Parkland School District: Making Teachers into Distance Learning Superheroes

Making teachers into Distance Learning Superheroes

Parkland School District was ready for a challenge in the 2019/20 school year. The district’s elementary teachers were readying themselves to take the plunge into 1:1 device teaching and personalized learning. As with the middle and high school teachers who preceded them, it would be a tough but rewarding transition. Little did they know they would soon have their skills pushed to the limit. 

Since their tentative first steps into edtech, Parkland’s teachers, along with the rest of the district’s staff (and indeed many of the world’s educators), have drastically ramped up their tech skills. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent distance learning, they have been able to provide totally online educational access for their 9,500 students since March. For JR Renna, Coordinator of Educational Technology, it’s been a source of great pride and marks a distinct move towards the future of education.

“All of our teachers are superheroes now – they have added all these extra powers and skills as they’ve been slingshotted into e-learning… It’s certainly an exciting time to be in educational technology that’s for sure.”

We caught up with JR to learn about his district’s journey and the future of e-learning.

Getting familiar with Kami

Parkland School District has been working towards personalized learning using 1:1 devices since 2017. In line with this goal, all students K2-12 were provided with personal Chromebooks for use in the classroom and at home. 

Over the first year of implementation JR and his team consistently gathered feedback from teachers to determine what was working about the initiative and what needed improving. One of the gaps spotted early on was that educators needed better tools for dealing with assigning and completing work. While the Gsuite (alongside Schoology as the main LMS) provided excellent basic functionality, it required teachers to convert all their resources into Google Docs – something that was both time consuming and impractical. 

This missing tool in their toolbox was Kami.

“We’ve found the Kami and Schoology integration makes the paperless classroom a possibility for those who would otherwise find this concept daunting. Because the PDF format is so universal, and Kami makes the process so easy, it is an extremely reachable first step for beginners. With this onramp in place, it allowed us to start teachers on their journey of transforming instruction using technology.”

Though JR and his team initially saw Kami as a way to manage PDFs and digital work, they quickly found that there were far more uses below the surface. 

On top of its possible use cases JR is clear that one of the best things about Kami has been its simplicity for both staff and students: 

“Kami has been a best friend to teachers just dipping their toe into digital teaching. It’s a natural onramp for teachers to collect assignments digitally and the deeper you go the more transformative use cases you can get into.” 

Transition to remote learning

March 13th marked the first day of active preparation for distance learning or e-learning as it’s known in Parkland District. Educators and staff attended in-service days to review strategies to keep instruction going with the district’s key online tools: Schoology, Kami, EdPuzzle, Nearpod, and the Gsuite. The aim was to cultivate a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning that could be flexible for all students. But it was a tough ask:  “What would normally be done over 2 years was done in 2 weeks!”

But in the race to transform the traditional process of teaching the Parkland team knew exactly what the priority was: 

“Priority number one was that all things were equitable.”

This central principle supported the core of the district’s strategy. Everything from device allocation to the distribution of 150 wifi hotspots was carried out in a way that ensured everyone had exactly what they needed to access their education. This, alongside using Schoology as a central online platform, has meant that getting online and accessing education materials was not only possible but easy for everyone. And the best thing was it really worked:

“Attendance has actually improved since the implementation of distance learning. We can see from our Schoology data exactly who is attending what and when and it really has been fantastic.” 

“Equity was achieved, students were participating. But we also understood that this was an incredibly trying time for students and parents. So we wanted to be super understanding as well. For that purpose, we took on a very compassionate and flexible grading approach. Content-wise we ensured that meaningful learning was continued but recognizing that folks were in unprecedented circumstances. Guidance counselors, reading specialists, and principles were able to provide social and emotional resources.” 

Progress and flexibility

The dramatic transformation in education that has happened over the last few months is something that JR finds both exciting and encouraging.

“It’s an exciting time to be in educational technology that’s for sure. Everyone has just been accelerated and they have all these extra skills…”

Even more promising is what the now almost universal educator participation in ed-tech resources means for further strategy and overall improvements to the sector:

“There are a lot of folks voices and opinions that we’ve never heard before. The teachers who weren’t natural first adopters or techy teachers are now able to add their voices to the conversation about digital learning which is such an important and interesting perspective to have.”

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