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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
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Enhancing connections by making the most of recent investments in technology
By Robert Allen and Ben Churchill | March | April 2023
Districts in California have invested in technology at levels not seen before, thanks in part to the infusion of one-time federal and state dollars in support of pandemic recovery. At the same time, students, teachers and families are looking for greater, more meaningful connections.
With so many new devices, services and technology-based programs in place, districts are wise to ask, “How can we make the most of our technology-enhanced learning spaces and facilitate deeper connections with each other?
There are a few strategies districts can consider to maximize their recent investments in technology while achieving greater, more meaningful connections to people and learning.
Work smarter, not harder
Technology should be used to make life easier for students, teachers and other staff. Staff workload can be decreased by leveraging the technology tools deployed in school districts in recent years, which then allows more time for deepening connections between one another.
Tech directors know that it takes an army of individuals to deploy devices to the classroom — from the purchasing department,warehouse and delivery staff, and to district technicians, to office administrative assistants, and to site-based library/media staff and other technology support staff. Our district has found success in decreasing some of the physical touchpoints by purchasing “no-touch” services for device setup, and by outsourcing repair services for student and staff devices. This reallocation of services allows our technology professionals to spend more time on meaningful and deep work projects, rather than low-level tasks.
We’ve also been intentional about automating as many tasks as possible across departments, using the myriad new technology tools we’ve purchased. Examples include recurring tasks on the business services side of the house and compliance tasks in the personnel services department. The end result is that our people spend less time on repetitive task completion and more time meeting the needs of their colleagues.
Technology use can facilitate greater personal connections in other ways, too. While many of us might be glad to never sit in another Zoom meeting, the use of virtual meetings in some situations can be of great benefit, using the technology and skills we’ve gained over the past few years. Conducting some meetings virtually can be a time saver, especially when multiple people are involved. Parent-teacher conferences and IEP meetings, for example, can be scheduled in a virtual format to make it easier to get the right people together at the right time.
In another example, we can save principals and other site leaders the time needed to travel to meetings at the district office by scheduling some of those meetings virtually. And PTAs, booster group and other school-connected organizations may find they get higher parent attendance at general meetings when some are scheduled online.
In our district, we have monthly meetings with a number of standing consultation groups — including a parent advisory council, a student advisory council, a teacher advisory council, a classified staff advisory council and a technology advisory council. In meeting with these groups, we started the year in a virtual format (to save travel time and to make scheduling easier) and included an agenda item at the first meeting of each group to discuss the meeting format going forward. Interestingly, there were a variety of responses. Some of the groups decided to continue to meet virtually, some of the groups decided to meet in person and one of the groups asked to alternate between online and in-person meetings. We’re thrilled that each of these groups can meet in the format that makes most sense to them, using technology tools when desired.
Continue to invest in teacher and staff training
To best leverage the recent deployment of technology tools, investment in ongoing staff professional learning and training is essential. We’ve built a number of things into our district culture to support teachers and staff in making the most of our tech tools and digital resources. At every school site, a teacher is paid a stipend to serve as Tech Coach. Instead of focusing on device repair or system troubleshooting, for example — those tasks are accomplished by our site-based technology Aides, a classified position with specialized training — our Tech Coaches are specifically designated to support teaching and learning. We host monthly training sessions for our Tech Coaches at the district office and empower them to work individually and in small groups with teachers back on campus. By leveraging teacher relationships already in place, and supporting job-embedded professional learning, our Tech Coaches have quickly accelerated the incorporation of technology into daily teaching and learning activities.
We’ve also committed to a standard technology package for use in every classroom. By implementing a district standard, we’ve made it easier for our Tech Coaches to train teachers on the use of tools and services in place for every teacher. Knowing that some teachers are early adopters and more comfortable with trying new things, we regularly create opportunities at school sites and at the district office to allow our natural innovators to learn and explore. We’re not afraid to do beta testing and/or piloting in small batches — knowing what our cutting-edge innovators explore now can translate into effective use across the system later, with the proper training and support. Coming out of the pandemic, this year we worked intentionally to get a sense of where our teachers are in terms of energy and focus so that we can be sensitive to their mental and emotional needs without taking our feet off the gas as we accelerate student learning recovery.
