Digital Transition Discussion held in Atlanta, GA on January 30th, 2018

Event News
Troy Starr, Learning Counsel Writer

The Learning Counsel held our Digital Transition Discussion in Atlanta, GA on January 30th, 2018, meeting with education executives to discuss the state of technology in education and strategies to further enable enhancement of student learning.

During the event, panel discussions were held, and insights shared from the speakers. Below is a selection of these conversations, facilitated by Dr. David Kafitz, VP School Relations with Learning Counsel.

Panelist speakers include:

•             Dr. Michael Hale – Director of Technology – Oconee County Schools

•             Tricia Kennedy – Director of eClass Transformation – Gwinnett County Public Schools

•             Jennifer Lawson – Interim Chief Academic Officer/Asst. Superintendent of Teaching & Learning – Cobb County School District


David Kafitz: Could I ask each of you to introduce yourselves?


Tricia Kennedy: I'm Tricia Kennedy with Gwinnett County Schools and I'm the Executive Director of eClass Transformation which is the branding name for our Digital Conversion.


Mike Hale: Hello, I'm Mike Hale with Coney County Schools. I'm the Director of Technology and just deal with schools and with whatever they tell me to do.


Jennifer Lawson: I’m Jennifer Lawson, the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. I am currently fulfilling the interim chief academic role at this time.


David Kafitz: Thank you for being here today. I want to start off by asking you a little bit of a loaded question. Because of all this technology and what technology is enabling us to do, the culture of education is changing these days. Teachers a lot of times or us as humans don't necessarily like continual change but that's the environment we're headed into.

As leaders in your system, how are you addressing the transformation in education to this culture of constant change?


Lawson: We've taken the approach to fail fast. We want people to be able to take a risk at things and we've also coupled that with you can't force change. For it to be Grassroots sustaining change that really is what's best for children we try to target pockets that are ready for that change, the early adopters. We have our Teacher Leader Academy program for teachers who really are ready to take that step, they're a bit more comfortable with the unknown and the trials.

We've got an incredible technology department and we are working with teachers who are ready and eager to take on these trials. We've got a great virtual academy, so you've got several things going that are becoming more pervasive. Rather than trying to move the Titanic all at one time in a forced approach, which really doesn’t lead the change that’s sustaining and authentic, it’s driven by the masterful craft of the best teachers that we’ve got. So, we’ve approached it that way. We don’t have a recipe or silver-bullet, but we’ve got people who have the answers, so starting there and building capacity from there is where we are starting to see that momentum. Hopefully we see it shift from being just a handful to, before we know it, we’ll look back and won’t remember when it wasn’t this way.


Hale: I work in teaching and learning, and my teammates are here, and they are much wiser than I am, so they help the whole process to be more sensitive to the stress teachers are feeling because of the change. They generally help add to the understanding of how the tech works, and this is the way a school works, and how we need to move teachers along as a group. A lot of what we’ve been doing this year is work one-to-one.


Kennedy: You’ve talked about culture and I believe culture is set at the top. Here in Gwinnett our superintendent is very strategic about how we handle change. We have a superintendent set of initiatives and priorities under which the entire district works every year. He lays out every year what we are going to be focused on and they’re the innovative things we are going to be focused on, the initiatives that we are going to be focused on. Those are multi-year, it’s not like it changes every year, but it’s very clear, it’s documented. We know how to streamline that focus of change I would say. And so transforming instructions and initiatives but it’s really moved from that to STEM focuses and other part one initiatives under the transforming instruction. Dual learning immersion is a new path we are going on.

So, they are laid out very clearly for us district-wide and then we align our work under those initiatives and priorities. I would also say when you get down to the grassroots level much like what Jennifer is saying happened in Cobb, we’ve discovered that supporting early-adopters in any of these initiatives and building their capacity and then giving them opportunities to support their peers, we’ve found that peer coaching and peer leadership has been the fastest way to accelerate change and to also handle the emotions of change because when your peer is coming alongside you who’s already been there in that same role it tends to take some of the fear of change away.


Kafitz: I want to jump into the future a little bit and ask you, with the work you’ve been doing in your respective roles over the last couple of years, where does this end up for you five years from now? Where do you see the targets being, with looking at how education technology is changing, and what technology is doing in education, where is your work pushing all of this towards?


Kennedy: Ironically the place I think we are going to end up in five or maybe ten years, because I’ve learned to not underestimate the amount of time it’s going to take for something, is the place that we started trying to get to seven years ago. When we moved into the whole digital conversion in the district I had these grandiose ideas of the predictive analytics that we were talking about today. This ecosystem for teachers where they would be able to customize their learning opportunities for students, pull from menus, it would all be in a one-stop-shop and it would help the teachers see exactly where students were and being able to individualize them in what the next step for learning would be. So, that’s still the vision. I just realized pretty quickly that it was going to take longer than five years, seven years ago.

