In many situations, technology in schools before the COVID-19 pandemic was just one of the numerous tools to add in instruction, learning and communication. When schools statewide shut down, however, in-person learning in March 2020 due to a government-ordered lockdown technology became much more.
No longer was technology just a tool, but a lifeline for many and an impetus for change.
Two years later, schools are back to in-person learning and technology has become more integrated than ever before. The Rochester Business Journal spoke to three area schools/school districts to discuss what technology looks like in their learning environments now and where they see it heading in the next few years.
Hilton Central School District
From highlighting fitness and wellness initiatives throughout the district via special videos to delivering news to students every morning from their high-tech television studio, Hilton Central School District’s WAVE broadcast media students showcase the district’s commitment to technology as a communication and career tool daily.
“Digital citizenship is really important for our students,” said Kristy Shafer, director of technology and data protection officer for the district. “We’re preparing them for careers that don’t even exist yet.”
Shafer says that with how rapidly technology is changing, it’s hard to imagine what the next five years will look like for schools, but that Hilton schools are ready to embrace opportunities for students, continue to move forward with flexibility and agility and keep network infrastructure, security and accessibility paramount.
The district has five schools, approximately 4,267 students and 355 teachers, three of whom are assigned as district-wide instructional technology specialists.
“These teachers work with students and other teachers,” said Josh Ennis, the district’s network administrator. “They are an invaluable resource to make sure the needs of the technology department, students and staff align.”
The district sees parents and guardians as important shareholders in the technology equation. Although the district was 1:1 (every student had a mobile computing device) for grades 5 to 12 before the pandemic, the lockdown caused them to quickly get their grades K to 4 students 1:1 as well, and this remains in place today.
Lockdown also bumped guardians and parents to the forefront in helping their children navigate technology at home.
“During the early days of the pandemic some guardians had never touched a Chromebook,” Ennis said. “We knew right away we needed to develop a lot of resources for our families. Parents are much more comfortable now.”
In addition to phone support, the district’s technology team began an online Parent University, (which it continues to maintain) with videos, webinars and tip sheets to assist families on tech topics from accessibility to using digital learning platforms like Pear Deck and Kami.
Additionally, Hilton began offering mobile hotspots to families that needed them during the pandemic and has continued to do so.
The Harley School
Along with DEI and wellness, technology is at the forefront of areas The Harley School is focused on, according to Michael Frank, a digital media instructor who is one of the leads on the school’s technology team.
Founded in 1917, The Harley School is a student-centered, college preparatory, independent day school in Rochester for about 500 students at the nursery age to grade 12. Among the school’s key technology-related programming focuses are sustainability, biomimicry and maker education.
Seniors can design self-directed capstone projects, which oftentimes involve technology-related research and design in the school’s facilities, like the Commons — a 15,000-square-foot “living building” that generates its own energy and the school’s Moore/Brown Center for Creative Media, a state-of-the-art digital media lab.
Examples of capstone projects include multilingual instructional videos for the nonprofit refugee outreach Mary’s Place to use to show refugees how to use common appliances, an interactive exhibit to teach community members how a solar chimney functions and a guidebook for creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ community members.
While a growth-mindset approach to technology has always been an important part of the learning environment at The Harley School, the pandemic has “raised awareness of the possibilities” of technology, Frank said, citing an example: the increase in classroom guest presenters from outside the Rochester area.
“Where it once seemed like an ‘event,’ now it’s a natural outreach,” said Frank, about teachers using technology to bring guests into the classroom, like representatives from NASA (the school has a partnership with the organization via their project-based HUNCH learning program) and alumni.
Frank is also seeing an increase in the use of virtual and augmented reality in the classroom and the continued growth of technology tools like the Adobe suite and podcasting as a way for students to deploy narratives.
“We see technology as a tool for design solutions, and we believe storytelling is a part of that,” Frank said. “Some solutions come through storytelling and that’s a very powerful thing for students.”
Young Women’s College Prep Charter School of Rochester (YWCP)
Young Women’s College Prep Charter School of Rochester (YWCP) opened in 2012 and is now part of a national network of nearly 20 all-girls college prep schools. All YWCP schools offer rigorous college preparatory curriculum with an emphasis on STEM.
As this young school continues to develop, its leaders continue to think outside the box as to how to support parents and students in unique ways in the technology sphere, says Crystal Rupp, associate principal of the school that has about 250 students.
Students at YWCP have Chromebooks to use in each classroom, and are also provided with a Chromebook to keep at home so they don’t have to take it back and forth. The school also provides hot spot devices for at-home use for families that request one.
The pandemic sped up the school’s transition to Google Classroom which was at about 50% complete pre-pandemic, as well as prompted the school to look into other learning management systems for remote learning with video conferencing.
“Overall, the pandemic helped our students to use technology more consistently,” Rupp said. “Right now students use technology daily to turn in assignments for every class.
“Students have adapted fairly well to the new systems.”
Teachers are provided with ongoing professional development and one-on-one support as needed to help incorporate technology into their daily lessons, and parents are welcome to meet or Zoom with staff at YWCP for technology support.
“We expect technology education to increase for not only our staff and students but for our parents as well,” said Rupp, looking ahead into the next few years. “We hope to offer support for our families to become more technologically savvy and provide them with opportunities to stay up-to-date with systems and instructional practices within technology.”
Caurie Putnam is a Rochester-area freelance writer."