Early Reflections on Digital Learning Days

Over the winter break, our district (finally) committed to using our online learning platform during school closures, so that instruction could continue and days wouldn’t have to be made up. It came after years of pressure for this sort of thing–some of which was from me–as a no-brainer solution for continuing instruction when it wasn’t safe to meet at school.

Of course, that meant we ended up having three of them in January, including two consecutive days for a snow event. Even though we really wished for time to meet with the staff and present the plan ahead of time, we were ahead of many other schools in that at least we had a plan. We had to scramble, but we knew what we wanted to do.

Although things have been busy since, I’ve had a little time to reflect on how our first three days went: what we can do better, and what we did well.

What went well…

  • We had a plan. It wasn’t communicated as efficiently or as directly as I would have liked (had these days occurred in Feburary, we would have rocked it), but we had a plan, we knew what we wanted to do, and we executed it. Having made the inclement weather plan two years ago gave us a strong advantage in that we only needed to make minor changes to the plan. This meant we could skip right to helping teachers plan instruction, which helped a lot.
  • Teachers were willing. This isn’t always the case. But it was easy to make a case for Digital Learning Days, since most teachers at our school remember several years ago, when we used more weather days than we had. We were forced to stay 30 minutes late for a month–with students–to make up the lost instructional time. It was miserable, so teachers were unusually willing to jump right in and make this work right.
  • We were consistent. Part of the plan included the need for consistency. Some of our parents and students would be engaging with the online learning platform for the first time–we needed clear directions for them. We asked teachers to post their lessons in the same places, with the same naming convention, and with a similar announcement on their pages directing learners to the activities. We believe it was very helpful.

What needs some love…

  • The lessons. For our first time up to bat, we did a great job posting lessons that kept instruction going and were mobile-friendly for those students without computers. Nobody criticized our lessons as being too simple or not enough learning (the opposite–some said we gave too much work). But I think we can do better moving forward. Some of the lessons were basically uploaded worksheets, to be completed on the student’s own paper. I think we can do better. It’s possible to develop lessons that are instructionally sound and rigorous which students can complete at home. Some of our teachers tried discussion boards with their students–that might be a logical next step.
  • The accounability. The district’s directive states that students must be held accountable for the lesson, just as if it had been a regular day of school. But they didn’t say more than that, nor did we spend a lot of time on this piece. What should accountability look like for lessons completed at home? Should we mandate that they be taken for a grade? What’s the plan for students who lose power? This is a key area we must develop further.
  • The expectations. Our decision was to have teachers create lessons that could be completed on a cell phone, under the belief that even families without a home computer or home internet would probably have a phone they could use to complete the lesson. That’s not a bad idea. But based on our sky-high participation numbers, I question how true this assumption is. It might be worth testing this next time around, by having some teachers post lessons requiring a full computer, and seeing what happens with the students.

The winter weather season is nowhere near over yet, so some of these discussions need to happen fairly quickly, but I was completely blown away by how well it went the first few times out! I hope we can continue this positive momentum, and find a way to carry it through to new initiatives.

GaETC, Day 1

It’s day 1 of the Georgia Educational Technology Conference (GaETC). I’ve gone every year I’ve been our school’s technology coordinator, which means this is my seventh year in a row. I don’t know if that’s supposed to make me feel experienced, or just old, but I feel a little of both right now.

I was a little more pessimistic about this year’s conference than I’ve been in previous years. After seven years, haven’t I seen all of this enough? I could name some of the stereotypical and perennial sessions off the top of my head:

“10 great iPad apps for [blank].”
“60 websites in 60 minutes about [blank].”
“Ways to integrate [expensive, licensed, niche software] into your classroom TODAY.”
“Getting started with Google [Search, Apps, Drive, Chromebooks, Classroom, etc].”
“Become a Connected Educator by using [blank].”

I didn’t want to go this year. I investigated canceling my registration, but it was too late. I believe in being a good steward of our school’s limited funds, so I wasn’t going to let my $200 registration go to waste, so I begrudingly hauled myself out of bed and drove to the other side of Atlanta.

I’m glad I did.

I picked up my badge and a copy of the program and sat down to mark up the sessions I am considering going to. This year, they’ve made a special effort to provide sessions to instructional technology coaches, with sessions called out in the program. I really appreciated that and found several sessions specific to coaches that seemed interesting and unique.

I also saw a thoughtful tweet on the conference hashtag which challenged conference participants to attend a session that has nothing to do with them or makes them feel uncomfortable, because that’s how you grow as a leader. I needed to hear that. So I might be redoing my conference here in a bit.

Free coffee or not, though, 5AM is still early!

The Chromebook Challenge

I’m a big Windows person. It’s what I grew up with, what I learned how to use first, and it’s far and away the operating system I’m most familiar with. I navigate Windows and its many quirks with ease. I was the first in line to upgrade my work laptop to Windows 10, even though it’s technically not approved for general use, because I have it at home and enjoy using it.

