stored on Schoology, ready to be deployed by teachers. Having the curriculum directly involved in the edtech tools makes the process of creating and assigning work as smoothly as possible for both teachers and students.
Kami: all the tools teachers need in one place
“Our teachers were able to transition pretty easily to Remote Learning and one reason was just how seamless Kami is to use. Kami provides all the tools teachers need in one place.”
One of the most brilliant aspects of Colonial District’s remote learning materials is that the Kami module has all been made in Kami. Tom firmly believed that the fastest way for his staff to learn about Kami was to interact with it straight away and pick it up from its intuitive layout and design.
“The beauty of Kami is that it’s so easy to use… it’s so intuitive for teachers and students.”
On top of its ease of use, Kami provided an obvious solution for a key issue within a remote learning workflow.
“We needed a way for teachers to be able to distribute work electronically, and then have students complete and easily turn it in on their devices. It [Kami] literally is the one tool that can accomplish all tasks a teacher could want a student to complete – Text, Audio Recording, Drawing, Video Recording, Screencasting, links, shapes, pictures, OCR, split up PDFs and even signature.”
And the popularity of Kami as a teaching tool is easy to see in Tom’s data:
- Over 100,000 Kami docs have been opened since April 6th.
- District users had performed 98,000 interactive actions (drawing, writing, commenting – any Kami activity not just screen reading).
- By March 13th Colonial school district had 1,300 new Kami users in the district.
- By June over 50% of the district’s teachers had chosen to complete the Kami training.
So what’s the plan for the future? Much like the rest of the world, Colonial School District is unsure what the next school year holds, but Tom is excited about having the support of a solid and tested Remote Learning plan.
“We as an educational institution need to be able to pivot and be flexible. One day we may be in school, the next day we may not and we need to be able to provide for that.”