Ed-Tech Considerations for Back-to-School

June 23, 2020 Daren Worcester

Banner graphic showing a teacher in a hybrid learning environment.

Episode 75 of the Get Connected podcast welcomes Alex Inman, president of Educational Collaborators, and Ally Wenzel, director of technology at Stevenson School, along with Hiram Cuevas, the director of academic technology at St. Christopher's School as our Advisory Board co-host. 

In this episode, we discuss the challenges that IT teams and educators are facing this summer as they plan for the uncertainty of back-to-school amidst COVID-19. Topics include:

  • Adapting to mastery and project-based learning approaches for distance learning environments;
  • Ed-tech and teaching considerations for the hybrid approach;
  • The impact of possible budget cuts on ed-tech planning for hybrid and remote models;
  • Processes for evaluating new ed-tech tools;
  • Health and safety concerns for IT departments;
  • And the silver lining of the distance-learning experience.

Get Connected to this discussion by listening to the podcast above, downloading the episode, or listening on iTunes, Google Play, iHeartRadio, or Spotify.

Transcript (Edited)

Alex Inman [Intro]: I really think that schools are going to need to pay much closer attention to mastery approaches and project-based learning approaches because it's going to be very hard to keep all students both engaged and on the same sort of timeframe as we deal with the unexpected.

Daren Worcester: Greetings, and welcome back to the Blackbaud K–12 Get Connected podcast. I'm Daren Worcester, and today my advisory board co-host is none other than Hiram Cuevas, director of academic technology at St. Christopher's school in Richmond, Virginia. Hiram, how are you doing today?

Hiram Cuevas: I'm, well, Daren, thank you so much for having us. 

Daren Worcester: Hiram, I think the first question off the bat is, am I getting better at pronouncing your surname?

Hiram Cuevas: Absolutely. It works for me.

Daren Worcester: Nailed it or close enough?

Hiram Cuevas: Well, if you want to say it's similar to Cuervo. Cuevas—you got it.

Daren Worcester: I'm gonna get it one of these days.

Hiram Cuevas: I think it might be your Northeastern accent more than anything else.

Daren Worcester: My down Maine-ah accent is disruptive there. You can only hide so much. Hiram, our guests today—we've got a couple of great ones—is Alex Inman, he's the president of Educational Collaborators, as you very well know, and Ally Wenzel. She's the director of technology at Stevenson School—they've got a couple of campuses in Pebble Beach and Carmel, California. And they're coming on to talk to us about various tech considerations for schools as they're doing their back to school planning, which, no doubt at St. Christopher's, you guys are probably more than knee-deep in at this point.

Hiram Cuevas: Absolutely. I'm actually thrilled to have both of them on, there's a lot of experience with our two guests. And some of the things that we'll likely touch on will be things like the use of your LMS within your school, standardization of processes, managing communications, safety considerations with technology and the hybrid classroom—challenges that we may be experiencing come this academic year. But hopefully, we can end it on a positive note and find out what gems we were able to take away from this whole process in terms of what has worked out really well as a result.

Daren Worcester: Absolutely. I'm really looking forward to this. You and I have had some good conversations offline about it that perhaps I should have recorded. So let's bring them in and get this conversation going.

Hiram Cuevas: Excellent.

Daren Worcester: Let's start by having each of you tell us a little bit about yourselves and your organization's Ally, why don't you go first, please? 

Ally Wenzel: My name is Ally Wenzel. I'm the director of technology at Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, California. I've been with Stevenson for 21 years. And Stevenson is a PK–12 independent school with two campuses. We have a campus that is PK–eight, and then a 9–12 campus, which is boarding and day.

Daren Worcester: Great, thank you. Alex, how about yourself?

Alex Inman: I'm the president and founder of Educational Collaborators. We're global though mostly U.S.-based ed-tech consulting and professional development company, but similar to Ally and Hiram, I spent 20 years working in schools as a classroom teacher, lab coordinator, tech director, CIO, senior administrator. Most of my work was in independent schools. I worked at the University of Lake School in Wisconsin, Whitfield in St. Louis, and Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C.

Daren Worcester: Wonderful. Can you tell us a little bit more about Educational Collaborators and the services that you offer schools?

