When a school faces a crisis many of its support systems are tested. Where I live, during bad weather the public school systems close and have to make up days at the end of the year. A hard winter can extend the school year significantly. When something like the COVID-19 pandemic hits, most schools are not prepared for long term closure. Students miss work and the uncertainty of how they might continue an education creates stress in the staff and students alike.
I have been the Director of Educational Technology for Edison High School in Portland, Oregon for two years. My school specifically serves students with learning differences. We have small classrooms, a student to teacher ratio of about 9 to 1, and an environment that supports each student’s individual needs.Before my time at Edison, our school saw the need to accommodate the educational process and prepare for weather or disaster related school closure. With that pre-planning, the school developed a protocol for “digital learning days” (DLD). As part of the DLD process, our students experience a DLD while in class about once a year so they have the support of the teachers to learn how it works.
Before I get too far, it is important to share the nature of technology at Edison. The school is a one-to-one high school. Each student has their own iPad that is managed by the school and loaded with applications that support their individual needs.. We manage the apps and devices via an MDM or mobile device management system known as JAMF Pro.
Our school uses Google Apps for Education. Each student and staff member have an account and our teachers regularly use Google classroom to assign work, share resources, and provide feedback. In addition, we use a Student Information System provided by Sycamore Education that has Google integration. Accounts are connected, and assignments in Google populate into our SIS for official record and grading.
Several years before I arrived at Edison, our Math department began the process of flipping the classroom experience. Teaching was recorded into small topics and uploaded to YouTube in order to have students watch short teaching sessions of topics to prepare for class in the following days.
When I joined Edison in 2018 as the Technology Director, I performed an analysis of all the schools technology related systems. I found the weak areas and made plans to strengthen the whole system. As part of that plan, the Development team at our school was able to gain a grant to make huge progress toward modernization of the school systems. All the teachers were provided new laptops, we transformed the server infrastructure, and made huge strides toward updating our classroom technology systems. As part of this, I took a long hard look at our backup systems. During the process of updating, I made Google accounts for our file servers and began synchronizing the files to Google Drive as a last resort backup if the other systems would somehow fail before being updated. This is important, remember this part.
During the evaluation I discovered a few teachers using VHS and DVD movies in class to enhance the learning experience. In order to prepare for the inevitable failure of those sources, I converted the movies to digital and began storing them on our network for teachers to access when needed.
Now back to today. We had prepared for short-term closures, but the situation became very different when facing a long-term shutdown. When closing a school and moving to a remote learning model there were suddenly many more things to consider. Teachers will need access to all of their resources online. They will need to be able to communicate with and teach their students new topics. As the threat of closure approached our team started discussion and planning how to accomplish this. During the process, we realized we already had most of the tools in place. Our teachers have complete access to Google Apps for Education, our SIS is web based and accessible from home.
Remember when I mentioned I had set up Google Drive accounts for file servers? All of our teachers network folders had been online for months. All I had to do was share the folder with the staff in Google Drive and viola! Now any IT personal worth their salt will tell you this is not a good idea for normal operation because of the potential delay and file confusion. In this case, the model works to mitigate the closure because no staff are on campus using the local resources.
During our first week of closure, students were up and running on day one, accessing work and communicating with teachers. Our first week was a learning process for all of us. We discovered that our students work best when kept to a modified school day schedule and have the interaction they are missing while not on campus.
Our team began to refine the process for the following weeks of school as we faced a minimum of a month-long closure due to the pandemic. Our teachers are now keeping a rotational class schedule, using conferencing tools like Google Meets and Zoom. Students that do not show up to the conferences and do not have an excuse are counted as absent just as they would be in physical classes. This has become an important part of remote learning to provide structure and interaction. We learned early on that for our students, all who have learning differences, synchronous learning was far more effective.
The most important part of the process is to stay positive and creative. While our first week was a bit rocky the team is adapting and learning as we go. We are receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback from our families about the wonderful job our teachers are doing during these times.
Dr. Troy Spetter
Director of Educational Technology
Edison High School
The list of software and apps below is not a complete or comprehensive list, but only those things that have been either added during the closure or are providing significant support to remote learning in our school. We all use more tools and perhaps those of you experiencing success with other tools can comment about those resources as a reply to this article.
While you can use Google Meets our staff prefer Zoom due to its feature of creating breakout rooms within the conference for student teams on projects. The teacher can control the rooms and pop between them. Finally removing the rooms and bringing all participants back to the main room.