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Blended Learning

How Long-Term Tech Planning Pays Off—Now and In the Future

Three superintendents, all early adopters of blended learning, explain what it took to make their 21st century models work. (Hint: Good teachers and curriculum are still at the core.)

May 4, 2020

Less than a decade ago, three school districts on opposite sides of the country placed big bets on technology. They invested heavily in infrastructure, created extensive online curricula, and funded connectivity initiatives so students could have 24/7 access to lessons. Recognizing that technology would not magically solve all of their problems, they did what so many districts fail to do, spending the time and money to train teachers to blend technology into their practice in ways that prioritized both human connection and academic rigor.

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced schools to close, superintendents in the districts say the transition to remote learning was largely seamless: the day after schools shut down, most students and teachers were online together—and, importantly, knew what to do.

But that was never the goal. For this group of administrators, embracing technology years ago wasn’t about saving money or reducing their dependence on flesh-and-blood teachers, and it was never a preventive measure to guard against a prolonged school outage. At the time, it simply felt like a necessity—a way to engage kids who lived in an on-demand world, who found their creative outlets in the digital medium, and who would inevitably rely on deep technical competence to hold down jobs in the new economy.

For students in the Lindsay Unified School District—a small preK-12 district in the agriculture-heavy central valley of California where many parents work sunup to sundown in fields and packing sheds—it was also a way to help kids climb out of poverty and isolation. Access to devices and quality digital learning, even under non-emergency conditions, is a lifeline to better economic prospects for the district’s more than 4,000 students. “We’re a 24/7 school district in many ways,” says Tom Rooney, the district’s superintendent, noting the many wraparound services—meals, healthcare, after-school academic support, for instance—his schools provide to local families. Flexible, rigorous online learning was another essential service.

Putting the pieces in place that allowed these three districts to transition to home learning after the country went on lockdown took years of dedicated work—and attention to some of the following building blocks:

Giving Tech a Real Seat at the Table

Putting technology front and center in students’ learning means prioritizing tech in ways many districts currently do not.

The superintendents we spoke with have done this for nearly a decade—allocating massive amounts of their budgets to tech, building out robust IT departments, and tirelessly seeing to the minutiae that allow a complex technical operation to run smoothly. “It’s a heavy lift, in terms of the back end on the IT side, but the best businesses in our country have been able to pivot during the digital transformation to give IT a central role,” says David Miyashiro, superintendent of Cajon Valley Union School District, a high-poverty district east of San Diego County where voters in 2016 approved a $20 million bond to fund the district’s tech investment.

Lip service to the importance of technology isn’t enough; it’s imperative to make operational changes that place tech leaders in positions of real authority, with real budgets. “In our district, our chief technology officer is an assistant superintendent. He has the second highest rank in the organization. Our primary business is learning and achievement—but we’re a business serving a customer base. It’s a different mindset than most district leaders take,” says Miyashiro.

The Lindsay district also invested heavily in technology, but superintendent Rooney says connecting an “extremely powerful technology team” with a good curriculum team is even more important. “It’s about learning. Technology is the mode of delivery,” he says, underscoring a key detail about the district’s priorities. “If you don’t have a powerful, future-focused, committed curriculum team designing learning opportunities that can be delivered through technology, you’re falling short of what learners and families need. And it’s not going to prepare anybody for the future they’re going to face.”

Solving Tech Logistics

Thirteen years ago, Lindsay stakeholders—school staff, parents, and the business community—decided that every student should have a computer (to be replaced every three years), internet connection, and access to online curriculum. They partnered with the city of Lindsay on a community Wi-Fi project and worked with third-party providers to place towers and close to 1,500 hotspots throughout the area. They paid for these efforts, says Rooney—with the exception of ongoing professional learning which is grant funded—via their general fund. It was all about priorities: “We have no more money than any other district that’s just like Lindsay. But as a community, we made it a priority and that’s where we put our money,” he says.

Likewise, Miami-Dade County Public Schools invested a quarter of a billion dollars in 2012 from a bond referendum into purchasing devices for every student and in-classroom tools like Promethean boards, building Wi-Fi and creating hotspots in schools and neighborhoods. “The intent was to provide equitable access to resources that would allow for 24/7, anytime, anywhere learning by students,” says Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade’s superintendent. “Overnight, we catapulted into the 21st century.”

As schools across the nation grapple with technical issues like Zoombombing—where outside users crash meetings on the online video conferencing platform—and clunky tech, Miyashiro worries that ed tech will come out of the pandemic with a bad name. He blames user error and lack of training for some of the trouble schools are experiencing right now. “You can’t expect people to just pick up these tools and use them if that’s not how they’ve been doing things,” he says. Most districts don’t have the infrastructure in place to suddenly switch to an online model. “They don’t have single sign-on, data privacy—we’ve done so much in the digital space to prepare us for security, data privacy, and data exchange.” But working out these logistics can take years. “That’s hard to do even before a pandemic,” says Miyashiro.

Building Online Curriculum

The tools mean nothing without good content and good teaching. Lindsay Unified began the process of beefing up its online curriculum five years ago. Before the pandemic, its digital curricula made up almost 50 to 60 percent of the outcomes high school students were expected to master, Rooney estimates. The most important parts of lessons, however, remain the purview of teachers who work one-on-one or with groups of learners. This equation works because “we built literally thousands of playlists,” Rooney explains, referring to units of study, or lessons, that contain, for example, video, written evidence, additional resources, and supports for ELL students on a topic.

For Cajon Valley, the pandemic spurred a slightly different approach to playlists. While schools already had access to ample online lessons, the district decided to centralize the flow of lessons by curating customized playlists for each learning level, in the hopes of removing some of the day-to-day pressure teachers would experience upon transitioning to full-time remote learning.

“We pooled our collective resources, and some of our sharpest teachers, to help design customized playlists through the end of the school year so that teachers could focus on just surviving,” says Miyashiro.

Retaining the Human Dimension

When technology is used to deliver high-quality curriculum in a differentiated way—and teachers are trained to prioritize connecting with students—these superintendents say the outcomes are remarkable. In Lindsay, for example, student proficiency in both math and ELA state tests is on the rise, suspensions and dropouts are decreasing, and high school graduation rates grew to 91.8 percent last year. Nationwide, however, much more work needs to happen around making blended learning equitable for students with special needs, English language learners, and difficult-to-reach, fragile populations.

Miami-Dade educators—who are expected to engage directly with students for three to four hours each school day during the pandemic (students do independent, teacher-monitored work for another three hours)—aren’t new to the digital tools they are now using. “We’ve spent a lot of money and time sensitizing teachers to differentiated instruction...with digital resources,” Carvalho says. “When we transitioned to distance learning, we created two days of PD for teachers to reacquaint themselves with what they already knew. That’s why I believe this transition was so seamless—this wasn’t the first time teachers were being introduced to digital assets they’d never seen before."

Still, notes Miyashiro, striking the right balance is tricky. “It’s not about having a shiny device for kids to log onto, so we can say: ‘now our kids are using tech.’ That’s just replacing pencils and textbooks with a machine and it misses the whole opportunity,” he says. Instead, effective blended learning is “about leveraging technology to improve the human process, to make us more efficient, more effective, and using data to make sure we’re achieving our goals. That’s how other industries are using technology, but that’s not how most people are using technology in the classroom right now. But we should be.”

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