Guest Post: Putting Guidance to Work: Lessons from the Massachusetts Edtech Peer Learning Cohort – Digital Promise

Guest Post: Putting Guidance to Work: Lessons from the Massachusetts Edtech Peer Learning Cohort

May 23, 2023 | By

This 3-part blog series, featuring guest authors from The Learning Accelerator and MA DESE OET, highlights the importance of centering equity in edtech selection. In this third post, the author describes lessons learned while leading a cohort of diverse schools and districts through a process of strengthening their edtech systems.

The past several years have seen a rapid rise in the use of edtech in classrooms, accelerated by the pandemic and the sudden shift to remote learning. Many districts invested in edtech platforms and tools to facilitate online learning and to build a hybrid infrastructure that would support the return to in-person learning, all with the goal of creating equitable learning experiences for students. However, selecting new programs, implementing them with fidelity, and evaluating current tool efficacy has proven to be a daunting task for school and technology leaders.

In 2022, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, along with our team at The Learning Accelerator, enacted a three-step plan to support districts with edtech selection: 1) create an equity-centered edtech systems guide, 2) assemble a cohort of districts to apply elements of the guide and strengthen their edtech systems, and 3) collect district-created resources from the cohort to enhance the guide with local examples and share stories of change.

Our first edtech peer learning cohort (2022-23) featured nine teams, ranging from a single-site charter school to a large urban district, as well as a regional team of smaller, rural districts. Each team worked on addressing a specific problem of practice in their school system. Through this work, we’ve learned a number of lessons about putting guidance into practice and developing thoughtful systems to make equitable edtech decisions.

Ensure Everyone Has a Seat and Voice at the Table, Including Students and Teachers

Mendon-Upton Regional School District focused on including a wide range of voices in their edtech system development. Their team consisted of a high school student, a teacher, a library media specialist, and the technology team. The group collectively discussed how they wanted to evaluate their current edtech tools and actively involved everyone in the process. The high school student created a robust database of current platforms being used and offered invaluable feedback on how the implementation of tools may differ from classroom to classroom. The teacher and library media specialist provided insight into how specific tools were currently being used and discussed how staff members could possibly introduce a new tool into the district.

From these inclusive discussions, the group created an edtech evaluation rubric (to be used by both staff and students) as well as a process for teachers to pilot new tools. The diversity of perspectives included in the conversation enabled the team to receive a more holistic view of edtech usage in the district and create processes that centered the experiences and values of all stakeholders.

Diagnose the Need through Focus Groups Across the Community, Including Faculty and Families

A small charter school in western Massachusetts, Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School, honed in on addressing the challenges with their current student information system (SIS). The school team initially sought to find another SIS that would better meet their needs, believing the issue as a “selection” problem. However, after conducting focus groups with staff and families, they realized their challenges were more of an “implementation” problem. They uncovered that their current SIS had the functionality to meet their needs, but because it wasn’t rolled out effectively several years prior, many staff members and caregivers were unaware of how to fully utilize the platform. The team then decided to apply the strategies from the “Implementation” section of the edtech systems guide, focusing on clear communication with stakeholders (caregivers, teachers, admins) and providing ongoing support and training opportunities for staff. By prioritizing community engagement and dedicating time to truly understanding their needs–instead of jumping to purchasing–the team at Hilltown was able to effectively determine the root of the problem and provide more targeted solutions.

Pilot Tools and Plan to Play the Long Game

While many districts purchase new edtech tools each year, Attleboro Public Schools took a multi-year approach to thoroughly research, pilot, and implement a digital portfolio tool that would showcase students’ work throughout their academic career. The Attleboro technology team spent over a year conducting extensive research on various platforms and implementation techniques that would be best suited for their district’s needs. In the 2021-22 school year, the district piloted Google Sites in a small group of classrooms and collected feedback from the pilot teachers and students. They spent the following school year reflecting on the pilot, assessing the needs of their community, and aligning the rollout of the tool to the district’s priorities. By playing the long game and spending a significant amount of time researching, piloting, and evaluating a specific tool, the Attleboro team was able to find an effective platform and create a comprehensive rollout plan for the 2023-24 school year.

Our work with the edtech peer learning cohort yielded numerous other valuable lessons about effectively developing systems for edtech, including the power of collaboration and the importance of agility to keep iterating based on stakeholder feedback, district priorities, and so on. Ultimately, putting written guidance into practice requires a group of teams who are willing to fail often and iterate, critically examine current practices, pilot new processes, and create structures to sustain strong implementation and evaluation. Combined with administrator buy-in and the ability to make decisions quickly, a cohort can dramatically increase adoption and traction of a statewide guide and help accelerate more equitable edtech systems for an entire state.

If schools and districts are interested in learning more about the open-source strategies and resources created by the Massachusetts EdTech Peer Learning Cohort, we encourage you to check out the EdTech Systems Guide as well as the case stories and artifacts published on The Learning Accelerator website.

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