Our Virtual Journey – Lessons Learned
By Rita Mortenson
Like many school districts across the nation, the decision to open our doors virtually for students in grades 3-12 was heartbreaking. We had been working throughout the summer on variations of a reopening, and when the decision was made in mid-August to go completely virtual, we embraced it with a mixture of resolve, and the clear understanding of what a big change that this would be.
These emotions gave way to new perspectives as we began to dig in. Preparing a virtual opening for fall 2020 was a great time to reassess many facets of teaching and learning, right down to what digital resources our students would interact with. So, with that in mind, we focused on reassessing the core components of our virtual learning infrastructure.
Reassessing our tech
Our reassessment began with our Learning Management System (LMS). While we had been using Canvas for the past several years, we were not making full use of the features. We quickly learned that while many teachers had very creative ways of providing instruction, our LMS could be an obstacle to engagement to students and their families seeking to support them. To address this issue, we assembled a special Canvas subcommittee and found solutions.
Our committee worked to develop a template for our teachers to use that brought consistency to Zoom invites, assignments and “to-dos.” The template that we designed was distributed to our teachers and has been a game changer in terms of our delivery of instruction. In addition, we held three parent back-to-school technology events and went over many of the Canvas features, including how parents and guardians could become observers in their student’s course. One ongoing measure that teachers use is the analytics of Canvas to determine which students are engaged and who might need additional support.
Next, we re-examined our video conferencing system that would be the main vehicle that we would be connecting with students. We purchased Zoom.edu for all certified staff, which gave teachers access to breakout rooms, recording features, polling, waiting rooms, closed captioning, and co-hosts. All these features would improve the teacher and student experience and would promote increased student engagement. And with breakout rooms, in-meeting chats and the ability to screen share, students were able to collaborate with others. One feature that our staff really appreciated with the Zoom.edu accounts were the usage reports. They could track engagement and participation by running a report. Even something as simple as taking attendance could become challenging with 50-70 students in a music class or students joining after class started, coming from an appointment.
To ensure safety and security, all teachers went through training on various features. Staff members practiced these features in our PLNs, department meetings and even with friends and spouses. When teachers provided new content for the day, they were asked to upload videos of their Canvas lessons within 24 hours, so students that were not able to be present in class could engage in the content.
As a K-12, 1:1 iPad district, we deployed new mac laptops and iPads to all certified staff members, and new iPads to all students K-12. Using a variety of management tools, we were able to do “touchless” set up on all devices, remoting in when necessary or pushing out profiles or apps to staff and students. The iPad was a tool that allows for creativity as well as necessary elements such as email, calendaring and the additional Google apps. With the assistive features of the iPads, as well as the creative features, students now have the capability to do audio or screen recording, create videos, produce podcasts and develop graphics.
We also reexamined the digital resources we had access to, making sure that it would be appropriate and easy to use in the virtual environment. Each staff and student has access to Discovery Education content. Included with Discovery Education content are standards-aligned videos, instructional strategies, lesson plans, audio files, and interactives. In addition, there are virtual field trips, contests, professional development, access to experts and an incredible community of learners. This engaging content plays a central role in supporting instruction districtwide.
Additionally, we carefully reviewed the other digital resources our teachers and students were using to ensure they were useful in the virtual environment. In addition to the Google Suite of apps, the other digital resources we are continuing to use include, EdPuzzle and Classkick. Edpuzzle is an app and website that allows teachers to create interactive videos to assess student learning. Teachers create a video and put “markers” in the video whereby students have to answer the question before they can move on, and they have a class dashboard which auto grades assessments (aside from the short answer) and indicates how long each student watched a video. What we have found is that students want to watch the videos multiple times instead of skipping over important sections.
Classkick is an app and website that allows teachers to create assignments and assessments and monitor students in real time. As a teacher you create an eight-slide document, and on your dashboard, you can see each student’s screen as they progress through these slides. You also have the ability to provide an immediate audio recording to give clarifying information and have it appear on the student slide in seconds. This has been an incredible way to help all learners in the virtual environment.
With a variety of digital tools, we realize that an ongoing need throughout the year will be professional development. To provide teachers the tools and resources that they need, our district provided teachers a playlist that they worked through and selected training opportunities that would meet their needs. Mondays were also devoted to professional development, planning and collaborative opportunities. We enlisted staff members that provided training on a wide variety of topics – there was a smorgasbord of opportunities. It is important for all teachers to have support. We introduced our teachers to the Discovery Education Network (DEN) Ambassador program, which allowed teachers to connect with not only those within their district, but with others around the world. I have been blessed to have a great network of friends and colleagues around the world. Being part of professional communities such as the DEN, ISTE Certified Teachers and Apple Distinguished Educators has helped me navigate these uncharted virtual worlds and support my teachers and students in a variety of ways.
The unprecedented nature of this school year has reminded me of how adaptable students and teachers are, even in the most difficult times. However, it is also a lesson in organizational resilience. As my school system built its EdTech ecosystem, we did so with an eye to the future, understanding that the world of “education everywhere” was on the horizon. Due to COVID-19, the timeline to “education everywhere” accelerated greatly. As educators, it is important that we make sure students are not accidently left behind on that journey. That’s why when my district considered what education in the virtual environment would look like, we focused on the resources that students directly interact with. We wanted to make sure there were as few obstacles as possible to student learning. While we are all now fully back in school in some way, I encourage all school systems to carefully review the resources they are putting in front of students. Make sure they are easy to use or tweak their use to make sure they are not an impediment to student learning.
We all hope that the COVID-19 crisis will end soon. But even if it does not, we must do the best we can to make sure our digital resources are fully optimized to make “education everywhere” a positive experience for all!
About the author
Rita Mortenson is the Educational Technology Coach and District Personalized Learning Coach for Verona Area High School, in Verona, Wisconsin. She is an ISTE Certified Educator, Discovery Education Leadership Council Member, Apple Distinguished Educator, Google Certified Innovator, and is a National Board-Certified Teacher. She enjoys working and collaborating with staff and students to create opportunities for all.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.