Why this large Illinois district is rethinking its approach to edtech sourcing
Spread across more than 40 individual buildings, Rockford Public Schools is the third largest school district in Illinois. As Director of Educational Technology for the entire district, Susan Uram is responsible for ensuring that approximately 28,000 students and their teachers have access to the most impactful learning technology available.
After 22 years as a classroom teacher, plus time spent as an instructional coach and curriculum designer, Uram took on this new position just three years ago when it was first established. Passionate about intentionally integrating technology, she sees the role as critical to amplifying learning and a key part of her district’s five-year plan to increase the overall graduation rate from 60% to 75. Here, she explains how Course of Mind: ISTE’s learning sciences initiative is part of this ambitious plan.
EdSurge: Why did you sign up for the Launch into Learning Sciences course?
Ouram: What, in my opinion, has brought all this to the point of having to be consolidated and targeted, is the SOPPA law. It really forced all the stakeholders to come together and say, “Well, what tools are we using with our kids? Why do we use them? We’re starting to realize that we’re dealing with student data every time we put kids online.
And the pedagogical icing on the cake is that it forced us to think. This new law, I think, has really caused everyone to sit up and say, “We all play a role in this”, right down to the teacher who makes the decision to send their students to a particular. This decision really shouldn’t be based solely on data privacy; it should also be based on educational value.
And that’s where Course of Mind came in. It was exactly what we needed: something to help us understand and objectively assess a tool’s alignment and value in our system. This course, in particular, and this whole process made me feel less isolated in these endeavors.
How would you describe your district’s approach to edtech procurement prior to enrolling in this course?
It was the “Wild West” of purchasing. With as many buildings as we have, and each building having separate contracts and different digital vendors, schools were making decisions in silos. There was no internal collaboration that handled filtering, brainstorming, discussion, or cross-referencing.
Historically, we also haven’t given much thought to accessibility or fairness components in these tools. It’s definitely something we’re thinking about now. Being one-on-one now means there should be nothing in the way children access their learning. And that’s where, honestly, the pandemic has done great things for education in so many ways. It forces us to reflect on old practices and embrace new ideas rather than continuing with the status quo. We are making a new start because we have to see things in a different way. There’s never been this connection between having a deep enough understanding of the learning process to be able to apply it to how you assess something.
What aspects of the course were most relevant or useful to you?
We talked about how the brain learns, in terms of memorizing and creating understanding that can be applied in new situations – the mechanical part of learning. And it took away some of the emotional aspects of decision-making. It really forces you into something more objective. Rather than just saying “It looks fun or different” or “Kids like to play it”, we should ask ourselves if the tool supports the learning process.
I also enjoyed talking about what drives our learning. If the kids like doing something, that’s great, we’re happy, but does it create long-term motivation around learning and content, or just around an avatar and some points, for example ? As a system, we need to focus on what will really improve instruction when deciding whether a tool is good or not.
And there was a part in the course about things a platform can do, like working examples, practice recovery, and spaced practice. These are things that, as teachers, maybe we just put into our teaching, but we didn’t necessarily expect the same from a digital tool. But why not us? Why can’t we?
We really need to evolve our thinking about how we teach and what we teach, but still root in the mechanics of the brain, the individual student and their ability to retain and apply that information in meaningful ways.
Concretely, how might your experience with the course change your district’s approach to procurement in the future?
When laying out the whole process, from finding something you think you need to actually implementing it, there are all these steps along the way. What we need is to be able to tie things together in a way that is deeper learning. But how can we communicate this to our teachers in an digestible way? They don’t have time to sit down and take this course, but we need them to begin to see the ‘why’ behind the ability to think through and carefully evaluate what we are adopting.
Right now we are seeing a shift from that “Wild West” to what probably looks like a very restrictive environment for a teacher. This is not meant to interrupt their innovation or deny them the things they think they need, but it does hopefully foster a collaborative conversation around what is best for the student and for learning. And that’s where we need a lot of help – to find a more concrete way to convey why we’re doing this. I want teachers to always come up with new tools, and I want them to know that they are going to be thoroughly scrutinized and given consideration based on the facts of the science of learning, the idea of how the brain works and how a tool can complement that.
Our first step is to get something as transparent as possible within the district about how we decide what we’re going to do. Then we have systems of teacher leaders, program managers, principals who join in those conversations. So it’s not just a disconnected administrative decision; it’s something we do together, in consultation. This is where we turn around the big conversation about equity and curriculum alignment. I think we have to consider this collective responsibility to own our children as a group.
Let’s talk about your experience with Course of Mind coaching. What do you hope to accomplish with this support?
During our sessions, we will focus entirely on our practice problem and create a rubric, a way to convey the “why” to our stakeholders and explain how we are transitioning to this system. So that’s what I anticipate.
I am quite optimistic that we can leave after two coaching sessions with a fairly substantial first draft of this section. Then we can pass that on to our various stakeholders – some principals, our faculty council, some teachers on the team – take a little tour of the district and test the waters. Hopefully after the first conversation we can create something that we can take on tour so that in the second session we can bring that back and say, “That’s what people liked and didn’t like.” didn’t like. How are we going to smooth out those changes and make sure we get to what’s really good for the district?”
With our district focused on continuous improvement, we always strive to reflect and evolve our practices. We have already started some of these collaborations. And we’re starting to see the benefits.