Distributed in more than 40 individual buildings, Rockford Public Schools is the third largest school district in Illinois. As Director of Educational Technology throughout the county, Susan Uram is responsible for ensuring that approximately 28,000 students and their teachers have access to the most effective learning technologies available.
After 22 years of classroom work as well as time spent as a training coach and curriculum developer, Uram took up this new position just three years ago when it was first created. Enthusiastic about the deliberate integration of technology, she considers this role important for expanding learning and a key element of her district’s five-year plan to increase total graduates from 60 percent to 75. Here, she explains how Mind Course: ISTE Science Initiative factors of this ambitious plan.
EdSurge: Why you enrolled on Run a learning science course?
Uram: I think all this has led to the need to consolidate and focus SOPPA Act. It really made all the stakeholders at the table say, “Well, what tools do we use with kids? Why do we use them?” We are beginning to realize that we are dealing with student data every time we connect children to the internet.
And the icing on the cake is that it made us think. This new law, I think, really made everyone sit down and say, “We all play a role in this,” right up to the teacher who decides to place his students on a certain site. This decision really shouldn’t be based on data privacy alone; it must also be based on educational value.
And here came the course of the mind. This was exactly what we needed: something to help us objectively understand and evaluate the alignment and value of the tool in our system. This course in particular and the whole process made me feel less isolated in these efforts.
How would you describe your district’s approach to edtech procurement before enrolling in this course?
It was a “Wild West” purchase. With as many buildings as ours, and with each building with separate contracts and different digital vendors, schools made decisions alone. There was no internal collaboration to handle filtering, reflection, discussion, or cross-references.
Historically, we have also not given much thought to the components of accessibility or equity in these tools. This is definitely what we are thinking about now. Being one-on-one now means there should be nothing that prevents children from accessing learning. And here, frankly, the pandemic has in many ways done great things for education. It makes us think about old practices and adopt new ideas rather than continue the status quo. We start anew because we have to look at things differently. There has never been such a connection between an understanding of the learning process deep enough to be able to apply it in the way you evaluate something.
Which aspects of the course were most relevant or useful to you?
We talked about how the brain learns in terms of storing things in memory and creating an understanding that can be applied in new situations – the mechanical part of learning. And it deprived some of the emotional aspects of decision making. It really makes you do something more objective. Instead of just saying, “It looks fun anyway” or “Kids enjoy playing,” we need to think about whether this tool supports the learning process.
I also enjoyed talking about what motivates our learning. When kids enjoy doing something, it’s great, we’re happy, but does it create long-term motivation around learning and content, or just around an avatar and some moments, for example? As a system, we need to focus on what can really improve instruction when deciding whether to use the right tool or not.
And there was a section on learning about things the platform can do, such as specific examples, search practices and spreading practices. These are things that, as teachers, we might just include in our instructions, but we didn’t necessarily expect the same from a digital tool. But why shouldn’t we? Why can’t we?
We really need to develop our thinking about how we teach and what we teach, but still take root in the mechanics of the brain, the individual learner and their ability to store and apply this information in a significant way.
Practically, how can your experience with the course change your district’s approach to procurement in the future?
In breaking down the whole process, from finding something that you think you need, to implementing it, there are all these steps along the way. We need to be able to tie things together so that we are talking about deeper learning. But how do we convey this to our teachers in an easily digestible form? They don’t have time to sit down and take this course, but we need them to start seeing a “why” for being able to reflect and evaluate carefully what we accept.
Right now we are witnessing a transition from that “Wild West” to what probably feels like a very restrictive environment for teachers. It’s not meant to cut off their innovation or deny them the things they think they need, but hopefully it promotes a shared conversation about what’s best for the student and for learning. And here we need a lot of help – to get a more specific way to convey why we do it. I want teachers to continue to offer new tools, and I want them to know that they will be given a thorough review and consideration based on the facts of learning science, an idea of how the brain works and how a tool can complement this.
Our first step is to make the area something as transparent as possible in how we decide we need to move forward. Then we have systems of teacher supervisors, curriculum managers, principals who join these conversations. So it’s not just a disabled administrator decision; this is what we do together in consultation with each other. That’s where we revolve in the great conversation around equity and curriculum alignment. I think we need to consider this collective responsibility for owning our children as a group.
Let’s talk about your experience with Course of Mind Coaching. What do you expect to achieve with this support?
In our classes, we will focus entirely on our problem of practice and creating a column, a way to convey the “why” to our stakeholders and explain how we are moving to this system. So this is what I expect.
I am very optimistic that we can leave after two coaching sessions with a fairly detailed first draft of this column. We can then pass this on to our various stakeholders – some principals, our pedagogical council, some team teachers – to take a short tour of the county and test the water on it. I hope that after the first conversation we will be able to create something that we can tour so that in the second session we can come back to it and say, “This is something that people liked and disliked. How are we going to mitigate these changes and make sure that we will achieve what is really good for the district? “
As our district focuses on continuous improvement, we are always committed to reflecting and developing our practices. We have already started some of these collaborations. And we’re starting to see the benefits.