Finally, we make sure to provide training and support to our non-teaching staff, too. This year we began offering weekly professional learning at the district office for the people who keep our district running — staff in departments like purchasing services, human resources and facilities. We meet voluntarily for a half-hour every Friday in a lunch-and-learn format we call “Nerdy for Thirty,” and we’ve gotten rave reviews about our hand-on learning activities for staff in topics such as fun with spreadsheets, pivot tables, Google tools, Adobe Acrobat, Gmail tips and tricks, and more. Hosting a weekly upskill event with interested non-teaching staff has helped with technology implementation and has had the added benefit of furthering our culture of collaboration and fun.
Know when to say when
Even the most forward-thinking technology leaders have to admit that, sometimes, a particular learning goal can be better accomplished without technology. In the spring of 2020, we were forced to use online tools for teaching and learning; now, we can move from reflexively using technology to intentionally choosing when and where to incorporate tech tools to further our learning goals.
Given our collective experiences of the past few pandemic-impacted years, it’s clear that students, teachers and families want to continue to form greater, more meaningful connections with one another. Sometimes, technology can help to accomplish that — and sometimes it can’t. We believe there is a proper equilibrium — it makes sense to use technology tools when there’s a value-added benefit in the classroom, and it makes sense to forgo the use of tech when the learning goals can be better accomplished in other ways.
We strive to never forget the power of relationships and to continue to listen to our expert teachers and staff when it comes to the needs of students in the classroom. Even our most technology-focused teachers, when they see their students need more tactile or kinesthetic engagement, will say: “We don’t need tech for this today.” When they speak, we should listen.
Over the past year, we’ve seen a number of high-profile ransomware attacks and other malevolent disruptions to public school systems in California and across the country.
Check yourself before you wreck yourself
The opportunity for reward often comes with risk. Over the past year, we’ve seen a number of high-profile ransomware attacks and other malevolent disruptions to public school systems in California and across the country. As a technology director and a superintendent, cybersecurity is one of the things that keeps us both awake at night; proactively addressing possible issues helps us both to sleep better.
One important step we’ve taken recently is to audit our district’s controls and to probe the system for weaknesses. We proactively look for security holes — for example, at the time of writing this article, we are in the middle of a simulated phishing exercise. While it initially felt a bit disingenuous to see how many employees might fall for typical phishing email (along the lines of, "help me, I’m stuck on vacation and need you to buy Amazon gift cards and email them to me”), we’re hopeful that an exercise like this will help us to better understand how savvy our staff is and to provide real-time feedback about additional training we might need. Rather than singling out individual employees, our goal is to determine the abilities of the organization and, with that knowledge, design training activities to support our organization as a whole.
In addition to looking for possible security issues through a simulated phishing attack, we’re taking other important steps to make sure our systems are secure. Examples include auditing which employees have access to critical systems and removing unnecessary access, enabling two-factor authentication across as many applications as possible, and routinely requiring password resets.
Return on investment
Like many districts across California, we’ve invested a great deal into the deployment of technology in the classroom over the past few years and expect to see a return on that investment in the development of student skills and competencies, as well as increased student learning outcomes. We also expect to continue to see the development of deeper and more meaningful relationships between students, teachers and the learning experience. But simply deploying devices is not enough. By leveraging technology to help people work smarter, not harder; by investing in ongoing staff training and development; and by proactively checking to make sure our critical systems and sensitive information are protected from digital attacks, we’ll be better able to achieve our ultimate goal: student learning and growth.

Robert Allen is the director of technology and assessment and Ben Churchill is the superintendent of the Carlsbad Unified School District.
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