Alex Inman: So as an ed-tech consulting and professional development company, we can kind of help schools with whatever technology need they have. But most of our work is either with Google or Microsoft—we're a premiere professional learning partner with both of those organizations. And then right now, really, most of the work that we're doing is helping schools with instructional continuity and getting ready to come back in the fall.

Daren Worcester: Excellent, thank you. We're certainly going to be talking a lot about that today.

Hiram Cuevas: Alex and Ally, now that schools have some experience dealing with distance learning under their belts, what are some of the things and takeaways that have worked? And some of the things that we have found that that didn't work quite so well? And what are some of the things that schools need to think about in terms of preparation for back to school? I know there are all sorts of models that are being generated from a variety of sources. But where are you all at in terms of your thinking regarding this? Why don't you start for us Ally?

Ally Wenzel: What we've discovered is that—we did a very quick pivot in three days essentially—and a faculty that has been really dedicated to their craft, passionate about the well being of their students, really helped us because many independent schools, like us, have been fortunate to have those resources to do a quick pivot to what we called emergency online or distance learning. That's mostly because we're in affluent communities where families are more likely to have computers, good Wi-Fi at home. And more often than not, the home environment is actually conducive to learning.

The younger students, they really need that connection with their teacher and the community. The middle and high school students enjoy the small group work breakouts to connect with their peers. But we employed several tools that we found worked really well at adding variety such as Flipgrid, Edpuzzle, Kahoot!, those were really successful. The part that didn't work so well was the social-emotional aspects of children being in school is really vital to their thriving and when you take away their social network, their community of friends and teachers, and even the facilities themselves, everyone suffered, especially the students. And again, those littles as we call them, the PK–3 students, they really struggled because they don't really have that cognitive capacity to understand what's really going on.

So while the schools have done everything in their power to continue the academic and extracurricular pieces, doing these all remotely, everyone soon obviously got the Zoom fatigue. We found through surveys also that—especially at the high school level—long, instructor-led lectures were very unpopular just like they are in face-to-face, and also longterm projects where there weren't milestones for students became really problematic for students.

And when we think about preparation for coming back to school, there's such a multitude of factors that schools need to be thinking about and preparing for. Obviously, we're all planning for multiple scenarios, because we really just don't know how the landscape is going to change from week to week. It's so fluid right now. In different parts of the country are in different stages of reopening, high-density populations or any large gatherings are going to create spikes after exposure.

So there are so many things to be thinking about, but I feel that what's really important is to take what we've learned and then figure out what the expectations are going to be moving forward for teachers, and then also taking into account the security and safety of the staff and the students and then doing the planning. As we all know, we're all in the thick of this right now. And it's just difficult to be planning for multiple scenarios. Alex, how about you? 

Alex Inman: I really want to kind of key off that word expectations. So with Educational Collaborators, I'm not in one school, we work with a variety of schools. And so I've seen some pretty widely varied implementations across schools, public and private. The thing that I would say probably had the biggest impact on schools' likelihood to be successful or at least satisfactory in this last quarter was whether or not they had a one-to-one program. Did all students have access to a device—and not just after this, but they had it beforehand so there was an established program?

And then the other thing was, was there good cultural practices around the regular use of a learning management system. Those two factors seem to have a huge impact on whether or not you had a successful Q4. If you already had a one-to-one program, digital literacy was established amongst your students. They were comfortable with the devices. And so it opened up a world of possibilities.

And the other thing was, communication was chaotic for everyone, even the best-prepared schools. So having regular channels of communication and a learning management system where teachers knew where to go to put their assignments, students knew where to go to get them, everyone knew where to go to get them graded, and manage the communication expectations. Those were huge. Those are two things I saw sort of retrospectively.

Now as we begin to think about what we should be doing going forward. I've sort of chunked this into three buckets. I went on a hike this morning, so I had time to think about these things and organize them, and so I'm calling this sort of the three C's of instructional continuity. And it's culture, capital expenses and curricular support, those are your three C's. So these things have to be thought about addressed and organized going into this, or this is what I've seen schools start to do, and how we're organizing how we are supporting schools in this.

