This post is part of CDT’s storytelling series on EdTech use and student privacy protection during COVID-19. Our experts have spoken with parents, teachers, district leaders, and state officials about how they managed the transition to virtual learning and are navigating the return of in-person instruction, leveraging data and technology and protecting the rights of students along the way. Check out the rest of the stories here.
For CDT’s Tech Tales storytelling series, we spoke with Andrew Moore and Kristin Donley, Chief Information Officer and STEM Director, respectively, at Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) in Colorado. We wanted to hear their experiences and lessons learned during the pandemic on practicing effective community engagement around technology decisions. One main takeaway was that an effective school technology plan needs interpersonal and communication strategies as much as it needs technical problem-solving skills.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, education leaders have been pressed to provide their students with the technology resources they need to participate in online learning. Inequities in digital access, which narrowed somewhat during the pandemic but still persist for significant populations, are rarely solved by a one-size-fits-all approach. Moore realized this early on in the pandemic and devised an outreach strategy to understand the specific needs of the Boulder Valley community, which included conducting email surveys, expanding the reach of the technical service desk, and visiting families’ homes directly when other efforts fell short.
Out of that engagement, several initiatives emerged to help provide students with a robust digital learning experience. One such effort, part of a multi-pronged approach to expanding internet access, included a partnership with a local service provider to add cellular towers to the district’s schools and backhaul on existing dark fiber the district owns through a bond. This strategy helped connect students who wouldn’t benefit from ordinary hotspot distribution since their homes lacked reliable cellular connectivity or had more than a single student, the typical capacity of each hot spot.
Another initiative involved building custom hardware-software set-ups to provide teachers with remote high-quality video conferencing capabilities from their classrooms. These set-ups, which Moore’s team dubbed the Remote Educational Video-Audio System (REVAS), were an affordable, scalable way to improve teacher-student connectivity and facilitate more natural hybrid learning models when teaching some students in-person and others remotely at the same time.
“I look back on that and think, you know what? We basically threw these components together, did lots of testing, and it worked. It just worked,” said Moore.
Connecting students with digital access and reaching them through online learning tools also requires that teachers are equipped to utilize these tools effectively and responsibly. As BVSD implemented teacher training around school technology, the leadership team sought to meet teachers where they are with easily accessible content. In implementing the REVAS system, for instance, Moore’s team trained teachers on how to use it and built out ways to adapt it to personal classroom needs. For other needs, Donley worked with BVSD’s teacher professional development content provider to revamp several modules in their asynchronous training hub, which includes interactive student privacy training that teachers are required to take every year.
Discussing this collaborative effort with the training content provider, Donley said, “they were great in working with us to tailor and create our own training that is more based on what we would use in the classroom.”
One of BVSD’s areas of focus regarding teacher training during the past year was around the vetting and approval process for new tech products. Donley and her colleagues sought to avoid the scenario of teachers independently selecting and implementing technologies that had not been vetted for privacy, security, and compatibility with the rest of BVSD’s technology platform.
“We have to have that balance of supporting high-flying teachers and their ingenuity and creativity, while still having a process to say ‘Have you checked off all of these factors [of compatibility and security]?’” said Donley. To strike that balance, the BVSD technology team clearly communicated the expectations around the vetting process while also providing teachers with channels to give input on technology decisions.
As the fall semester approaches and the country’s health situation evolves, education leaders are reflecting on the lessons learned during the pandemic that they can carry forward into the upcoming school year. Moore and Donley both highlighted the value of expanded channels of engagement, with teachers and with students’ families, as one such lesson that they are eager to continue in the fall.
Virtual parent conferences and parent-teacher check-ins are one mechanism for engagement that they found to be surprisingly effective. “We thought parent conferences would be dismally attended, but we had a lot of our parents come, especially in our schools with large populations of students of color,” Donley recounted. “That was one of our equity goals, to get communication out [to those students’ families].”
Another change that will be carried into next year is BVSD’s virtual tech service desk, which Moore’s team switched to being available to parents as well as students earlier in the pandemic. Last, Donley hopes to continue offering more flexibility in teacher professional development opportunities, understanding that teachers will continue to need support when adapting to shifting learning constraints in the fall.
Effective, consistent community engagement is key to ensuring that schools and districts meet the needs of the families they serve. This is particularly true for community engagement around districts’ data and technology plans, as they strive to combat longstanding digital inequities and prepare their students for connected learning in the year ahead and beyond.
For more information on effective community engagement practices, check out CDT’s guidance on community engagement around data and technology use in K-12 schools.