For the Greece Central School District in New York, getting remote learning up and running was as much a people-focused undertaking as a technical one.
Sure, there were Chromebooks to be distributed, a digital learning platform to be established and crash courses in remote learning to be put in place for teachers. But what got it off the ground was decidedly nontechnical: relationships and communication.
“The teachers who had worked hard until March to have a really great relationship with their students and families got up off the ground and running right away,” said Lynn Girolamo, one of the district’s four instructional technology specialists. “So it wasn't a struggle for them to communicate with their families, and the kids wanted to engage in their video calls.”
The district, the state’s eighth largest with 17 schools and 11,000 students, moved quickly to get its remote learning system in place. Most classes were operating remotely the first week that schools closed.
“Consistent and clear communication across the board was really key,” she said. “Right from the beginning, we were like, ‘Families, we've got your back. You're not going to do this alone. Even though we're not in the classroom, we're still working hard on what we can.’”
Girolamo is an ISTE Certified Educator and is steeped in the ISTE Standards for Coaches. “I just kind of live it and breathe it in my job,” she said. “I never stop and say, ‘Oh, I’m being a change agent’,” she said, referring to the name of the first standard in the Coaching Standards. “I just feel like it’s so embedded in what I do and who I am.”
Launching online learning was a complex undertaking for her district. In addition to relationships and communication, here are four factors that helped the Greece district in its launch.
1. Moving quickly to adapt.
Girolamo credits the quick transition to decisive action before everyone knew schools would be closed for a long period. On what would turn out to be the last day of school, the district moved to send in-school Chromebooks home with third- through fifth-graders. Students in grades 6-12 already had school Chromebooks to take home.
With devices in hand, the district was able to quickly deliver content without a lag to distribute devices. As it became clear that classes wouldn’t resume, they delivered devices to younger students.
2. Robust teacher training and support.
They also held two daily hourlong open Q&A sessions. The district’s weekly Tuesday tech tip became daily. As teacher needs changed, the edtech specialists were available for one-on-one or team sessions on any topic teachers requested.
“Right from the get-go, we knew we're were going to have to do some very quick onboarding for our teachers and administrators,” she said. “There was how to set up a Google Meet, how to run video calls, all the logistics of that scheduling on a calendar. We created a lot of training opportunities. We recorded as much as we could, so that they were also available asynchronously.”
During the first couple weeks, the four edtech specialists were each answering up to 100 emails a day from teachers.
“Over and over, we heard from teachers who said, ‘Thank you. I feel supported. I never felt like I was alone. I never felt like I had to go figure things out on my own.’
“The teachers and administrators were so appreciative of the support. And it was really making a difference with students. Parents at home didn't feel like they had everything dropped in their laps and that they had to make it work.”
3. Giving teachers options for learning.
Girolamo said teaching teachers is much like teaching students. Learning preferences vary and that demands a variety of strategies. Some teachers wanted one-on-one video calls to answer their questions, others felt comfortable getting on a call with 25 other teachers to learn how to use a tool. Others just wanted to watch videos and get help if they got stuck.
“Not one learning strategy is going to work for everyone,” she said. “Being flexible and open to providing the opportunities in multiple ways is how you’re going to keep people feeling supported.”
There was also a commitment to meet teachers where they were with technology.
“Not everyone is comfortable with technology to begin with,” she said. “And here we were using technology to learn how to use technology. That definitely was not lost on us.”
4. Taking steps to ensure student engagement.
Teaching students remotely reflected classroom strategies.
“I've always felt strongly about giving students voice and choice in their learning,” she said. “And I think this highlighted it even more. When you tell kids, ‘OK, here's your menu and how do you want to communicate what you’ve learned to the class’, kids are more apt to sit down in the morning and get it done.”
And in the remote environment, feedback was critical.
“It’s different than when you’re in a classroom and your teacher is right there and you can bring your work to the desk and have a conversation,” she said. “With digital, you click submit and it’s like, ‘I hope they see it, I don't know.’
“So, having the feedback, the voice and choice, all of those relationships, all of those pieces are even more essential in a remote learning environment. It also strengthens why they're so essential in a face-to-face learning environment, too.”
Lynn Girolamo will be a presenter at ISTE's Summer Learning Academy, July 13-31. She is one of 13 webinar presenters who will share tips, strategies and success stories.