OETC Spotlight

So What Now?

As 2021 dawns, CIOs and educational technologists face a landscape less settled than ever.

2021 Spotlight

OETC’s Spotlight is a series of stories, interviews and Q&As highlighting news and ideas from across the Northwest EdTech community.

Two days before Christmas, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown surprised educators across the state by announcing that schools should re-open as quickly as possible, and floating a Feb. 15 goal date. The Department of Education’s guidelines, she said, would now be “advisory rather than mandatory,” and each school district would have to decide on their own when and how to reopen.

However, with vaccination rates moving much slower than expected, OPB and other news outlets report that it’s unlikely that teachers — who are part of the 1B vaccination group, after healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities — will be fully vaccinated by then, leading to protests across the state and pushback from teachers’ unions.

It was a shock to educators. Just two days before Brown’s announcement, Beaverton CIO Steve Langford had said he imagined the district would finish the year remotely. Now, of course, that prediction seems unlikely.

Despite the uncertainty, several CIOs weighed in on what they’re facing in 2021, particularly as it relates to student achievement, future-proofing their own districts and absorbing the lessons of 2020.

Distance learning has failed millions of students across the country; one Oregon high school reported that 38% of their students were failing, as opposed to 8% in a normal year.

“We might have students where we don’t know if they’re ready for the next grade level,” Langford said. “Just because your birthday has passed and you’re a year older, that might not be the best indicator of being prepared for the next grade.”

“The idea of a remote learning environment is something that should persist, depending on what the student needs.”

— Steve Langford, CIO of Beaverton Public Schools

His district is discussing the possibility of summer outdoor intensives to assess where students are, and see if they can become ready for the next grade in that short time.

“If they haven’t mastered all the concepts in second grade, is moving to third grade a good idea for them?,” he asked.

But, he said, for some students distance learning has been a godsend, and in 2021 he hopes that schools writ large will abandon the one-size-fits-all theories of the past.

“We’ve never considered what is best for every individual student — it’s been education the way it has been for 100-plus years,” Langford said. “We have students who are thriving in this environment, so to return them to what was, just because we can, is wrong … the idea of a remote learning environment is something that should persist, depending on what the student needs.”

Idaho, which has a might higher percentage of in-person learning than either Oregon or Washington, has less uncertainty about how their schools will look, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t changes being made.

Gordon Howard, Director of Safe Schools at Bonneville School District in southeastern Idaho, said that in the coming year, his district plans to make sure students continue to have access to assignments around the clock.

The school district has been in-person, albeit with a slightly modified schedule (Mondays are for remedial instruction) for all of the 2020-21 school year, but of course there have been absences due to quarantine and illness.

“We’re using an LMS and online instruction, and there are many positives coming out of that,” he said, adding that his district began their 1:1 rollout just before the holiday break. “We are currently collaborating and putting course content online, which is helping us align our curriculum at the school and district level.”

“Prior to this, technology departments were behind the curtain, and all of a sudden, the curtain’s pulled and we’re front and center.”

— Derrick Brown, Executive Director of Technology at North Clackamas

Over at North Clackamas School District, just outside of Portland, Executive Director of Technology Derrick Brown said he and his team plan to use this year (and the goodwill for edtech that 2020 engendered) to make sure their technology program is truly sustainable.

“We have 8,000 devices that will be at end-of-life in summer 2021. That’s about half of our students that have devices, and we didn’t plan for that,” he said.

One thing that vexed him (and pretty much everyone) was Chromebooks that were great for classroom use simply don’t have the firepower for distance learning.

“Those devices just aren’t holding up well in a remote learning environment. The devices did serve us well and met our needs when we were in the classroom; they just don’t have the processor and video capabilities to keep up with the demands of online learning,” he said.

But, he said, those are problems easily fixed compared to the logistical realities of in-person learning.

“Who knows what that’s going to look like?” he said. “It’s still our hope to have students back in schools, but schools that open are often shutting back down. How is the back-and-forth going to impact families?”

But he has a major point of optimism, one shared by many CIOs.

“Prior to this, technology departments were behind the curtain, and all of a sudden, the curtain’s pulled and we’re front and center,” he said. “Now superintendents, teaching and learning will be inviting tech to the table at the beginning of an idea instead of the end.”

“We’re forever changed. Not just education but as people, the world. People say we can’t go back to normal and we can’t. It’s new, and different, and exciting.”