Broward County Public Schools CIO Phillip Dunn II says the district’s learning management system proved an undeniable truth: Students value the flexibility of on-demand learning.

Oct 28 2021

Technology Offers K–12 Families 24/7/365 Access to Learning

Flexible scheduling is gaining ground as districts leverage the tools they adopted for the pandemic.

It wasn’t just that students were starting to log on to the school network in Southern Florida from Germany, China and parts of the Caribbean, it was the dramatically different times they were logging on that made Phillip Dunn II pause.

The Broward County Public Schools CIO vividly remembers the shift. “On Friday, March 13, 2020, we shut down, and within the first couple of weeks we were watching the usage patterns of students and educators in our learning management system,” he recalls. “We started seeing this weird, huge spike around 10 at night. And as we were drilling into it, we realized our kids want to learn on demand.”

“They don’t necessarily want a schedule dictated to them,” he says. “They want us to be prepared to deliver the learning services they need, whenever they feel they need them. We also saw a little bit of a blip at 1 a.m., we’d see a spike at 6 a.m., and we’re thinking some kids get up early to get a jump on the day.”

For Dunn, the pandemic wasn’t the cause of a lot of the technological changes now happening in education. However, he does see it as a catalyst for change — one that is shifting K–12 education from a provider-based model where students have to physically attend class at prescribed times to that of a platform-based model that empowers students to learn anytime, anywhere.

A growing number of K–12 leaders agree: The school day is no longer limited to the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., and learning is no longer tied to a building.

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K–12 Leaders Embrace a Motto of Commitment and Flexibility

Many administrators and teachers say that the tools that they’ve leaned on throughout the pandemic, and the feedback they’ve received from students and their families, have caused them to re-evaluate their previous assumptions about education.

At Broward County Public Schools, which serves more than 200,000 students, school leaders have embraced the slogan “Learning Never Closes” to show their commitment to learning anytime, anywhere.

“Officially, we’re back to 100 percent in-person school, but we also recognize we should be ready for anything and have the digital resources to be flexible,” says Dunn.

Those technologies include the Lenovo laptops the district distributed to students in the early days of the pandemic, the learning management system, and the pan-tilt-zoom cameras that remain in district classrooms.

Now, Dunn says, the district is prepared to return to remote learning at a moment’s notice, but it’s also ready to adapt to other potential scenarios. “If we have homebound students, or students who need to quarantine, or if someone needs to miss a day or two of school for any reason, we can still provide some continuity of instruction to the physical classroom,” he explains. “The teacher can just broadcast what is going on in the class.”

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Districts Work Toward Built-In Flexibility

In Upper Darby School District in Pennsylvania, Technology Director Robert Hilinski says technology has made a lasting impact on when and where students learn.

After school ended last June, the district surveyed families and found that many wanted at least some virtual learning for the 2021-2022 academic year. Prior to the pandemic, they’d already lost hundreds of potential students who’d enrolled in fully virtual charter schools, and they realized the exodus would likely continue if they didn’t make significant changes.

20%

The percentage of U.S. school districts that have already adopted, plan to adopt, or are considering adopting permanent virtual learning opportunities as a result of their experience during the pandemic

Source: RAND, “Remote Learning Is Here to Stay,” December 2020

“We recognize that for most of our students, the best way for them to learn is in person,” Hilinski says. “However, some families prefer their kids to be at home, and now we have the resources to provide them that option. We’re fortunate to have the technology in place to offer flexibility to our community.”

Upper Darby now permits any student who wants to remain virtual to do so while everyone else is learning in person, Hilinski says. Students at the district’s only high school are also now required to complete some asynchronous classwork from home.

The school pushed out its start time to 9:45 a.m. so that students can complete digital lessons in the early morning, before their in-person classes begin.

“A few years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. Now, we can let them make choices about the kind of education they want,” Hilinski says.

The tech that allows this flexibility includes thousands of Chromebooks first distributed to students for remote learning in 2020. The IT team took those devices back this past summer, as most districts do, to repair them and give them security updates. However, they made one crucial change — almost immediately, they returned the Chromebooks to students along with hotspots for those who needed internet access.

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The district encouraged students at all grade levels to use their devices for learning during the summer months by posting links to digital resources such as animal videos by National Geographic Kids and online math and AP biology programs.

Meanwhile, Hilinski says, thanks to the district’s pivot to hybrid learning during the pandemic and beyond, every classroom across its 14 schools is equipped with the tools instructors need to teach students wherever they are. “They’ve got two PTZ cameras and a speakerphone, and they each have a big external monitor, so when the kids join from home, the teacher can see everyone’s face at once,” he explains.

Vital Online Services Allow Students to Succeed

Ensuring students are successful regardless of where and when they learn is also a top priority at Austin Independent School District in Texas, which offers K–6 students a fully virtual learning option, says CTO Sean Brinkman. In the spring, he notes, the plan is to have everyone return to in-person instruction.

“We’re looking at this as a stopgap measure to get us through until there are vaccination opportunities for all of our elementary students,” he explains.

Like many other districts, once the pandemic forced a shift to distance learning, Austin ISD went fully one-to-one. Students are now allowed to keep their Chromebooks year-round and are told to take them home after school, over the weekends and on breaks.

Robert "Bob" Hilinski
A few years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. Now, we can let them make choices about the kind of education they want.”

Robert Hilinski Technology Director, Upper Darby School District

To ensure students have access to educational opportunities no matter where they use their devices, the district also rolled out a long list of app-based digital technologies that students access through their customized learning management system. That LMS, Brinkman notes, will be the main conduit for virtual learning moving forward, but the district also plans to use it to expand its work with students who need additional support outside of school.

“Our homebound services, counseling serv­ices, the services we provide around mental health — they’ve all been very traditionally face to face, and now we’re starting to see they don’t have to be that way,” he says.

By consulting with at least some of those students on virtual platforms like Zoom or Google Meet, visiting teachers, counselors and psychologists at Austin ISD may find those meetings easier to schedule. “You don’t have to travel from campus to campus to see the person you need to see, or if you’re a student who’s stuck in the hospital, maybe you won’t have to wait all week for a time when your teacher can come out to work with you,” Brinkman explains.

Looking ahead, Brinkman anticipates this “anytime, anywhere” approach to learning will eventually seem normal and come to be expected. The pandemic taught everyone — his department included — how important digital connectivity can be, he says. And now that they’ve made that connectivity happen? “It’s just a matter of deciding what we want to do next.”

More Choices, More Learning Opportunities

This semester, Genevra Walters, superintendent of Kankakee High School District 111 in Illinois, says the district is allowing its students to choose for themselves which educational model works best for them. “We’re offering remote, hybrid and traditional K–12, but even within that traditional structure, we’ve made some big changes from what we had before,” she says.

DIVE DEEPER: Discover the digital shift in K–12 education.

The scheduling framework, which the district calls “Family Choice,” relies on Chromebooks and technologies such as Zoom and Google Classroom to let students and their families pick the learning approach they prefer.

For example, one option — similar to home schooling — allows students to work from home on their own, but receive remote support one school day each week and additional remote instruction on Saturdays. Students who opt for blended learning, on the other hand, receive a combination of remote instruction and face-to-face time with classmates and teachers.

And finally, for those who take the traditional approach: in-person school four days per week, plus a flexible fifth day of learning that can be either remote or in-person. Remote tutoring is also offered in the evenings for those students who require it, Walters says. “We’re doing everything we can to help our students succeed by allowing them to learn in ways that fit their needs.”

Photography by Sonya Revell. Illustration by felizlife/Getty Images