First is culture, and that's what Ally was talking about. Before you really develop the plans, you've got to have the expectations. And as I've talked to a lot of schools, they have not at this point clarified—what are the expectations of our teachers? What are the expectations of our students? What are the learning goals and what's sort of the bar that we're setting for them, which is crucial to lowering anxiety, and then help people start feeling like they can be a little more productive.

That's the culture side—those expectations, the people side of things, the flexibility, the capital equipment, that's your building, and I know we're going to talk a little bit more about some of the physical space, but how are you using your physical space? What is the infrastructure that's necessary for that? What are the systems that you were using? This is where learning management systems come in. And cybersecurity, you know, have you identified the cybersecurity risks associated with your environment? And how are you doing that?

And then on the curricular support, if we know what the expectations are, what does that mean for assessment? What does that mean for instruction? And then what does that mean for the tools that you're going to use? And the teacher and student literacy around those curricular tools in order to get it done? That's kind of where my head is as we're approaching this upcoming fall.

Daren Worcester: Thanks, Alex. We appreciate that. And I wanted to key-in on your point about expectations. I really leave this question open to all three of you. How are you guys envisioning expectations from your families changing as you go from everybody pretty much being very understanding, for the most part, knowing that this was a situation that came on fast and everybody in the schools did the best they could to adapt to it? But now with schools facing a summer to prepare for the fall, is there a degree of feeling pressure that there's going to be higher parent expectations? And what does that mean from a tech preparation standpoint? Alex, you can probably go first since you were the one on the expectations.

Alex Inman: So I also serve on a board of trustees for a private school, and we're very fortunate in that the school did very well. And so the expectation is to maintain that and figure out how to take advantage of the face to face as that becomes available, right. But they have very high expectations because fortunately, the school was able to set high expectations through the fourth quarter.

We have talked to schools that did not do well in the fourth quarter, particularly states and schools that had the do-no-harm grading where your grade could not go down, only go up as a result of this. The motivation of teachers and students in the do-no-harm grading environments was simply terrible. And parents were upset. And so the expectation is that teachers are going to be expected to teach, regardless of whether it's in the class or face to face or some sort of hybrid, and that their students are going to be learning and that there is more support for parents. That if learning is going to be happening at home, that the school provides parents much better support in creating those learning environments.

Daren Worcester: Thank you. Ally or Hiram, do either you have anything to add to that?

Hiram Cuevas: I would say that I know at our school, we have seriously looked at our parent education piece, as well as our student and faculty PD. We need to look at all three of those constituent groups carefully because they all have distinct needs and we're all trying to serve our students best and we're seeing where the holes are. And we're trying very, very hard to fill them. I know some really simple things to assist are to use Ally's term, the littles, I have found our lower school environment, particularly the JK–2, sometimes third grade, to be the most challenging environment as we move forward with this process.

Daren Worcester: As a parent, from my perspective, I was excited for school to get out thinking that that was going to give us a break, but I'm actually finding it more challenging with our elementary-age student, keeping him busy now that they're getting out of school and being more disruptive during the workday. So, I think, for one, I almost took for granted all the great work that the school was doing with them and keeping them busy. Ally, how about yourself? Did you want to weigh in on that?

Ally Wenzel: Sure. The scenario of a hybrid approach is probably going to be the most likely scenario for most schools if they want to be safe and minimize, you know, spikes, etc. But what do we need to consider? And all the schools are obviously in the thick of this discussion right now where there was a lot of pressure on IT to make that pivot and we did it. But now that we have some time to think about it, we really do need to pull back and, again, Alex was speaking about this, but understanding what worked, what didn't from the student, parent, and teacher perspective and then determine the expectations for learning moving forward.

Really, the bottom line is that good teaching is good teaching in any model. And so how do we adapt? It was really interesting to me to watch some of the veteran teachers, for example, they were able to adapt, and then others were not. What are some of the aspects of good teaching that we found as we pivoted that we can bring back into a face-to-face or a hybrid model? You know, for example, getting rid of those traditional tests and quizzes, getting rid of those long lectures, all of those sorts of things that just don't work anymore really were emphasized from my perspective.

