Hoke Wilcox, former Director of Instructional Technology, Emily Bell, CIO, and Heather Van Looy, Director of Instructional Technology, Fulton County Schools

Jan 19 2022

How Professional Development Improves Teacher Confidence in Technology Transformation

Experts say effective digital transformation requires rethinking strategies for sustained PD.

“A digital learning day on steroids.”

That’s how Emily Bell, Fulton County Schools CIO, recalls the day in mid-March 2020 when the Georgia district closed its doors and launched into remote instruction in response to the novel coronavirus.

Prior to the pandemic, FCS occasionally scheduled digital learning days, when students stayed home and participated in virtual instruction using a teacher- or school-assigned platform.

“Before the pandemic, we knew it was a valuable experience for our students to engage in online platforms,” she says.

WATCH NOW: Emily Bell discusses the tech that kept remote students connected.

But those digital learning days didn’t happen often — and when they did, the mix in platforms didn’t always lend itself to collaboration between schools.

District leadership understood that standardizing a productivity and collaboration platform across a district of 95,000 students and 14,000 employees would be difficult — but a step leadership knew the school system must soon take.

Making the Pivot to Digital

But like so many other school districts, in a matter of months the pandemic thrust FCS into the next phase of its digital learning evolution.

“When you do something big in a fairly large district, you just need runway, and this pandemic allowed no runway,” Bell says. “So, we used the platforms we already had, we scaled them, and then we sustained them. I believe that made us successful.”

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By summer 2020, FCS selected Canvas as an LMS and leaned into its Microsoft license, switching all schools to Microsoft Teams for synchronous instruction. The tech shift also required more professional development meant to ensure that all educators — from early adopters to ed tech novices — could effectively use the tools for instruction.

“Although the technology tools were there, some had never used them before. So, having to take what you would normally do in a face-to-face classroom and then convert that to remote teaching overnight — without ever having done it before — that’s a big lift,” says Heather Van Looy, the district’s director of instructional technology.

As it turns out, FCS was not alone. According to a 2020 GBH Education survey of more than 1,900 educators nationwide, “only 66 percent of teachers reported being very or extremely confident in using digital media services for teaching after the pandemic-prompted shift to remote learning.”

In addition, the survey found that 13 percent of teachers started using K–12 ed tech only after the pandemic-related school closures. And for schools that remained partially open, teachers also had another concern: Simultaneously instructing two sets of students (remote and in-person) became a huge challenge that some districts resolved by creating separate, stand-alone virtual academies.

Integrate Ed Tech Tools with Key Professional Development

Regardless of classroom setup, school districts need to help teachers gain confidence using ed tech. Instructional technology coaches are key to that effort, says Mindy Frisbee, senior director of learning partnerships at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). When it comes to creating effective ed tech training, it’s critical that educators not only know the fundamentals of how to use a tool but also understand why and when to use it, she says.


The percentage of teachers who believe technology will make them more effective post-pandemic

Source: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, “7th Annual Educator Confidence Report,” October 2021

In this regard, FCS educators were probably more ready for remote learning than most due to their not-so-secret weapon: their Vanguard team — an in-house corps of ed tech experts that includes teachers and principals who volunteer as instructional coaches, Van Looy explains.

The program launched in 2013 with just 25 members and now has 300, dramatically increasing the capacity of the district’s four-member instructional technology department. Since Vanguard members were already embedded in schools when the pandemic hit, they were “ready to take the wheel” and lead training as instruction went remote, Van Looy says.

RELATED: Outsource cybersecurity expertise in K–12 districts with virtual CISOs.

The pandemic also demonstrated to FCS how crucial it is to have an agile PD strategy and strong relationships with ed tech vendors and other community resources.

It’s a move that ISTE’s Frisbee also supports. She says technology providers especially can “help educators move beyond just the tool itself, to think about transformational practice. That way, it’s really elevating the whole field.”

FCS worked with Microsoft, a long-term partner, to create a series of remote professional development sessions that are still available on demand, according to Van Looy.

The district also expanded an existing relationship with nearby Kennesaw State University, which sent in coaches to help teachers make the most of programs such as Nearpod and Adobe Spark. The result? “People really jumped in,” Van Looy says, using the tools to create lessons and assessments.

Working Within a Shifting Model

Neal Weaver, Santa Fe Public Schools’ chief information and strategy officer, says that since the pandemic began, the district has taken a “learning while doing” approach to new technology.

It rolled out Canvas in 2020, and in addition to lesson planning and grading, the district uses the LMS to deliver professional development. It also offered virtual one-to-one support over Google Meets during remote learning.

The PD-via-LMS setup requires that teachers engage with the course material, upload a lesson plan based on what they learned and then write a reflection of how it went. Not only are there metrics to support what took place, but teachers get practice using the platform at the same time, Weaver says.

Now that most of Santa Fe Public Schools’ 13,000 students are back in person, the district is using PD to bring the skills, practices and collaborative nature of remote learning into the live classroom.

To help, the district deploys 13 digital learning coaches at over 30 locations.

“One of the biggest things we’re doing is just trying to help teachers think differently about the ways they are using technology within their classroom to better engage their students,” Weaver says. “The biggest travesty in all this would be that we come back to school, and we continue to do it the way we did it before we left.”

Neal Weaver
The biggest travesty in all this would be that we come back to school, and we continue to do it the way we did it before we left.”

Neal Weaver Chief Information and Strategy Officer, Santa Fe Public Schools

As schools move into the next phase of teaching, whether that’s in person or fully remote, there’s an opportunity to rethink PD, experts say.

Frisbee recommends that educators and district leaders work together with ed tech vendors to share what’s working well and what needs improvement. Districts and providers should also get familiar with ISTE Standards, a framework that defines what it looks like when a student or educator uses the digital tools and resources effectively, she says.

KEEP READING: Learn more about the continued importance of PD in K–12 schools.

Photography by Matthew Odom

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