As we finish out our school year, it is nearly impossible to process the amount of change that has happened and continues to happen all around us. We have been so busy doing that it is not easy to pause and put the urgent aside. This piece is an attempt to reflect on what has been an overwhelming amount of change in a short period of time. For many of us in technology leadership roles, distance learning in Minnesota provided as much opportunity as it did headache, and we are hoping that we come out on the other side of education with sustained energy around the idea that technology and learning are intertwined. What follows are the top reflections of technology leaders from around the state.
The Digital Divide Exists – Partnerships Help
Access to broadband internet, or the lack of, became a spotlight issue during the last 3 months. As schools attempted to identify gaps and find solutions, it became clear that lack of broadband access now amplifies the disadvantage of certain populations of families. Minnesota continues to have struggles with rural affordable broadband internet access. In the metro areas, it is possible to have multiple competing services, but in greater Minnesota, affordable broadband may not be a possibility. During the period of distance learning, many companies expanded offerings in an attempt to connect underserved communities. In rural Cook County, Lisa Bauer details how several entities came together to provide services to families. True North, an internet service provider offered low cost internet access to families and connected many households without access. Cook County Higher Education, a local non-profit also offered low cost laptop solutions for families. Student interns from school districts signed on as technology support. It is important to continue to press the importance of affordable internet access across all of Minnesota, and at the same time recognize the partnerships that help amplify the effect.
Less Perfect, More Good Enough For Now
One cultural shift that seems evident, is less emphasis on trying to get to “best practice” and solutions to problems being, “Good enough for now.” If an institution is intent on cornering all of the best practices for improvement, it means that less perfect, good-enough practices may be shunned. During distance learning, time could not be afforded to determine what might have been, “best practice.” Instead, most districts needed to do the best they could with what they knew at the time. Jen Hegna, from Byron PubIic Schools emphasizes in her report to the school board, the statement, “Planning for Change, Not Perfection.” In nearly every aspect of what was done during the quick implementation of distance learning, most schools had to say, “What is good enough for now? What fits our current needs?” While schools like to pilot new things and slowly implement, along with providing effective professional development, and clearly communicating goals and the “Why” behind new things in the system, distance learning helped push schools to fill voids with what they could get to work and support within the capacity of their systems. Chisago Lakes School District, like many others across the state, put many new things in place to fill voids and anticipate student and staff remote needs as best as possible. Their technology team implemented an entirely new helpdesk system, software to support remote computers, a voicemail-to-email system, and expanded device management systems K-12. Worrying about “perfect” became a luxury that time could not afford. One could debate the use of Zoom versus Google Meet versus Microsoft Teams, but there was no time – pick one and go.
Technology Expertise is Not the Burden of the Few
In the early days of technology, there were very few applications and we often looked to the highly enlightened experts to help the rest of the educators. Today, there are more applications or services than any one person can be an expert in. The decline of the technology “expert” has been happening across the last several years. It has been a slow and less-than-obvious proposition. With distance learning, we realized several conditions. The first is that some level of technology expertise is not optional. With most technology integration efforts of the past, it was very likely that some resisted any efforts to integrate technology into instruction. With distance learning, that option was made a requirement. No longer could a teacher suggest that technology integration was not really that relevant for his/her content areas. Educators were asked to not only understand new concepts and technology, but to put them into practice from a hastily-built home office desk with twenty-six 4th graders in some cases. Secondly, this time of distance learning showed us that expertise is everywhere and not concentrated in the few. In Anoka-Hennepin, the technology team supporting instruction remarked that distance learning pushed their work 10 years into the future. For years, the team has been conducting professional development aimed at moving teachers toward improved practices, but the importance or relevance was not always seen equally amongst integrationists and teachers. While face-to-face instruction is what educators have known, distance learning created the conditions of, “You must.” Technology is now seen as mandatory instead of nice-to-know.
It’s Not About the Stuff, It Never Was
One thing that distance learning emphasized is that technology became a means for learning as opposed to a discrete topic to learn about, or the only way to learn. Many districts in Minnesota have embraced technology as a means to an end. That “end” may be more student agency in learning. That “end” may be in greater access to content knowledge, or that “end” may be connection and reach. It could be all of the above. If there is one thing distance learning may have helped point out it is that learning is more than teaching, and that technology may allow us to amplify the learning environment. Many school districts in Minnesota were already providing 1:1 technology access to some or all of their students. For Jen Hegna in Byron, distance learning meant that defending a 1:1 student access program was no longer a main issue. It was seen as necessary for carrying out the work of the school district. For Mark Diehl and the Little Falls School District, distance learning provided the emphasis to keep the school district’s work moving forward. The district has had a strong emphasis on student agency and choice in education, and the current situation amplified the need for students to practice these critical competencies. Mark is hopeful that the district moved several steps in the right direction and will not be turning back regardless of how we open in the fall. Teachers worked hard over the two-week closure to plan and prepare for distance learning, and continued that work through the end of the school year. When technology becomes your primary means to maintain relationships with students and support their learning, it is both exciting and anxiety-provoking for technology leaders to help align the work of each district and grow from our distance learning experiences.
It is very predictable that technology has an increasingly important role in education. It is undeniable that technology should not be a goal alone, but a means to some other educational end. The best of what school districts are doing now is finding a way to use technology to improve outcomes for all students. The state of ed tech has left us with educators seeing technology as a “maybe.” Distance learning showed us that technology is a “must be.” For our students, a lack of broadband access should be equated to any other education inequity issue. If we want our students to flourish, internet access is a necessity.
In closing, we technology leaders in Minnesota remain committed to addressing our students’ needs through better systems and structures of leadership, communications with system leaders, and raising the bar for all of us who hold these positions.