When we did this pivot, everybody was a first-year teacher putting in many more hours and effort into their teaching. And so it behooves us all to really step back and not just focus on what IT do we need to make this all work, we have to analyze the data—and again, go back to the expectations for teachers and families too and really provide that professional development for best practices for the faculty to be successful. And it's only then that we can really understand what technology and infrastructure are needed to support the vision and the mission of the school going forward.

Daren Worcester: Thank you, Ally. I love that comparison to everybody being a first-year teacher. I think that really nails what the environment for everyone was like. Alex, you had your hand up. Did you want to comment further on that?

Alex Inman: There's one kind of specific area that we have been exploring more with schools, and it kind of goes across the culture, the capital, and the curriculum piece. And that is Allie saying that good teaching is good teaching reminded me of this—I really think that schools are going to need to pay much closer attention to mastery approaches and project-based learning approaches because it's going to be very hard to keep all students both engaged and on the same sort of timeframe as we deal with the unexpected. And the challenge there is there are a lot of teachers who just flat out aren't really trained nor prepared to approach their content from a mastery or project-based learning environment. And so there really is sort of a cultural piece that needs to be discussed there.

The next thing is Canvas has a decent gradebook with regards to standards. But outside of Canvas, there really aren't very many assessment tools that are focused around mastery recording and mastery grading. So there's a newer tool called Mastery Portfolio that I recently saw, and I think that does a nice job of getting there. But then on the curriculum support side, teachers need to be trained. If you're going to have a more flexible project-based mastery kind of approach, teachers need to be trained on that approach, on the tools for that approach, and you need to have systems for that.

For the most part, we've kind of been saying, hey, look, stick with your core tools, don't go out and get a whole lot of new tools. But if your expectations are changing in a way that you don't have the pieces to do that well, then I think you're going to have to need to start looking at some different tools. And that whole approach to project-based learning and mastery transcript, I think, is one of those areas. I want to now throw that question sort of back to Hiram and Ally, are you guys thinking about PBL and mastery approaches and standards-based approaches for the upcoming year?

Hiram Cuevas: So we are considering it in our ninth grade, we're deploying some competency-based learning initiatives with our nines. And actually, the timing—you happen to mention Canvas, but the timing is actually quite good because Blackbaud is actually launching its competency-based learning module as part of its assessment strategy this month, actually, I believe, if I'm not mistaken. And so there's some really good news in that front.

What's interesting about the whole PBL and the competency-based approach, and I've been asking our college counselors is, how will this impact the college process in terms of what the admissions officers at the higher ed level are used to receiving? And what does that new transcript look like? And how can they ascertain certain levels of skills and content that they've been able to master while they're in the independent school? That's probably going down a totally different track that we could probably spend another podcast discussing that. But that's something that I know I've been wondering about as well because it might be a bubble-up approach, but I hope there's some acceptance at the higher ed level.

Daren Worcester: Hiram, I can confirm that Blackbaud's competency-based education functionality is coming out at the end of this month—being June. I feel like I need an ad or jingle from Jackie Christiansen cut in here somewhere. But in lieu of that, I can confirm that the features are coming and we're very excited about it. Ally, you have your hand up, did you have more to add?

Ally Wenzel: The teachers that were the most successful with the transition allowed students to choose their method to demonstrate mastery. In other words, they were able to not just take a test or a quiz but to do a video or a Flipgrid or a podcast or something. That was their choice. And the students really liked that. We're very concerned about already overwhelming teachers that are exhausted from the pivot. So we have to be very careful about how much we're going to be putting on teachers, especially in light of—independent schools don't know what the actual admits are going to look like when tuitions come due in July.

If we're going to have less admits or less people coming to school that might affect—you know, that everybody's going to have to take a pay cut or—we don't know but these are all things that all schools are dealing with. So we don't want to lose teachers either, because they're saying, "Oh my God, this is just too much, I can't do this." So we're trying to leverage the tools that were successful, and just go without, but also setting the bar higher for what the expectation is and how we teach what that pedagogy looks like.

Alex Inman: So Hiram, it's awesome to learn that the standards-based module is coming out for Blackbaud. I think that really goes to the core of what I was saying earlier, where—don't add new tools if you don't have to. Try to keep it as easy and as familiar to your faculty as possible. So if you're already using Blackbaud, that is the perfect thing to add if you are considering standards-based grading in the fall. 