Now that I’m in my seventh year as the school’s technology coordinator (can’t believe I just wrote that), I find myself struggling to fight complacency and stay fresh and active. I decided recently that I need to try some new things, even if I hate them, just so I don’t lose my touch, or gain distance from the technology community I love so much.

That’s where the Chromebook Challenge comes in.

I had planned for a while to purchase my own laptop to use for work purposes, as sort-of a DIY replacement to my beloved-but-ancient work laptop. I wanted something without the shackles that my employer places on their laptops–with all the features, abilities, and power that comes with an unmanaged laptop.

But then, last week, my Check Engine light came on.

After a scary $625 near-disaster transmission problem, and being told that I need another $1,000 of work done over the break, I figured this was a sign that I need to try Chromebooks.

Chromebooks are great for lightweight computing, and all the reviews I read from people who use them for work say that they’re able to do about 90% of their job on them. It so happened that Amazon had this nice Acer model on sale, which got good reviews online, so I took the plunge. It arrived Sunday.

The “challenge” in Chromebook Challenge is that I intend to use this as my primary work computer from now until the winter break in December. I’m not sure how or if it’ll work, since I occasionally need to do Very Fancy Things, but I’m willing to give it a shot. I also intend on taking it with me to the technology conference this week–I took a smaller Chromebook last year to the same conference, just to take notes on, and it worked great for what I needed.

I will be checking in throughout the next two months with progress updates, insights gained, and thoughts about Chrome OS. Looking forward to my adventure!


Ten Days In

So I got to feeling very overloaded this week at work. Tuesday was the worst; every time I finished one item, two more were in my inbox. My e-mail notification was popping so often that I had to silence my laptop and flip my phone over so I couldn’t see the screen–each “ding!” was stressing me out more and more.

I decided to take the advice I’d been giving out to others over the years, and establish some healthy boundaries to keep me from feeling like I’d never see daylight again. Here’s some of what I decided to do:

  • Me Time: I have been taking from 10-12 each morning to work solely on projects of my own choosing, at the cost of all the random tasks everyone else has been giving me. It’s important to me that I try to keep long-term goals in my mind, even when short-term problems seem overwhelming. I’m thinking of making this a semi-permanent feature of my day, since I was very productive with it this week. I’m behind on where I should be on several projects–this started helping.
  • Prioritize Teachers: Sometimes I get lost in administration-driven projects and tasks that I forget my stated purpose: to support classroom teachers integrate technology in instruction. I took the time to help several teachers with their gradebook incidents, and they were all very grateful. It’s gratifying to feel that I was able to help someone with a classroom need. The random nature of technology incidents makes this hard to schedule, but I’m toying with the idea of focusing on teacher incidents from 8-10 each morning (working on structuring my day a little more, see above).
  • Choose Battles: If it’s easier to complete a task–even if it shouldn’t be my responsibility–than to go to war over making a point that it’s not mine, I often do it. Especially right now, when I don’t have time to fight every battle. That said, something on my to-do list this year is to sit down with a copy of my job description and figure out a way to unload as many of the tasks that don’t advance me professionally as possible.

It’s way early in the year, and I’m certainly open to adapting myself in new and different ways, but I feel these few changes have made me more productive (and more sane) so far.

I Broke a Laptop to Write This Post.

Two years ago, I bought myself a laptop with a discrete graphics card–a dedicated graphics chip which enabled me to play the games I wanted to on my computer. It was my first experiment with real PC gaming. I’ve always been an Xbox person.

It works great, and I love the convenience and flexibility of playing games on my laptop. Unfortunately, it works so well that I rarely want to use my laptop for anything else, which I view as a waste of its power and capabilities. All my plans for productivity seem to disappear when I open Steam and pick out something to play.

But I’ve wanted to get back into blogging for some time now. I also want to be super-productive at work this year. So here’s what I just did:

In my office is the computer I’m currently using: A cheap Sony laptop that’s now more than seven years old. It can’t play games, it weighs a ton, the battery only lasts an hour, the hard drive is slow, the processor is weak, and it has half the memory. Dusting off my old college skills, I installed Linux on a chunk of the hard drive. I’m pretty much all Windows, all day, but I know enough about Linux to be very dangerous. All I have installed on it is a browser and an office suite.

It all came about when someone mentioned The Paradox of Choice, a great book which I’m overdue to reread. The bottom line is that, sometimes, having lots of choices causes a paralyzing overload. Sometimes, less is more.

So I’m here on my “sabotaged” laptop which will pretty much only do this right now, and I have to say, it feels pretty good! I’m looking forward to hopefully making this a continuous part of my growth plan for this year.

Now, I think I’ve earned some Xbox time.

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