By Charlene Ammons
Remote learning has been a venture that quite frankly no one truly wanted to embrace, and yet for many individuals, it has become a saving grace in the midst of the unknown. For remote learning to be a successful endeavor, though, there were and continue to be many moving parts, including surveys and sign-ups, access, platforms, delivery of instruction, and continuous technology support.
Surveys and sign-ups were conducted in order to determine the demand for remote learning. These surveys and sign-ups were critical to the decision making processes to follow.
Great Falls Public Schools made every effort to communicate the availability of these surveys and sign-ups through the media, as the District takes its responsibility to provide a quality and equitable public education to all seriously.
However, deadlines were necessary to move the decision making processes forward as the beginning of the school year quickly neared.
In order to ensure that students who needed to participate in remote learning could do so, GFPS had to consider the best methods of providing access with both devices and Internet service. Negotiations followed, with schools determining how many devices could be available for checkout while still offering access in the face-to-face classrooms and balancing good stewardship of District-purchased resources that may or may not be returned. GFPS also worked with T-Mobile to offer hotspots for checkout as well.
Next steps included determining how best to set up these devices for access when outside the District network. Technicians from the GFPS Informational Technology department needed to both configure, sanitize and package every device to prepare it for checkout. Instructional technology coaches and the IT director worked to prepare a reasonable contract to provide accountability and compliance with the District’s Acceptable Use Guidelines, as outlined in the Student Handbook, to include in the checkout process. District leadership, building administrators and instructional technology coaches then had to determine a checkout process that would comply with the COVID-19 recommended protocols.
Preparation for checking out devices and hotspots can seem like a simple process, yet it requires careful planning and execution to minimize disruptions to learning.
Another consideration Great Falls Public Schools needed to work through is what platforms would be best for delivering instruction. Enrollment numbers for remote learning and the corresponding number of required educators influenced the choices GFPS could consider. With one teacher assigned to over a hundred students for each grade level kindergarten through sixth grade, the District began seeking a solution which could help deliver instruction without overtasking the teacher.
Secondary teachers, ninth through twelfth grades, must comply with state requirements mandating teachers must have specific endorsements by subject area and limiting the number of students per teacher. GFPS has been using Moodle and Google Classroom for several years, but students in kindergarten through sixth grades differ in capability as compared to students in seventh through twelfth grades, and as a result, one platform was not sufficient. Weeding through the advantages and disadvantages of the various platform options led to a final plan for both elementary and secondary.
Having a final plan did not indicate the end of the road, but actually meant teachers who were tasked with remote learning needed training on the selected platforms to best deliver instruction.
The previously mentioned steps in this lengthy preparation for remote learning prevented this necessary training from happening sooner rather than later, and as a result, much of the training happened as the school year began. Yet our educators rose to the occasion and spent many hours, during the duty day and beyond, participating in webinars, lesson planning and online lesson creation.
Due to unfortunate circumstances, the District experienced a cyber attack over Labor Day weekend, creating additional technology challenges and slowing the progress of the launch for remote learning. But again, our educators were not deterred from pursuing excellence in spite of the obstacles. Neither was our IT department.
Ongoing technical support was and continues to be necessary for remote learning. Educators and remote learning students alike regularly reach out for technical support, another component of the puzzle called remote learning. When dealing with online platforms, devices, and hotspots, it is inevitable that there will be technical issues.
GFPS offers technical support to its staff and students on the network, but now expanded their support to those off the network and participating in remote learning.
Again, troubleshooting expertise had to be developed, and collaboration became key as educators and technicians work together to ensure success for remote learners.
Technology is a driving force for remote learning. While it has a reputation for making life more efficient, technology is still a complicated application of devices and knowledge implemented by people.
From surveying to enrollment, from device access to learning platforms, from delivery of instruction to technical support, remote learning is a massive endeavor and a work in progress as we continue to face uncertain times. Yet Great Falls Public Schools remains committed to successfully educating students to navigate their futures and willingly working through the technology processes necessary for remote learning.