Daren Worcester: I believe Ally was the first one earlier to mention the hybrid school approach. So let's transition to that for a little bit. Because me personally, and Hiram and I had a big long conversation on this the other day that I probably should have recorded, but I've been very skeptical of this approach. So I'm curious if you guys can make the argument or if you agree that it's not a realistic option. But what would schools need to consider from the IT standpoint for schools to pull that off?

Hiram Cuevas: I'm actually happy to start, Daren, because we did have that conversation the other day. I think it's probably going to be the most challenging environment to date for our teachers. Because not only are you dealing with all of the needs of your students on-premise but now you also have to consider those students that are in a remote environment. It's difficult enough to manage one, but now to be expected to manage both in addition to things like differentiation of instruction and how you do that in those two environments. The assessment piece, the communication piece, there are so, so many factors that have tendrils associated with just a regular classroom that now to introduce a second format, in addition to the health concerns, are going to be extremely challenging to our schools.

Daren Worcester: Thank you, Hiram. Great point. Ally, you have your hand up. Was that left from before? Or do you want to jump in?

Ally Wenzel: It was left from before, but I'm happy to jump in. I totally agree with everything that Hiram said and depending on your physical facilities, there's just truths about what you can and can't do. If you have small classrooms, the physical distancing, and then having some people remote, I completely agree that that's an extremely challenging situation. In some of the research and the chatter on different listservs, there was one teacher who has been doing this for about five years, the hybrid kind of environment, to serve a specific population. And what he said, which I thought was interesting, was that if we do have to go that way, what would be really beneficial to all students is to really focus on the students that are remote. So for example, you may have a Zoom meeting up with the kids that are in Zoom up on the screen so that they're like part of the classroom. But you kind of give them more attention than the kids that are in class because the kids are in class are going to get it anyway. But that way you don't forget them. Otherwise, he said, it's better to just do asynchronous with those that are remote.

Daren Worcester: That's a great point. I like that. Alex, did you have anything to add to this part of the conversation?

Alex Inman: Not much. I think what Hiram and Ally said is excellent. And I really agree that it's going to be difficult for teachers who have students in their class—again in front of them and have been so hungry for that for the last several months—to prioritize that world. One, it's more familiar to them; two, it's what they want. In many cases, really, that's why they went into teaching is that interaction, but Ally is right, or I really think that she's right, that the instructional design needs to be focused on the remote learner. And we need to be thinking about the face-to-face opportunities is almost like gravy because it's going to be difficult. The things that you're doing face-to-face that you can't do online are going to be very difficult to sort of catch people up with. And so they really need to be thought of as sort of extra opportunity rather than the core of the instructional design.

Hiram Cuevas: Alex, I actually have a question, follow-up question for you, as a trustee, and a parent, would you see that if you're a parent paying full freight and you're sending your kids to school, and now the focus is on the remote environment, rather than the on-prem environment, do you think that there is going to be some parent pushback as a result?

Alex Inman: No, is the short answer, but you triggered sort of an assumption that I'm making that I think needs to be said. I think it's extraordinarily important that even when you open your campus if you expect or intend to do a hybrid kind of environment at all, and that you intend to support that—set up a structure so that every student has a remote experience. And if they can take advantage of a face-to-face experience, so that the parents and the students understand from a first-person perspective, by being the remote learner, that that design benefits them, so that you don't have people who are only face-to-face, learning face-to-face and feeling slighted because some things they're being asked to do online or some things they're being asked to do in a different way in order to accommodate those remote learners. You want them to be a remote learner. Even though everyone was a remote learner in Q4, I think it's important in that first quarter to give everyone sort of a taste of that—rotate your students, etc.

But from your own communication standpoint, this is now the trustee speaking. You know, from a communication standpoint, it's important to let your parents know what are the expectations that you have for your teachers and your students so that they know what is happening as well. Parents are going to have very different expectations if you don't tell them what the school's expectations are, so make sure that those are part of your communication plan. 

Hiram Cuevas: Absolutely, thank you. So Ally and Alex, and Ally, you're specifically going to be able to discuss your school, and Alex, you have the benefit of being involved with many schools. If budgets are cut, how do you think that's going to impact—well, not only the hybrid school, but the day-to-day operations of the traditional and non-traditional classroom spaces, IT instruction, and all the factors that we deal with on a regular basis as technology leaders?