I do think technology is going to allow us to get to that place where teachers have some of those tasks automated that right now they are spending their time on. They can use their professional judgement then to help customize learning and choices for students that they wouldn’t have had before. Maybe in five years, but we’ll at least be closer in five years than we are now. Because we are closer now. The conversations, even over the last four years that we’ve been meeting together as a group with Learning Counsel, the conversations have really changed. We are really much closer to some of these things being a reality then we were even four years ago.


Hale: When we look out towards the future we really see curriculum being digitized and the whole environment being focused around technology. The immediate impact is that we just try to shape decisions that are being made annually, to move towards an environment and a platform where we can end up taking advantage of things in the future. That’s the change involved with the teacher, the infrastructure, purchases and decisions that we make about curriculum. It’s scary to me in the fact that parents, and a county that is fairly affluent, the truth is they could shop and buy stuff anywhere they would like and that is a big pressure to us. So, we need to be very sensitive to serving the children and parents and what they see as the need for their kids and that personalization. So that’s where our focus is, moving our whole environment towards that direction.


Lawson: I don’t know that ours is a lot different from what Tricia talked about. We had this vision several years ago of a one-stop-shop where everything would make the teachers life easier. You could really get to the craft, to the art of teaching, and not spend so much time trying to locate things. Just those basic decisions that you do in planning your content, but instead that becomes so readily available, and through the use of prescriptive analytics the teachers job becomes a bit easier in those regards so he or she can spend more time really facilitating discussions, facilitating development so that students have more of a choice in showing what they know.

We struggle with the same thing, having to look at our processes, we’ve had to revise some of our policies for how we curate our content. Content acquisition just for routine things. As long as the district has existed we’ve had policies of how we go through content acquisition, but really pushing in on vendors for how we want to consume it, knowing that ultimately I’d like to wake up in five years, and our assessment system that is really teacher driven, has prescriptive analytics saying, “Gosh Jennifer, you didn’t do so well on questions three, five, seven and nine and here’s some content that may support you in doing that.” And I as a teacher can go in and adjust that because I happen to know what my learning style is or what I’ve done previously that would support the teacher, but I’ve got twenty-five kids, and so I don’t necessarily have to do that with every child for every lesson, the system is there to help support me in doing that. So, we are having to re-evaluate our expectations about our balanced instruction, what students are doing with content, it’s not just the standards, it’s what they’re doing with it. Those tools are what our students want to do. That’s what engages them, that’s what they are interested in, so we are really having to pay a lot of attention in some ways more to our stakeholder, the student. In the twenty plus years I have been doing this job, in asking students and listening to their voice about what they want to do, it isn’t always what the teacher is most comfortable with. So that’s what I see in five years is maximizing what we have and trying to curate it into a format that makes a teacher’s job back into what is, just the art of teaching, and not so much the planning and binding.


Hale: I really think the A.I. environment is going to accelerate exponentially. A great deal of the things we think are human activities are going to be taken over by machines. I’m not fearful of that, and I really feel that these things are going to be good, because it will, as you say, free up the teachers. But the teaching and the decisions about that will be taken over by the machines. When we come from a profession where that is core to what we do and to realize that there will be machines taking some of these things over is probably very scary for us and we don’t want to believe it. But I believe that will happen. Whether or not public education can make that happen or whether it will be privatized in a way that it disrupts what public education in America is. That’s what I’m worried about.


Kafitz: That’s a great segue into the next question. We know we are on a path forward into the future and it’s not clear exactly what it’s looking like. We know what we are aiming for but there is always the concern of sustaining the work that we’ve done in order to keep moving forward. A lot of times the whole sustainability talk around education and technology was always the money, the funding, the buying of stuff, but I think we’ve seen in the last couple years, particularly with Learning Counsel that that sustainability conversation is bigger than that. It’s what are we doing about teacher preparation at the college level for those coming in, do we have enough teachers there?

Two years ago, we visited Fresno Unified School District and at the time they were six-hundred teachers short at the beginning of the school year and didn’t really know where to go to look to fill those positions. They are now filling them with proximity learning. Online, on-demand teachers and they are putting in place non-credentialed personnel to police the classroom while the teachers are being ported in over the internet from out of state.

So, what I would like to hear from you next is where are you concerns about sustaining education and this rejiggering of it. What do you see as the things that need attention right now to keep it moving forward even though you’ve done a lot of work to get it to this point, what needs to be worked on to sustain it?


Lawson: I think about coming back. We’ve spent so much time in education thinking about test scores, College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), and assessments that sometimes we can’t get the algorithm straight in our head, what it even means. We’ve had to go back and say let’s go back to the why. Why do we do what we do when students are at the center of what we do and that should never have changed, but those things are necessary evils and they are part of our existence. But when you come back to the heart of why we do what we do it’s about student learning, it’s about their voice and if they were our customer in the same sense that you choose to shop at Publics versus Kroger, Coke versus Pepsi. If we approach education as though they really do have options and why do we do what we do, it is to engage our learners, it’s to help them to grow, to become successful human beings that will live next door to us. Then how do you make those decisions? We’ve tried to go back, amid all the noise that we all deal with every day and talk about vetting the resources we have and the pedagogy and instruction we talk about against how does that best serve a student. What does a student think about that experience? You are right that it’s a change.

