Spread across more than 40 separate buildings, Rockford Public School is the third largest school district in Illinois. As the district’s director of educational technology, Susan Uram is responsible for ensuring that approximately 28,000 students and their teachers have access to the most influential learning technologies available.
After 22 years as a classroom teacher, as well as an instructional instructor and curriculum designer, Uram took on this new position just three years ago, when it was first created. Enthusiastic about the deliberate integration of technology, he sees the role as essential to the expansion of learning and a key component of his district’s five-year plan to raise the overall graduation rate from 60 percent to 75 percent. Here, he explains how the Course of the Mind: ISTE’s ambitious plan is the reason for the initiative in the science of education.
EdSurge: Why did you enroll in the Launch in Learning Sciences course?
Uram: What I think brings it to a stage of integration and focus is the SOPPA Act. It really forced all the stakeholders at the table to say, “Well, what tools do we use with our kids? Why would we use them?” We are beginning to realize that we are working with student data whenever we put kids online.
And the instructive icing of the cake is that it forces us to reflect. I think this new law has really forced everyone to sit up and say, “We all have a role to play,” right to the teacher who decides to put their students on a particular site. That decision really shouldn’t just be based on information privacy; It should also be based on the instructional value.
And that’s where the Course of Mind came from All we needed was: something to help us objectively understand and evaluate the alignment and value of a tool in our system. This course, in particular, and this whole process made me feel less isolated in those endeavors.
How would you describe your district’s approach to collecting edtech before enrolling in this course?
It was the ‘Wild West’ of shopping. As many buildings as we have, and each building has a separate contract and different digital vendors, the schools were deciding on the silo. Internally there was no collaboration that conducted any filtering, or reflection, or discussion, or cross-referencing.
Historically, we haven’t thought too much about accessibility or equity components in these tools. This is definitely something we are thinking about right now. Now being one-on-one means kids shouldn’t have anything in the way of their access to learning. And there, indeed, the epidemic has done great work for education in many ways. Instead of trying to recover, they wallow in their sadness and thus, experience more failure. We get a fresh start because we have to look at things differently. There has never been that connection between understanding the process of deep learning to be able to apply it to the way you evaluate something.
Which aspects of the course have been most relevant or useful to you?
We talked about how the brain learns in terms of committing things to memory and creating an understanding that can be applied to new situations – the mechanical part of learning. And it takes away some of the emotional side of decision making. It really forces you to do something more purposeful. Instead of saying “it looks fun or different” or “kids like to play it”, we should consider whether this tool supports the learning process.
I’ve enjoyed talking about what inspires our learning. If kids like to do something, that’s great, we’re happy, but does it create long-term inspiration around learning and content, or just around an avatar and some point, for example? As a system, we need to focus on what the guide is actually going to improve when deciding whether a tool is right.
And there was part of the course on what a platform could do, such as concrete examples, recovery exercises and spaced-out exercises. These are things that, as teachers, we are simply keeping to our instructions, but we are not necessarily expecting the same from a digital tool. But why don’t we? Why can’t we?
We really need to develop our thinking around how we teach and what we teach, but still return to the mechanics of the brain, individual students and their ability to capture and apply that information in a meaningful way.
In fact, how can your experience with the course change the way your district collects in the future?
When sorting out the whole process, from finding something that you think it should be implemented, there are all these steps. What we need is to be able to put things together in such a way that it is about deep learning. But how do we communicate this to our teachers in a digestible way? They don’t have time to sit down and take this course, but we need to start looking at the ‘why’ behind being able to reflect on what we accept and evaluate it carefully.
At the moment, we are seeing a change from that ‘Wild West’ which seems like a very limited environment for a teacher. It’s not intended to stop their innovation or deny them the things they need, but it does lead to a collaborative conversation about what is best for students and learning. And that’s where we need a lot of help – to get a more precise way of explaining why we’re doing this. I want teachers to still come up with new tools, and I want them to know that their learning science will be a thoughtful review and consideration based on the concepts of how the brain works and how a tool works. That could be complementary.
Our first step is to find something as transparent as possible within the district so that we can decide what to do next. Then, we have a system of teacher leaders, curriculum leaders, principals who join this conversation. So, it’s not just a disconnected admin decision; It’s something we create together, consulting with each other. That’s where we circle the big conversations around equity and curriculum alignment. I think our children need to consider the collective responsibility of ownership as a group.
Let’s talk about your experience with the Coaching of Minds course. What do you expect to accomplish with this support?
In our sessions, we will focus entirely on our practice issues and creating a rubric, a way to tell our stakeholders ‘why’ and a way to explain how we are transforming into this system. So, that’s what I’m expecting.
I’m fairly optimistic that we’ll be able to come out nicely with the first draft of that rubric after two coaching sessions. Then, we can take it to our various stakeholders – some principals, our steering council, some team teachers – walk around the district and check its water. I hope that after the first conversation, we can create something that we can take on tour so that, in the second session, we can bring it back and say, “This is what people like and dislike. How we mitigate and confirm those changes. That we are getting what is really good for the district? ”
As our district focuses on continuous improvement, we are always striving to reflect and develop our practices. We have already started some collaboration. And we’re starting to see the benefits.