Ally Wenzel: Budgets are going to be stretched in many areas regardless—the lower enrollment potential reality, the greater need for safety majors, the cleaning, possibly testing and quarantining. We're a boarding school also so we have to consider that and even the social distancing. So the whole picture really needs to be planned for carefully and prioritizing, obviously, the safety of the staff and the faculty and the students, and just good teaching. So it's definitely going to be a balancing act.

That's why I think that as we're all diving into this and trying to figure it out, we need to be wary about running out and buying a bunch of stuff. Because the budgets are going to be tight, they're going to be tight regardless. But I think we just need to first figure out what is good teaching, how to implement that, regardless of what model we're in. And then if we do have to use non-traditional classroom spaces, we obviously will have to put in the infrastructure to be able to make that work. You know, for example, if you have tents out on a field or bringing in portables or whatever you have to get the network to those buildings, and whiteboards or chalkboards and projection equipment.

So there will be definitely cost, but it's a balancing act, right? Because it's all-important, but we don't want to be hasty, and at the same time, there's going to be more and more shortages I think of things. We've already seen the supply shortage of remote learning tools. And anything that's made in China is just, I think, going to get worse. So it's going to be interesting to see how this rolls out. It's something that I personally am trying to figure out how to balance—not diving in too quickly, but getting there quickly enough that you can actually get the infrastructure built that you need.

Hiram Cuevas: And Alex, how about you?

Alex Inman: I think schools are entering a difficult time. So I agree with everything that Ally said, there really are going to be some challenges. Schools are going to need to start to figure out where it is that they can make cuts because some of the things like systems and cleaning space—not only can they not be cut, you're likely to be increasing your costs in those areas. There may be an opportunity here.

So first off, it's always good if schools can get by without having to cut salaries or cut people. And this is really more of a—not a cost-saving but a cost avoidance strategy is, if you have fewer students, some people are going to be very, very busy, and some people are going to be a lot less busy in this environment. And you're also going to have faculty and staff who are leaving for self-quarantine because they've got a spouse who maybe came into contact with somebody at work, and now they need to quarantine, and so you're going to have these rotating absences in your school. So perhaps the excess staff that we get from having decreased students, gives us internally the resources that we need to deal with the excess absences that are expected with this uncertainty.

And I fully recognize that this is a shameless plug, but we do a lot of ed-tech audits at Educational Collaborators, and I promise you, every single school that we work with has inefficiencies that can be routed out. And sometimes it's difficult to see that from the inside. And so having somebody from the outside with your planning can help you identify some internal efficiencies that you might not have been able to see or sometimes you saw, but they were too politically difficult to pull off. The upside is a crisis like this mitigates some of those political challenges.

But the other part is having somebody from the outside say, "Hey, I understand the value of this particular practice or this particular use of this particular person's time. But you don't need that in the same way right now. You can reallocate your processes or reallocate people, change your processes, and save a ton of money." 

Hiram Cuevas: All good points. All good points. Thank you, Alex.

Daren Worcester: One follow-up question I had to what Ally had said before regarding the shortage, what's the backup plan for schools if there's a key piece of tech that they need that they can't get?

Hiram Cuevas: Right now, we've been scouring the web for document cameras, we've got a big demand for that. We like to stay within the same model if possible, but there are all sorts of shortages on document cameras, and then the next level of document cameras is one and a half times more expensive. So you go from a $100 camera to a $250 camera. And so we're trying to avoid that. Fortunately, that is built in Taiwan—to Ally's point—it's amazing that I'm also trying to find out where different things are manufactured, not having much success in finding things manufactured outside of China when I'm dealing with potential shortages, but that's certainly one. In hearing from the various listservs and meetings that I've participated in outside of school, I'm starting to hear about some delays in owl cameras and swivel cameras in terms of utilizing in the hybrid environment as well. I haven't heard so much on the computer side of the house just yet, but it will be interesting to see how that operates.

Daren Worcester: Ally or Alex, either of you want to jump in on that?

