District Leaders Weigh In: Meeting School Needs with Edtech Partners
The mad dash for digital resources that we witnessed last spring may be over. But for K-12 district leaders, the edtech era has just begun. Blended learning will linger long after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, with more students learning remotely during family vacations and illnesses — or simply out of personal preference. That means district leaders will be evaluating more edtech solutions in the coming years. And that requires a coordinated effort from administrators and teachers, who must identify resources that meet students where they are; make those differentiated resources available to everyone; and implement them well.
In my role at BrainPOP, I’ve had the opportunity to walk alongside district leaders throughout the pandemic. They’ve shared with me some enduring lessons about how they’re rethinking education — lessons that I believe will help others going forward. Here are three of the most impactful:
1. Build equity through your digital tools
K-12 administrators quite rightly spent most of 2020 and 2021 addressing equity through the lens of access to technology, providing devices and wifi hotspots so students could participate in remote learning. But educators told us that it’s just as vital to consider equity when selecting the tools kids will use once they’ve logged on.
For Graciela Valles, coordinator of dual language programs for Los Angeles Unified Schools’ Local District South, that meant finding a way to help 4,000 English-language learners and dual-language learners overcome barriers to remote instruction.
Valles said that at the beginning of the pandemic, language teachers reported two challenges facing students, many of whom are native Spanish speakers: accessibility and confidence. Many content management systems, websites, software and other digital solutions provided content in English only, making it inaccessible to English-language learners — and, in most cases, their parents. Students also were too self-conscious to speak Spanish over Zoom, so they either sat quietly without participating or simply didn’t log on at all.
One solution was using edtech products that provide content in English and Spanish. Dual-language learners benefitted from hearing lessons delivered in both languages, she said, and engagement increased when English-language learners used BrainPOP’s movie-making tool featuring Moby the Robot.
“They could create short movies and record themselves with Moby and they were speaking Spanish,” Valles said. “It lowered that affective filter for the kids.”
2. Look for digital tools that offer customization and provide data
Count this among the biggest surprises of COVID-19-era education: Educators had no idea that digital resources are so easy to customize and so prolific with data.
All the more reason for district leaders to select digital resources that can be aligned with curricula, and that offer ample feedback on usage, engagement, and academic performance.
Dr. Kevin Washburn, manager of library programs for the District of Columbia Public Schools, said he considers both customization and data as he looks to build relationships with edtech companies. He said he’s always looking to replicate the district’s experience with BrainPOP, which built a custom landing page with links to documents that align its content to district curricula in English language arts, science, math, and social studies.
BrainPOP also provides the district with a rich stream of data that offers real-time insight into student interaction with the content and its alignment to curricula.
“The reporting is excellent in terms of how students are being engaged, what they’re learning and what type of activities they’re using that it provides insight that’s supporting overall standards and instruction,” he said.
3. Search for partners, not products
As pressure mounted in early 2020 to shift as quickly as possible to remote learning, teachers and district leaders alike scrambled to assemble digital resources. It provided an unexpected lesson in the importance of building relationships with the right edtech partners.
“One of the things I had to ask most of the partners we brought on board was, ‘Can you help our teachers understand the realities of how this looks in their classroom?’” said Dr. Terri Wade-Lyles, curriculum and instruction manager for K-8 science education for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
“Don’t just sell me something and drop it at the door and say, ‘Good luck.’ Can you help them understand how this really relates to their curricula, to their instructional alignments?”
It was a tall order. But Wade-Lyles, who supplements the district’s science curricula with BrainPOP’s content, said she knows what questions to ask: Do you provide asynchronous staff development? Will you provide a real, live person for me to talk to? What kind of back-up resources do you offer teachers who aren’t tech-savvy?
The answer to those questions, according to Wade-Lyles, is the difference between teachers holding students in the palm of their hands — or leaving them behind.
“I have office hours and that’s part of my role, but I don’t have that expertise like they do with their products,” she said. “If you’ve got a teacher who’s not understanding the mechanics and the dynamics, they’ve lost their kids.”
This is an exciting time in K-12 education. Yes, it’s also extremely challenging — for educators, students, and their families, too. But we’re emerging from the pandemic with enduring lessons about digital resources that will strengthen instruction and boost achievement. District leaders have never worked harder to build equity, improve academic performance, and integrate innovative digital products with existing curricula. And that leaves us with the most important lesson of all: K-12 is rich with potential.
Kari Stubbs, PhD is VP, strategic alliances at BrainPOP.