Pandemic Brings Technological Evolution to Woodward
Alex Bragg is a teaching and learning specialist in the Upper School and, when the pandemic struck in the spring, that role took on a new dimension: rapidly shifting Woodward to an all-virtual educational model. We spoke to her about that experience, and about the lessons that were learned and applied to this fall semester, in which classes are conducted concurrently for in-person students and those who choose to learn virtually.
Beyond the Gate: Going back to last spring, before campus closing in March, where was Woodward in terms of technology? Was the possibility of this kind of situation on the radar?
Alex Bragg: We are very fortunate at Woodward to have a variety of resources at our fingertips (thank you to The Woodward Fund and other resources), including the technology we need to create innovative and meaningful learning experiences. Because of this, and our Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy in the Upper School, we were able to make the transition to remote learning pretty smoothly. Prior to March 13, the only instances we had of remote learning would be if we had inclement weather days that required us to enable our school interruption plans. All of the academic specialists for each school developed robust plans for this occasion in the event it were to arise and our students needed to begin at home learning. I review our plans in the Upper School at the beginning of the year to ensure they are accurate, clear, and ready. This preparation allowed us to have a strong start in our planning for remote learning as we all had an initial idea of how this could work and what we would need to accomplish in terms of instruction and technological needs.
BTG: What was the biggest challenge of that sudden shift in the spring?
AB: The biggest challenge for me was the timeliness of the pandemic. Things were changing almost hourly in those early days, and it resulted in us having to make decisions quickly and efficiently with little time to fully prepare. Also, when the possibility of us needing to move to 100 percent remote learning became more of a reality, we were also already in the safety and security protocols of distancing. Because of this, I was not able to hold faculty meetings for professional development and training in person with everyone. This was a huge challenge for me because we were up against the clock to get our teachers properly trained on Zoom and other tools that would be necessary for engaging students remotely, and I wasn't able to see them all at once to do this. I felt confident in our technology solutions we had in place, and because our students already had devices, this elminitated a huge challenge in figuring out how to teach remotely and put devices in the hands of our students. This allowed me to focus on teacher training and development with Zoom and other tools such as Go Formative, Screencastify, and PowerSchool Learning.
BTG: What were the biggest lessons learned from the spring?
AB: As educators, it's no secret that there are days things don't always go as planned in our lessons, and that sometimes we must be flexible. This became an everyday reality for us in those early weeks as each day revealed different challenges that needed us to continuously iterate our plans to best meet the needs of our learners. I found that shifting our mindset to expect the unexpected helped us to manage our stress as we navigated the changing landscape while ensuring our students were still receiving the excellent academic experience they are accustomed to at Woodward Academy. This experience has also confirmed the importance of relationships and community. As educators, we know there is value in building positive relationships with our students as a foundational piece of their academic success, but this was really brought to light during the pandemic.
Having to teach in a fully remote environment added an additional layer for us in terms of our instructional planning. Yes, we needed to focus on the academic piece of our planning, but we also had to work even harder to identify ways to engage students and maintain our positive relationships with them in this type of setting so our students still felt connected and a part of our community. We also needed this on a professional level, and it became very clear how much we as adults need to feel connected in order to be successful. We sometimes underestimate the value of in-person, human connection, and this pandemic has allowed us to see things in a different way and find creative outlets to maintain our connections.
BTG: What was the major work of the summer? Were there outside resources you were able to go to for advice and information?
AB: I spent the majority of my work this summer researching a variety of instructional methods to plan for all scenarios. I started with focusing on a scenario in which we were entirely remote again, and I used my reflections from the spring to research best practices, tools, and lesson planning structures to ensure a smooth remote experience. I spent the majority of work, however, focusing on a hybrid model. I watched webinars, I read different articles from respected colleagues in my network, and I talked to the other specialists here at Woodward.
One thing I focused on with both my remote and hybrid model research was assessment. We knew from the spring that assessment was one of our biggest challenges in a remote setting, and it allowed us to begin exploring alternative authentic assessments, including project-based learning. In June, each department assembled a PBL team, and we had the opportunity to participate in a two-day professional development series led by Suzie Boss, a leading expert on project based learning. I have been working to support each department in their development of assessments, especially in rethinking the design of their final exams. The specialists at each school have always been in constant communication to share best practices and support each other in this journey.
BTG: The Owl cameras seem like a huge addition. How much of a difference has that tech made in this fall semester?
AB: The Owl Cameras have been a nice addition for our remote learners. The 360 degree view (as well as other views) of the classroom it provides, has been great for allowing remote learners to feel as though they are in the classroom with their teacher and peers. Because it also picks up voices and moves with the voice speaking, it has allowed remote students to easily interact with their peers as well.
BTG: Are there any other new practices or technologies we've added that you think have helped elevate the remote learning experience?
AB: Absolutely! Aside from the work we're doing on assessment redesign, the Upper School has utilized the premium subscriptions we've been able to acquire for Classkick, Nearpod, Go Formative, and Screencastify. I am leading various Zoom-and-learn sessions throughout the weeks now that we have settled in on how to use these tools for engagement, assessment, and content delivery. I continue to be so proud of our faculty for their willingness to learn new things and practices to best ensure a successful hybrid model here at the Academy.
BTG: I'm sure you've seen teachers do some fun, innovative things with remote learning. Any that stand out?
AB: Oh my goodness, there are too many to name! Teachers are utilizing Zoom breakout rooms for collaborative discussions and deep dives. Several teachers are using Classkick, which allows students to interact with a document or PDF, and the teacher can give feedback in real time. I've seen some awesome projects and assessments being created that ask students to utilize marketing tools such as Canva to create brochures, infographics, and more. These projects typically would be in the form of a poster presentation, but teachers have been redesigning them so all learners can participate and utilize technology in innovative ways. I cannot express enough how grateful I am for our faculty and the incredible learning experiences they provide!
BTG: How might this disruption might affect education in the long term? Is remote learning going to be a part of life for the foreseeable future? Is this technology going to continue to influence how schools teach?
AB: I could go on and on about this question, but I will spare you from my soapbox! I definitely envision this global pandemic affecting the future of education. I think if there is one thing we have learned through this, it's that there is no replacement for a great teacher. Yes, we can use technology to facilitate learning from anywhere, but our students thrive off of connection and the relationships they build with their teachers and others in the classroom. Learning is so much more than academics, and our teachers nurture the whole child on a daily basis. I think we are already seeing a (much needed) renewed emphasis being placed on the value of teachers, and I hope this will continue to drive reform and conversations around teacher development and support. I also believe this global pandemic has continued to highlight the issues associated with standardized testing and inequity in schools. There is greater work to be done, but I personally hope to see a push for less standardized testing in the future and more of an emphasis on real-world learning and the resources needed to build equitable schools.
Finally, the global pandemic has provided opportunities for us to rethink our curricula, instructional design, and assessments. Having to teach remotely or in a hybrid model requires the use of technological tools to support collaboration, and it provides a stronger need for more authentic, 21st century lesson design. Teachers have had to rethink their instructional design to include technology and innovative ways to engage students like never before. This has opened up a world of possibilities for our teachers and curricula, and I only see this continuing to have a positive impact on our students.