Alex Inman: There was a surplus of Chromebooks and laptops that existed prior to this event. And what we are hearing is that almost all of the surplus across all of the major OEMs was bought up and that there is some concern amongst a variety of the OEMs that there is going to be a device shortage going into the fall and that shipments that would have typically come in in June, may not be coming in until August. And people ordering in July may not see their devices until September or even potentially later. You know, this hasn't come to reality yet, but there are some supply chain concerns that people are starting to voice.

Daren Worcester: Okay, thank you.

Hiram Cuevas: So Ally and Alex, what processes should schools put in place to review new ed-tech tools or software knowing that the general philosophy is to try to avoid adding new technology.

Alex Inman: I think they should make a significant effort to reach out to Hiram Cuevas and Bill Stites at ah [laughing]—the two experts that we at Educational Collaborators reach out to when we are asked that question. But I would say that there are some real privacy concerns, especially with free tools. Independent of all of this, we do suggest that schools have a software selection process, and that process needs to include people from the business office so they understand like—how freemium is this? When do the costs come in? And what does it cost to scale a tool?

And then the technology staff should be involved, looking particularly at the level of integration that the tool has with other tools to know if there's a duplication, because oftentimes, there are 12 different tools to do the same thing and you may already be licensing one—the IT staff generally knows that and can help you reallocate an existing tool. And then the other thing IT staff is going to do is look at privacy concerns associated with the tools that are being used and if they comply with the school cybersecurity policies—if the school has cybersecurity policies, and you should, and if you don't give me a call.

Ally Wenzel: Yes, I agree completely with everything Alex said. And also free tools were a real lifesaver for many, many schools in the pivot, but a lot of the free aspect of these tools has dried up. The good part about that is that we learned what worked well while we were in crisis mode. Google, for example, make huge efforts to help schools with many aspects of the G Suite, and those will continue to remain free mostly. But now that we have a little bit of time we can prioritize the purchase of licenses for tools that worked well so that we keep the number of platforms that are meant minimum. And as Alex was saying, make sure that the integration piece works with whatever LMS you are using—that's really critical, especially in terms of things like Single Sign-On, which is really important. And obviously, the cybersecurity and data privacy concerns also.

Hiram Cuevas: I think one of the greatest takeaways that Bill and I have said in presentations regarding this is that your school's SIS is the best protector of your student information—the heavy hitters that are out there. And so the integration to your SIS is perhaps one of the most important aspects that you can have when vetting these tools, and to ensure the safety of your student information. In terms of that vetting process, I find the biggest challenge there is getting that buy-in from your senior admins because often teachers in independent schools, the reason they're there is because they can function on their own and kind of go out and find what they need. It is really important to have a comprehensive plan in place so that they understand that when they do accept the terms of service, they're accepting those terms of service on behalf of the school, and all of the risks that are associated with it.

And so it is really important to get that buy-in because all you're doing is playing whack-a-mole. And unfortunately, I do worry for some schools that have gone down the free tool route and not necessarily paid really close attention to some of those terms of service and privacy concerns that they should be having for their students.

Alex Inman: Amen.

Hiram Cuevas: So moving on, with COVID still being a big issue for us going into the next academic year, what are some of the health and safety concerns that your IT teams need to consider for keeping themselves and the school community safe when distributing devices and some of the other safety concerns that might be out there that impact IT staffs.

Ally Wenzel: That's a really important question right now, especially for me as the director here, my team has mostly been working remotely. Living on campus, I get the privilege of being in the office. But before this even started, we kind of had a protocol of always using hand sanitizer after we touch anybody's keyboard because if we do have people on campus, you're gonna have to touch devices.

So it's just having good protocols in place for cleaning devices, cleaning your own hands, wearing masks. I've even thought about the whole plexiglass thing for the help desk. I don't really know that we would do that, but it is something to consider. We distributed devices in our lower and middle divisions that normally stay on campus, and we're having all of those be returned in brown paper bags with names on them and we'll let them sit for a little while and then take them out and clean them before we go through our process of cleaning them out and getting ready to send them back out again. But it's just always being aware that this device has been in somebody else's hands.

For me, it's not a whole lot different from what we've already been doing because—other than wearing your own mask—but just making sure you clean the device and you wash your hands.