I have three teenage sons and a set of twins and one says, “I don’t want to take this class, I want to take it online.” And the teacher in me says, “You can’t take that online. A teacher, much like your mother would need to facilitate that discussion.” So, it became a conversation in our house and I had to come to grips, and that’s within the last month or so that, they learn differently than we do, and their voice does matter and if that ownership is, “Nope. This is how I prefer to use my time, I understand the content, but I’d like to mange my time differently. I don’t want to sit in class every morning from eight to nine-thirty. I’ll do the work, but I want to do it on my own.” You know, I had to swallow my own ego to be able to say, “I don’t have a good reason to tell you why this is not a good idea.” So, we all have to model going down into those uncharted territories to say, “To be a phenomenal teacher may not look like what I thought it was when I took that first teaching job twenty plus years ago.”

So, I think that that’s where we are coming back, to vet around students and what is best practice, and what do students say about what we’re doing as opposed to how we feel about what we’ve taught, and I know I taught it, but I’m not sure if twenty out of the twenty-five didn’t get it. Maybe we worked really hard, you worked up a sweat, but your actual stakeholder didn’t learn the information, not because you weren’t working hard, or your heart wasn’t good, but we just missed the mark. So, we are continually trying to vet the work we’ve done, what we believe, our pedagogy, our content and our philosophies around the why for students.


Hale: The sustainability is the engagement with the public. As this generation comes up and their children start they are much more into experiences and knitting together these experiences versus long term thinking. We’ve always approached parents about K-12 curriculum planning, and they are more interested in; are they going to get to do robotics, are they going to get to be able to be in the one-act play or other different types of experiences that their children can have. How do you mix all of that together and how can tech help moderate that and help keep track, are they making progress over what we value or what the state values in this K-12 kind of curriculum?


Kennedy: I’m thinking in terms of from the philosophical down to the practical. So, when I think of it at the high level, what’s going to happen to sustain education as a whole in the coming years. Necessity drives disruption and I think that story about the six-hundred teacher shortage, I mean wow, that’s a story, and you have no choice, then you find a way to do it and you do something different and innovative because you have no other options. So, I do believe that we are in danger of obsolescence. I really do believe that. Can we as an education community, especially a public education community, anticipate the needs that are going to be coming down the road and find solutions? I’m encouraged because I think that’s what this kind of community and discussion is about, is helping us find those solutions. So that’s one piece that we are going to have to do to sustain ourselves and to sustain this work for students.

We are going to have to anticipate the necessities that don’t even exist yet. I also think, going back to original slides from LeiLani, where we were looking at what the top challenges were this year that came out of their survey results, the one we paused on that said “Teacher Willingness” has been really big. If you come down the funnel a little bit now to the next level, still philosophical a little bit, but maybe a little more granular, that is something we are certainly dealing with in Gwinnett, is having our teachers understand the good to great thing. If I’m doing good enough, if my kids are doing ok right now why do I need to disrupt everything I’m doing to bring in this technology stuff that you are telling me that I need to do. I’m in a quandary as to how much do we push, to push them in that direction versus how much do we wait, and let them be pulled? Because the students and the parents and society as a whole I think are going to pull them. It’s going to happen. The question for me continually is how much do I just breathe and let it happen.

I think I need to find a way to ride the top of the wave. To make sure I’m on the top of the wave and going with it, instead of trying to paddle so hard to get to the shore. The paddling isn’t working very well. Also, if we are pushing too hard with our teachers or trying to change that culture, we might make mistakes that we wouldn’t have made otherwise because we might run too fast. I think about L.A. and iPads. Some of us in this room even have dealt with in our own districts, even years ago, leadership wanting to move too quickly down a path and it exploded on us. We have a tendency to potentially make more mistakes if we are trying to push really hard. We are the believers and we’re probably the ones that are maybe most in danger of pushing a little too hard. So how much do you push, and how much do you pull?

The final thing, when I get to the really nitty-gritty granular, like what’s bothering me right now today that I have to deal with by next year. I was talking to LeiLani about it before and a few months ago I spoke with Janelle about it; thousand of digital objects are wonderful and its great for my teachers and my students having those options, but Jennifer kind of alluded to this too, we’ve been used to reading through every single thing that might go before our students to make sure it fits not only our curriculum, but our community mores as well, and I don’t know how to manage that for thousands of objects. I’m not at a point yet where I really trust my vendors to have the same lens that my parents are going to have. So that’s what I’m worried about sustaining right now.


Check in for more reports from the field as Learning Counsel hosts Digital Transition Discussion events in 20+ more cities this year!  If you would like to join the conversation online, visit, create a profile and join the Learning Groups you are interested in!


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