5 ed tech tips for school leaders, from a director of technology

Martin Cisneros is a district director of technology in San Jose, CA. You can follow him on Twitter @TheTechProfe.

I became a district director of technology because I’m passionate about edtech, and I wanted to have a hand in expanding blended learning practices. This school year, I’ve certainly gotten my wish.

I’m amazed by what educators are accomplishing right now, and I want to share what I’ve discovered about how school and district leaders can support our school communities with technology during distance learning.

Keep it simple: Choose one learning management system.

Just like everyone else, our teachers were sent what felt like hundreds of tools and resources to implement at the beginning of March. Talk about overwhelming – not just for teachers, but for students and families, too. 

Something we pushed at the district level was ensuring that everything was in one place online for students. We decided it was important that every student only needed to use one learning management system, so we chose Seesaw for K-2 and Google Classroom for older students. As soon as students log in, they go straight to the class portal, and they use one login for pretty much everything.  

We wanted to make sure it didn’t matter whether students had a “tech-y” family member at home. When the students received Chromebooks, they knew off the bat what to do. If your district is using multiple platforms, consider what you can do to help students and families streamline and manage their classes.

Offer ongoing webinars to teach families about technology.

In the spring, I held an optional Zoom training to help teachers get up and running with edtech, and almost 100 teachers showed up. It quickly became obvious that everyone was going to have a steep learning curve, and it dawned on me: It wasn’t just the teachers who needed this information – it was also families. 

So, I started hosting family webinars to walk through the technology and answer questions. Teachers adopted the same model on a smaller scale, building little screencasts showing families how to support students, with tips like, “This is how students can turn work in” and “This is how you can check your students’ work.” 

We also offer opportunities for families to come in and ask questions. Right now, communication is very, very critical.

Embrace practices like HyperDocs, which allow for effective teaching with less work.

Early on, teachers shared that distance learning made them feel like they were working all the time – and they also reported that student attention spans change drastically when they’re behind the screen.

Many teachers were trying to bring their face-to-face practices to the digital environment. For example, social studies teachers might try to get students to do an activity built around the social studies textbook – but then they’d realize that not all the students had textbooks. They would try to turn the textbook into PDFs or take photos of the pages, but that quickly created more problems: How would kids annotate? How could they get the class to consult the same part of the text at the same time during lessons? Moments like this would lead to the big “aha”:  Teachers had to realize that teaching in a blended environment means using new, interactive materials. 

The idea of creating new materials can feel overwhelming, so I encourage teachers to use streamlined strategies like HyperDocs. HyperDocs are basically digital lesson plans that contain all the content students need in one digital space. And even better, there are HyperDocs available online that teachers can adapt. (I would highly suggest referring the teachers on your team to the Teachers Give Teachers website, where any teacher can find and share HyperDocs for all topics and grade levels.)

A HyperDocs lesson typically contains six components: engage, explore, explain, apply, share and reflect. What’s exciting is that the components of the HyperDoc support the teaching best practices that teachers know are important, but don’t always happen during in-person lessons. 

We’re seeing the exploration focus give students more agency. They feel engaged, and the HyperDoc can even feel like a game board. Students might move through a text set or a multi-media activity, and then they apply their learning and create something to share with an audience beyond their teacher – maybe other students in their grade. And then that important reflection component is built in. 

I’ve been talking with a lot of teachers about how this approach actually pushes us to go a bit deeper. Before COVID, we would often skip components like exploration, reflection and sharing, even though we know they make learning more authentic. But using HyperDocs can actually be less work for the teachers and even lead to deeper learning.

Don’t get me wrong when I say “less” work – there’s still work. Of course teachers are customizing anything they find. But instead of delivering a 45-minute lecture, they’re creating activities that allow students to discover the content, and then the teachers can use those same activities again and again.

Assign non-teaching staff and volunteers to support small-group interactions.

At the beginning of distance learning, teachers noticed students talking with each other in the chat in ways that were off-task. As the tech director, I got a lot of calls asking, “Can you shut this down?” 

We had to take a step back and ask, “What is really going on here?” The fact is, the students just want to talk to one another. They didn’t get to see each other over the summer. They can’t meet up in the hallway between classes or after school. They’re just talking.

We understand that, for SEL purposes, students need a safe environment to connect with their peers. So we encourage teachers to include time during every class period for students to communicate with each other. Our district supports both Zoom and Google Meet, and Zoom has breakout rooms, which allow students to interact in small groups and also creates opportunities for teachers to interact individually with students.

What has made this especially positive is that we’ve gotten other adults involved. Students still need guidance in the small-group settings, and by assigning para educators, classroom volunteers, counselors, principals and vice principals, our whole community is able to feel involved in the classroom and meet the students’ need for interaction throughout the day.

Celebrate all the good work happening right now.

Some teachers in my district were already using blended learning practices before the pandemic, but many were brand-new to all of this. Some had never used Twitter, let alone explored much edtech. 

I haven’t talked with anyone who feels like every member of their school community has gotten the technology down perfectly, but we need to look at how far we’ve come within a matter of months. Teachers have really shown up this year. 

We’ve seen whole new types of collaboration – between grade levels, across content areas and with families. But this is still tough. We’re all still learning, but we have to remind the teachers we lead: They’ve done quite a bit in a short amount of time. Make sure to celebrate that.