Alex Inman: I have two little pieces to add to that. One is, as Ally said, a lot of the IT staffs have recognized the risks of transmission of illness from touch, right? And so, pretty much every helpdesk I know of has the Lysol wipes or something like that sitting around for keyboards and that kind of stuff. Oftentimes, those teams that have done that well, they take it for granted. You have something to offer to your broader school community, because there's also printers and copiers and libraries, and all sorts of places where touch wasn't a problem before but now may be a problem. And so I would encourage the tech directors to make sure that they are appropriately injecting themselves into the conversations to make sure that other areas of the school are practicing the level of hygiene that help desks do.

So that's one thing that I think is important. The other thing to think about, too, is that you're likely going to need to have different protocols for the people who are in school versus the people who are remote and coming in because you have less control over the environment that they were involved in. And so you want to make sure that you're just being mindful about developing a unique protocol for the unique audiences in your school community.

Daren Worcester: That's a great point. Thank you both. So as we start to come upon a time here, I'd like that we end on a positive note. When the pandemic is over what do you see as the silver-lining impact of this experience having on educational technology and how schools operate? Ally, let's start with you.

Ally Wenzel: The silver-lining impact on education technology and just the experience, for me, and for what I've seen so far is that it seems to be pushing up a competency and facility with the education technology that we've been really striving for many, many years. And it's really just kind of pushed that along. And those people that are interested in continuing to teach, frankly, are leveling up and those that aren't are going to probably drop off. But I think that people understand or they're starting to understand that education technology tools can really facilitate good teaching, regardless of the platform or the environment or the model that they are teaching.

Daren Worcester: Great. Thank you. Alex, how about yourself?

Alex Inman: I completely agree with Ally that I've heard a lot of schools say that this crisis was the catalyst necessary to help teachers recognize the real value of good teaching and learning. Not that they weren't trying before, but there were many things that they were not taking advantage of because they were comfortable and doing well enough. And well enough wasn't good enough when you weren't with your students. And so it forced teachers to begin to become less reliant on their presentation skills, and more reliant on instructional design, which we know helps more learners more deeply. So focusing on instructional design is one of the huge silver lining takeaways from this.

I think another one, is having spent 20 years as a school tech person, you really get to know every aspect of the operation as the technology person. As the technology director, you are really involved in almost every aspect of the organization's operations. There were still, coming into this crisis, in my mind, a high number of senior administrations who did not recognize the power and potential of a good tech director who really understood all the operations. And one thing that this crisis has done is elevate the role of the tech director to help the school with strategic solutions to real serious problems. And I think that that will not be forgotten and that many schools will tap those people to do great work in the future.

Hiram Cuevas: I would say at my school, the level of conversation—types of conversations—that we have been having regarding pedagogy and relationships with students, relationships with each other, have just been a godsend. We've needed to have these kinds of conversations. We were always having them but not to the extent that truly was getting to the crux of some major issues. Something as simple as standardization of function, and that could be from an operational perspective, from a pedagogical perspective, or a communication perspective. Each of those things were impacted just by having a simple conversation about standardization and the depth that that conversation would go has just been really a lifesaver for me.

Because every tech director that I have spoken to is always challenged by—this is what we believe, this is what we know makes really good, efficient use of everyone's time, but sometimes people just don't do it. This has been a wonderful opportunity for everyone to really be on board because the community is of critical importance to a school. And this has really been one of the things that has worked incredibly well at St. Christopher's.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. Thank you, Hiram, Ally, and Alex, I really appreciate all of you joining the podcast today. This has been a great discussion. I think it'll be very helpful for a lot of schools. So, once again, thank you guys for your participation.

Alex Inman: Thanks for having me. 

Ally Wenzel: Thank you.

Hiram Cuevas: Thank you all, much appreciated. 

Daren Worcester: Thank you all again, I hope you all stay safe and for everybody listening—you as well. We'll hope to catch you in the next episode.

About the Author

Daren Worcester

Daren Worcester has been a member of the Blackbaud K-12 team for 17 years, assisting hundreds of independent schools through a variety of website development roles. A former copywriter and a published author with an appetite for SEO, Daren currently serves as the senior content marketing manager for K-12.

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