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How Edtech Leaders Have Been Supporting Remote Learning

remote learning
(Image credit: iStock/scanrail)

No one could have foreseen the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on our schools to this scale. Some of the sharpest IT minds around the country have had to develop plans to distribute devices and Internet access to students rapidly, train staff, and become 24-hour tech support for their communities.

I recently interviewed six Educational Technology leaders from a variety of demographic areas across the country. Some had a version of 1:1 devices prior to this crisis, and they all use different tools for video conferencing and learning management systems (LMS). All have unique and common challenges that they need to overcome on a daily basis.

Shad McGaha, Chief Technology Officer, Wichita Falls ISD, Wichita Falls, TX

Adam Phyall, Director of Technology & Media Services, Newton County School System, Covington, GA

Kerry Gallagher, Assistant Principal for Teaching and Learning, St. John’s Prep Academy, Danvers, MA

Brent Wise, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Mariemont City School District, Cincinnati, OH

Brian Mull, Learning Design Coordinator, Trinity Episcopal School, New Orleans, LA

Andrew Wallace, Director of Technology, South Portland Maine Schools, Portland, ME

Key Takeaways

Distribution of devices to students 

Phyall: We didn’t have enough to provide every student with a device, so we started by giving one device to each family, which was checked out by each family’s oldest student.

McGaha: We refurbished more than 5,000 devices to be distributed. Parents completed the loan agreements that we use for our current 1:1 campuses, and then worked out a time with the campus to come and pick up the device.

Mull: Being a 1:1 school prior to this, many of our older students had taken the devices home. Elementary students who did not already have personal iPads at home were given their school iPad to use.

Wallace: We set up our gymnasium similar to a polling location. We spread out the devices to maintain social distancing and had a check-in area where families could come in during two designated days to pick up their child’s device.

Families without access

McGaha: We used our transportation department to distribute work packets to those students without WiFi access. We also installed some Kajeet Cradlepoints on our buses and put those in various locations throughout our district.

Wallace: We leveraged partnerships with local internet service providers to get access into the households identified as having a need. As parts of our community are densely grouped, we also asked neighbors to grant access to their networks for their school-aged neighbors.

Remote support

Mull: We’re using TeamViewer on all devices so if there’s an issue, students can send me their ID and passcode and I can connect to see what the issue is. If there’s a bigger issue, we have someone in our school front office on Tuesdays and Thursdays for one hour. Families can bring in a broken laptop and exchange it for a spare if that’s the step we recommend to them.

Wallace: If a device is broken, we’ve set up lockers on the outside of our central building, and whenever a student needs a repair, we assign a locker number and give them a temporary code to exchange the broken device with a replacement. We then put the device in a quarantine of sorts for a few days and wipe it down before attempting to repair.

Phyall: We use Chrome Remote Desktop to troubleshoot remotely, but if it’s a larger issue, we have them complete a form with their home address. I have technicians who can go to the home and deliver a replacement (using gloves and masks) to their front step and pick up the broken device. 

Gallagher: When we started seeing more of a need for video conferencing as a way to support both students and staff, we invested much of our efforts in getting teachers educated on the proper use of Zoom. They were required to get a “driver’s license” of sorts through a brief training and tutorial to avoid many of the pitfalls, such as “Zoom-bombing.”

Retrieval of devices

Mull: Normally, we collect all devices at the end of each school year to hold for the summer. If we’re still in a stay-at-home situation, we probably won’t collect any, as these devices do provide our kids with the socialization they need while being isolated. 

Phyall: We’re handing out devices that may never come back and we have to be prepared for that while at the same time communicating with families about the importance of maintaining and caring for the devices. My immediate thought is that we would set up a system similar to our distribution in which there would be drop-off locations throughout our county for families to return devices. 

Wallace: We’re working with campus principals and are using buses to deliver replacement devices as needed, so that could be easily turned into a pick-up situation with the proper communication. 

Unique challenges

Phyall: Our plan was to distribute one device per family, but we already encountered a family with eight school-aged kids. So I would advise leaders to have a plan, but to also build in some flexibility for extreme situations.

Wise: We didn’t initially plan to send devices home for our younger students but parents quickly realized that if they were using their own computer for remote work, their kids couldn’t use it too.

McGaha: We’re starting to see a shortage in our supply line for parts. A large majority of our parts come from China and with the pandemic affecting their production we are starting to see a delay in parts getting to the U.S.

New opportunities

Wise: This has pushed many teachers to do things they’ve never done or tried before. I had a math teacher the other day contact me, excited to share how they were using screen recording features to do a virtual whiteboard recording. 

Gallagher: I will say that when it comes to online learning, the asynchronous model is the best model. It allows those students with limited access or families struggling with all of this to have time to learn without a strict schedule or putting kids in front of a device for several hours.

Wallace: I think now, more than ever, we have an opportunity to work with local companies and businesses to make sure our students have the access they need. The issue around equity and access has been a national problem that’s now suddenly being addressed. It shouldn’t have taken this pandemic to do it, but I’m glad we’re all now thinking about creative solutions to solve access issues for our students.