Jan 11 2021

Q&A: Adam Miller on How to Build a Team of Tech-Savvy Educators

Miller, Director of Educational Technology for the School District of Palm Beach County, is leading efforts to boost teachers’ capacity to integrate technology instruction and be forward-thinking about new approaches to education.

Administrators at the School District of Palm Beach County have been working for years to develop a workforce of educators who not only are eager to innovate in the classroom but who also are skilled enough to coach and support their peers.

A key part of that effort is the district’s Teaching with Technology Trailblazer program, which launched in 2017 and has included 700 to 800 teachers each year, says Adam Miller, director of educational technology. Participating teachers receive training on integrating technology into their classrooms. Palm Beach schools have more Google certified teachers than any other U.S. school system, according to the district. At each of the district’s 180 schools, about 20 percent of teachers are Trailblazers, Miller says.

The focus on tech-enhanced instruction and teacher training continued when Palm Beach schools implemented remote learning in spring 2020, and more recently as the district transitioned into what administrators call simultaneous learning — a hybrid model of instruction occurring in person and remotely at the same time.

Miller is a longtime educator who has taken the reins of the Trailblazer program. He talked with EdTech about getting teachers on board for tech-infused instruction and how expanded remote learning presents opportunities to rethink the K–12 classroom as well as teaching and instruction.

EDTECH:  How did the Trailblazer training translate into the district’s implementation of virtual learning environments?

MILLER: As part of the Trailblazer program, teachers get a day of training on the tech pieces. They also have to go through Google for Education certification and then pass the test to become a Google Certified Educator.

A lot of schools were already using Google Classroom as the de facto learning management system. Most of our secondary students would have had a Trailblazer as a teacher every year. Leading up to remote learning, we had more than 180,000 weekly users in the system, which is more than half of the student population. It made sense to expand that system across the district.

We wanted to leverage the capacity we had already built, and continue to use Google Classroom. We used the Trailblazers to train peers who hadn’t been using Classroom. After spring break, when we opened back up, there were stumbles, but if any district could have been well prepared for remote learning, it was ours because of the Trailblazer program.

EDTECH:  The pandemic forced teachers who hadn’t already embraced technology to do so — at least enough to try to hold classes online. How has the Trailblazer program changed or adapted to support the tech integration needs of all teachers in online or hybrid classrooms?

MILLER: One of the tenets of the Trailblazer program is that we give teachers training, and then we gave them a set of Chromebooks to use in their classrooms. They had to go through the training and prove themselves to earn that. Another tenet we had is they would share with their peers who were not using technology. This helped proliferate the use of educational technology.

Adam Miller, Director of Educational Technology, School District of Palm Beach County
Plan in advance and think through your technology — not only what you need today but also the possibilities for the future."

Adam Miller Director of Educational Technology, School District of Palm Beach County

With the Trailblazer program, we had the built-in capacity — groups who know how to use tech well. We also made other investments as a district, what we call our standard classroom envelope: projectorsdocument cameras and audio enhancement systems. We have been making those investments over the past decade through sales tax funds.

We just finished the deployment of almost 11,000 SMART panel displays — not just the whiteboards; we also had special stands built with integrated audio enhancement, and we had a high-end Logitech webcam placed on top of each one. With that, we have a powerful system that every teacher can use when they have to simultaneously teach students who are in person and online.

EDTECH:  What are some key lessons learned about making remote and hybrid learning as successful as possible?

MILLER: Plan in advance and think through your technology — not only what you need today but also the possibilities for the future. We made these decisions as a district, and we really thought through and got everyone’s input on these purchases.

Also, build your teachers’ capacity to integrate technology as much as you can. It makes sense for our students to have more and more teachers who are well prepared. We have to help teachers by providing them training, and we did that through the Trailblazer program.

If you’re going to deploy any piece of technology, there is power in building experts in various areas. Having those experts in a school building to support their peers is powerful. Badges also help. The Trailblazers have a special digital email badge.

There will always be barriers. You have to have a great team and empower them.

EDTECH:  How should teachers and district IT staff work together to better integrate technology in classrooms?

MILLER: You can’t make decisions in silos. When IT staff is going to make a purchase, you really need to have the input of teachers as well as other departments in your district.

EDTECH:  What’s next? What tech-focused training should be prioritized for teachers?

MILLER: Give teachers opportunities for as much training as possible so they can be flexible when the different needs of their students arise. Make sure that all teachers are really comfortable with the technology they have and that they’re really comfortable with what’s next. I think we’ve done a really good job of that, but I think we can do better and keep working on that.

You also need to have staff who are keeping an eye on new technology. Is it a fad that’s coming out, or is it something that can help our students?

MORE ON EDTECH: How the remote learning pivot sparked innovation in education.

Photography by Sonya Revell