ATLIS Virtual Town Hall: School Opening Update (9 September 2020)

Our September Virtual Town Hall gave a glimpse into the realities of what school reopening has looked like for technology leaders across the country. We asked participants to share what school looks like for them -- whether it is fully online, hybrid/hi-flex, or face-to-face. Much of our conversation focused on providing the right kind of devices to teachers who are delivering content to both in-person and online learners. We ended with a number of nagging questions that still keep tech leaders up at night and some practical advice about how to deal with help desk overload fueled by pandemic anxieties and the new technologies schools are adding into the mix. -- SD [10-minute read; 1-hour video] 

September town hall archive banner

Quick Links

  • October 14: Save the date for our next Virtual Town Hall. Registration is required for new participants; free and open to all. If you have previously registered, you will automatically receive an invitation to join. For our next conversation we hope to hear more about how your school is evolving during the COVID-19 pandemic. What are you surprised and delighted by? What are the problems you are still attempting to solve? What are the other concerns you need to bring to the table and share with our community of experts?
  • Complete Virtual Town Hall Video Archive (Wakelet)

(How Will We) See You in September?

Every school year presents new opportunities, but this one was a doozy. As we continue our journey into uncharted territory, we want to hear about what you are learning along the way.

What has “see you in September” (or August) looked like at your school? We asked our Virtual Town Hall participants to share their school re-opening story stories. In particular, we wanted to know

  • What does a “classroom” look like now in a face-to-face model? Online? High flex?
  • What is working well?
  • What isn’t?

For some participants, the decision to continue fully online fits the school mission and culture. A new school year only meant switching from one video conferencing platform to another due to user requests.

Other schools face more complex challenges. Some are still reeling from a switch from one mode to another, for instance, meeting face-two-face in newly equipped classrooms for AV transmission to all-remote with the exception of Nursery School. Or vice-versa.

Yet, schools have continued to be resilient with the tools and devices they already have at their disposal. Devices, iPads, for instance, can have multiple uses, depending on the needs of each particular situation -- as in transformed into document camera in one classroom and then be used as a tablet in another.

How many and which devices per teacher?

Many schools have had to make hard decisions about the devices a teacher may need in order to deliver instruction.

When it comes down to it, what may matter most is the sound of the teacher’s voice. What’s the best way to access that sound? Our participants offered the following solutions:

Some schools find themselves making a rapid change from a desktop computer to a laptop or tablet device in the teacher's hands. Others are wrestling with going all in for 1:1 devices for the first time, something that would have been rolled out in waves in the past.

One option that could be considered is to think in terms of AV “kits” to provide to each educator: for example, a Blue snowball mic, dongle, hotspots for each teacher device, and a camera stand to transform each iPad doc into a document camera station.

When is a low-tech solution the best choice?

The School Schedule
How can one of the most powerful tools a school has, that is, 
the schedule, be harnessed to produce a better school day for all? The schedule can have a huge impact on the experience a child has with the school day, regardless of whether that experience is face-to-face or digital.

Alternating days for students on campus is one model. Many schools have adopted the cohort or “pod” approach, so that students can move through the day like so many schools of fish. In such cases, when someone comes down with the virus, the contact tracing is easier and the outbreak may be contained within a smaller group. 

Socially, though, students want -- and some may say need -- to be with their friends, who may or may not be in their confined group. Is this kind of grouping just another extension of  “ability grouping” that dominated schools in the past? How are the pods or cohorts formed -- with what aspects of the learners in mind?

Structure and Pedagogy
Perhaps we need to solve the problems before us through structure and pedagogy, instead of hardware. When small groups are known to work best in many instances, why don’t we focus on how to use them better and manage them more efficiently? Why not put remote teachers in charge of remote learners.

Going Fast and Going Slow -- School Leadership Changes

What happens when the school leadership changes? What does this do to the communication structure, especially when the need for urgent decisions comes up? These issues are difficult to navigate in "normal times," so they are even more critical now.

What happens when there are no “hallway” or “coffee pot” moments for building trust and connection? How do you know how to move forward, what to do when? When to go fast and when to go slow? 

Nonstop Requests and Help Desk Overload

School tech teams are becoming overrun with “requests for new things.” Even if protocols for app or device selection, or for providing assistance, have been in place in the past, the number of “asks” seems to be on the rise ... relentlessly. Is this the result of neediness due to the stress of the pandemic or to a new sense of entitlement felt by users?

More importantly, how can these overwhelming numbers of requests be managed more productively?

One idea is to intentionally dial back your team’s responsiveness so that users have more time to solve problems on their own. Not every request needs to be dealt with right away, and many can be worked out by end-users themselves. 

It was suggested that tech leaders can communicate that response times will be slower than usual -- and that users should plan accordingly. This can result in building a little more “ed tech muscle” in those who are making the quick requests and demands. Users may need to be encouraged to build capacity and self-reliance and not to depend upon the tech team to be a “purchasing agent.” This approach also allows the tech team to step back and think strategically in batches of problems and waves of solutions. Users can be reminded to live with the new tech as is for a few weeks, then improvements can be introduced to many teachers at once.

Once they have spent some time with their new tech or rallied around a particular solution, the faculty can then take ownership of the professional development and training. This has been shown to take root more effectively with teachers teaching teachers rather than training being delivered by the tech staff.

Determining needs vs. wants remains important. Express the philosophy that “novelty is not sustainable.” It may be better for everyone in the long run to explore new experiences with the tools already in the user’s toolbox. Besides building a community set of best practices, this can help alleviate very real app fatigue on the student side as well.

And teachers need to remember and understand that new tools need to be taught -- and that this can eat up some of their valuable class time. They should ask themselves, is it worth it?

Teachers often do not understand or take the time to consider a new application’s Terms of Service. They should be able to explain the benefit for adding a tool and justify how it will contribute to the learning of the students in the class. So why shouldn’t they be the ones to dig into this more deeply? They can at least investigate new tools to determine answers to basic questions:

  • What information will be collected?
  • What is the age requirement for collecting that information?

If teachers can take on initial queries into data privacy, the tech team can help them that much faster.  Perhaps it would be worthwhile for tech teams to spend some PD time teaching educators "how to fish" for the information they need to understand.

Chad Lewis, of Tampa Prep, FL, provided this useful checklist as a model for reviewing new software applications, in order to combat “tech swell.”

It may be necessary to reiterate the importance of using a ticketing system and to make sure all constituents understand it’s essential for productivity. This seems to be an ongoing problem that has been made worse by the pandemic. 

Nagging Questions

  • What will be the effects of the health protections of compartmentalizing kids in face-to-face classrooms?
  • What are the health issues of using shared devices among students?
  • What is the impact the increase in AV streaming will have on bandwidth functionality?

Tools to Consider

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