Applying Digital Lessons Learned To The Virtual School Year Ahead

By Daniel McGee, director of technology and library services, Laurel School.

Daniel McGee

Thus far, 2020 has been a year where the field of educational technology has been permanently altered. This year’s Covid-19 pandemic has brought challenges and confusion to daily life, with educational institutions pivoting to a distance learning model nearly overnight.

The impact of this shift has been far reaching, affecting the cadence and delivery of daily instruction, creating a new impetus for teachers to learn and upskill quickly.

The result is a watershed moment for educational technology that will cause ripple effects in education for this and future generations.

For private, independent schools, the conversations, processes, and procedures have been different from those affecting public schools, though the needs of students remain the same. In my role as an independent school technology director, the lessons of the past few months have been a series of dichotomous notions with a time for careful planning, while also being a time of flying by the seat of your pants; and notably, a time where rules are created, but also while basic tenets of educational technology are proving to be helpful guides. I have learned some essential lessons that are helpful now, and I see them as being helpful in perpetuity.

Lesson One: Select Familiar Tools and Technology

The first lesson is focused on the importance of educational technology leaders to select distance learning tools and topics that are familiar to teachers and students. Having a minimum of familiar, established systems for students, teachers, and families to access lowers the barriers to success and allows students to focus on learning what they need to know, not acclimating themselves to a host of new tools. During a pandemic is not an optimal time to introduce new tools if it can be avoided.

If a school has a learning management system (LMS) in place and is actively using it, it is a hard case to introduce a new system. The LMS is the stand-in for the physical classroom; just as physically moving a home or school is a disorienting process that requires acclimation, the virtual classroom environment fostered through the LMS should remain as consistent as possible.

Video meetings have become a staple of the distance learning experience. For schools using a suite of online productivity tools such as Google’s G Suite or Microsoft’s Office 365, using Meet or Teams lowers the barriers of entry for teachers and students to begin using such tools due to the integrated nature of these video services within the larger platform.

Consistency is key in using any online tool, first in the selection of a single, unified tool for the school to use, and second in its use and deployment. Experts in online learning advise the use of a common template for teachers to craft LMS course pages, and students should have a consistent means to access their virtual classrooms via the chosen video conferencing platform.

All this said, reflection and evaluation is an essential part of any educational technology program. If a platform is not fully meeting the needs of a school, shifting to another platform at some point might be in order. The rules of unification and consistency still apply, providing for a cohesive communication plan.

Lesson Two: Plan for and Implement Training Programs

The second lesson of school during a pandemic is that teachers, students, and parents will have new, timely professional development needs to be met. The notion of “just in time” training applies directly, where learning what is essential and immediate is beneficial. As the first lesson learned showed the importance of a limited number of technology tools, this idea positively affects the planning and implementation of training programs by limiting variables around what users need to know.

Teachers who were adept in technology will be able to slide into this new learning space easily, but never discount the unassuming teachers; even those who have not been early adopters may prove savvy with delivering distance learning in new and exciting ways.

Teachers partner for success and lean on others to fill in gaps in their knowledge and skills in technology. For example, at my school, I have been impressed by those who never had the need or opportunity to create edited videos for students. These teachers have reached out of their comfort zone to craft impressive videos that show passion for teaching and professional growth.

Lesson Three: Know Where to Find Support

The third lesson learned during this pandemic is that it is crucial to ensure all in the school know where to find support, and setting expectations is key. Most technology teams are nimble enough to slide into this new learning and work environment because remote work and assistance is ubiquitous today. Such individuals can also model the simplicity of communication and customer service necessary to succeed in a distance learning scenario.

Well-resourced schools with one-to-one device programs and learning management systems will naturally be a step ahead in remote learning, but even in that case, students and teachers can be stymied by problems, like home Internet issues that may or may not be out of their control.

As I began to work from home, the wifi dead spots in my home that I tolerated for years soon became real problems; my team and I fielded questions along those lines from students and teachers. By providing clear means of support for the distance learning effort, it becomes possible to shift away quickly from break/fix triage to advancing technology use beyond the initial questions of “how do I do” a given topic.

These are by no means the only lessons learned during the course of the spring distance learning experience and the summer planning period we have just endured, but they bubble to the surface as foundational components of a successful program.

Beyond these lessons, knowing how to find an answer is an indispensable skill — for all in today’s complex world, not just educational technology personnel. As this year has thrown everyone unimaginable curveballs, my hope is the lessons learned this year will remain with us as pillars of how to lead successful educational technology programs.

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