Experts say effective technology transformation requires rethinking strategies for sustained PD.
“A digital learning day on steroids.” – Technology Transformation
That’s how Emily Bell, Fulton County Schools CIO, recalls the day in mid-March 2020 when the Georgia district closed its doors and launched into remote instruction in response to the novel coronavirus.
Prior to the pandemic, FCS occasionally scheduled digital learning days, when students stayed home and participated in virtual instruction using a teacher- or school-assigned platform.
“Before the pandemic, we knew it was a valuable experience for our students to engage in online platforms,” she says.
But those digital learning days didn’t happen often — and when they did, the mix in platforms didn’t always lend itself to collaboration between schools.
District leadership understood that standardizing a productivity and collaboration platform across a district of 95,000 students and 14,000 employees would be difficult — but a step leadership knew the school system must soon take.
Making the Pivot to Digital
But like so many other school districts, in a matter of months the pandemic thrust FCS into the next phase of its digital learning evolution.
“When you do something big in a fairly large district, you just need runway, and this pandemic allowed no runway,” Bell says. “So, we used the platforms we already had, we scaled them, and then we sustained them. I believe that made us successful.”
By summer 2020, FCS selected Canvas as an LMS and leaned into its Microsoft license, switching all schools to Microsoft Teams for synchronous instruction. The tech shift also required more professional development meant to ensure that all educators — from early adopters to ed tech novices — could effectively use the tools for instruction.
“Although the technology tools were there, some had never used them before. So, having to take what you would normally do in a face-to-face classroom and then convert that to remote teaching overnight — without ever having done it before — that’s a big lift,” says Heather Van Looy, the district’s director of instructional technology.
As it turns out, FCS was not alone. According to a 2020 GBH Education survey of more than 1,900 educators nationwide, “only 66 percent of teachers reported being very or extremely confident in using digital media services for teaching after the pandemic-prompted shift to remote learning.”
In addition, the survey found that 13 percent of teachers started using K–12 ed tech only after the pandemic-related school closures. And for schools that remained partially open, teachers also had another concern: Simultaneously instructing two sets of students (remote and in-person) became a huge challenge that some districts resolved by creating separate, stand-alone virtual academies.