For Our Students: Thinking Through the Transition to Digital Learning

For teachers and school administrators, the following is a guest post from BGL’s Andrew Bixler.

If we agree that the goal of digital learning is the same as the goal of traditional classroom learning, then we must restructure the systems we use to provide a high quality education given the realities of the quarantine and school closures. 

One teacher transitioning from the classroom to the living room presents an overwhelming number of obstacles. For leaders and administrators, those obstacles multiply as they attempt to provide solutions and manage staff expectations. There is an endless list of digital resources that provide solutions that schools are facing, and as a consequence there are many choices to be made. In other words, digital solutions can unfortunately also be obstacles, and it’s surprising how easy it is to get stuck in the mire. Leader or teacher, the amount of questions that pop into your brain, onto your phone, and outloud over virtual meetings, can leave you feeling off-balanced, flustered, and frustrated. 

What should we think about since there is so much to think about? The answer to this question is unsurprising: we should think about the student. We should think about school-wide, grade-wide, and content-wide protocols with the student in mind just like we normally would. Again, the goal is the same. The medium is just different. 

Student Access

Before moving forward in any meaningful way, schools must know the answers to these questions as they will help prioritize what needs to be done first. As educators, we can set expectations for ourselves or our students only if we have data on student access. 

Do students have a wifi-enabled device and experience with educational applications? 

Schools might have extra computers in the building they can lend. Spectrum is offering free-wifi

Students’ access and digital literacy will be the starting point for schools. For example, if students do not have access or have little to no experience navigating educational resources, then leaders and teachers will have to rely heavily on calling families directly until they have consistent access to the digital resources you will be using.

Do leaders have school-wide data on student access?  

Identify the key information leadership needs in order to connect students to their teachers, Then create and end a Google Forms survey, get feedback, and identify (hopefully) a short-list of families that need additional support. Delegate specific people for outreach, so that families who still do not have access or need support get it. 

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Spreadsheet populated by Google Form to use for assessing student access

Communication protocols for all stakeholders

When communication is too frequent or confusing, it causes frustration, and eventually, apathy among staff. Clear and consistent communication is essential for students and families. The goal is to establish points of contact  in the school, so families are informed but not overwhelmed or confused. With most information now being communicated digitally, it’s essential that communication is strategic and hierarchical. Spend more time thinking through and planning communication to reduce opportunities for confusion. In these ways, all stakeholders know what information to expect, when, and how often.

It’s important to have a deep understanding of where students are academically and socio-emotionally during this time too. However, it’s not feasible for any stakeholder – student, parent, teacher, or leader – to be in close contact with everyone. Imagine a parent of four having to manage communication between multiple teachers multiplied by four!  Leaders should identify groups of students that each teacher will be responsible for communicating with on a consistent basis. It’s easier for teachers to communicate any information on a particular student. Using a CRM tracking system or simply a Google Sheet (above), teachers who are not that student’s advisor can write notes for each student. When that student’s  advisor checks in, they can communicate information from all of their teachers in one communication.

 “…leaders will do well to collaborate with each other and grade team leaders before pushing out information to all staff.”

How are leaders communicating information to staff?

Ideally, leaders provide consistent and predictable communication (weekly same day/time), one medium (email with attached one-pager of the week ahead). Anything sent to all staff must be clear and purposeful, so leaders will do well to collaborate with each other and grade team leaders before pushing out information to all staff. The less time it takes for teachers to interpret information, the more time and energy they will have to provide quality instruction to their students. 

How are staff communicating to each other?

What warrants a video call vs. phone call vs. email vs. group message vs. Calendar Invite vs. DM vs. text? It seems silly, but having general protocols for the media you use will assuage some of the anxiety that stems from checking multiple platforms and, in the long run, will save hours of work time. Tone, time, and relevance are just three essential variables to consider when making protocols for communication. If communication about a topic requires conversation and discourse, a video call is probably necessary. If simple information needs to be pushed out, a concise email will suffice. Calendar invites that include pre-work, agendas, and links to any materials set expectations for meetings and enable attendees to feel the purpose of the meeting. If there’s a light question that a staff member has, they might want to reach out to a colleague over a DM or text before reaching out to the group. Thinking through scenarios that are common in the digital workplace and establishing norms for communication in those scenarios can relieve tension by eliminating confusion. 

How are teachers interacting with students?

If not as a whole-school, as a grade-team identify the one medium (like Google Classroom) that makes sense to communicate assignments and other information to students. Identify the medium for video conferencing (like Zoom) you wish to use for continual outreach to parents and students. Set a day and time each week that students can expect to receive an update on the week ahead.

Screen Shot 2020-04-14 at 2.20.11 PM.png

This “Week at a Glance” enables students to see their assignments and plan their time accordingly. 

“Plant the student in the forefront of your mind as you think through these questions.”

Leader and Teacher Roles and Responsibilities

Save time and empower each other by defining the roles and responsibilities for leaders, teachers, and staff. When everyone knows what’s expected of them, knows who to manage up to given any circumstance, staff will feel confident and focused in performing their duties. 

What are leaders’ non-negotiables, deliverables, and expectations? 

Push out consistent and predictable communication while leveraging self-starters and tech-literate staff. Maintain a pulse on each grade-level and maintain a positive culture of feedback, e.g. anonymous, daily feedback survey. Help guide teachers in making thoughtful choices around digital solutions.  Manage and support outlier families and students that need resources or that benefit from additional reminders to meet expectations. Delegate tasks in a way that makes sense. 

“Push out consistent and predictable communication while leveraging self-starters and tech-literate staff.”

What are teachers’ non-negotiables, deliverables, and expectations?

Use one medium for instruction, designate a minimum number of lessons, assignments, and grades per week for the grade-team or content-team. Set a number of office hours to be held by teachers over video conference, phone or other tech. Identify and reach out to students who are approaching standards and will benefit from small group video conferences. Hold teachers accountable for student outreach by logging communications in a CRM or other tracking system for accountability. 

How are leaders and teachers holding each other accountable? 

Assume the best all the time. During these new and difficult circumstances, assuming the best creates an inviting atmosphere that bolsters collaboration. Setting deliverables as a team will encourage buy-in and thereby empower all to hold one another accountable. Using shared documents, establishing clear communication of deliverables, agreeing to non-negotiables, and adhering to a system for accountability are just a few systems that take unnecessary, logistical pressure off of the team. With less pressure, schools can focus more on those we actually are here to serve: the students.

Mindset Moving Forward

Plant the student in the forefront of your mind as you think through these questions. In delivering what students need academically and socio-emotionally, leaders and teachers need to prioritize and streamline their approach. Everyone will have to make adjustments throughout this process, especially in the beginning as there is likely to be a sharp learning curve for all stakeholders. So, with each step, plan backwards. Define what the ideal end product looks and sounds like, and then with that goal in mind, develop systems and protocols that are simple and purposeful. In this way, we can make fewer adjustments as we move forward and continue to set up our students for success. 

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