In mid-March, Albemarle middle and high schools will open their doors two days a week for all students who want to return to in-person learning—the first time these students will have face-to-face classes since March of 2020. Families may still choose at-home instruction instead, and offering both versions of every class each day will require a balancing act by teachers. Fortunately, school-based facilitators called Learning Technology Integrators (LTI’s) will help them chart a path.
Western Albemarle High School’s LTI is Alfred Toole, and he’s been thinking about this challenge for a long time. “Much of the time I’m just in the moment helping someone who’s having a crisis with Zoom or one of the learning management systems, but the other piece of my job is forward-thinking, imagining what this is going to look like,” said Toole. “We are looking at Stage 4 and asking, ‘what do the teachers need to know how to do?’”
Toole works closely with WAHS principal Jason Lee and assistant principal Reed Gillespie to offer technology solutions to aid teachers as the process moves from theory to reality. “It’s one thing to play with models using classroom design software, and it’s another to go in that classroom and have teachers ask, ‘Okay, how do I socially distance, how do I move around my classroom, where do I set up my camera and computer, what do I do with the cables and wires,’” said Toole. “Everyone has to work through it at their own comfort level.”
Preparation is key, and Toole, mellow and soft-spoken, is the perfect guide to help teachers de-stress. “I’m creating video ‘how-to’s,’ Google docs with step-by-step instructions, and classroom diagrams for those who like visuals,” he said. “I’m planning to set up a classroom, like they do in a model house, where we can show teachers what it looks like and they can play with the tech, understanding that they are probably not going to feel fully comfortable for a while, but at least they can get the idea.”
A big fan of testing, Toole has been trying out the tech with staff to find optimal setups. One of the biggest challenges will be how a teacher can instruct and be responsive to all students when some are in the room and others are online. “I’ve been testing scenarios with Bluetooth speakers, snowball microphones, and extra displays,” he said. “I went to the library while one teacher was in her classroom, and she moved all around her space and I could hear her fine. I had a headset—pretending I was a student—and she routed the conversation through the speakers, so then everybody in that space could talk and hear others.”
About 70% of Western students have opted to switch to in-person learning in Stage 4, the highest proportion among Albemarle high schools. The school’s policy has been to allow online students to choose to have their computer cameras on or off, and many leave them off, robbing teachers of the visual cues they count on to modulate their instruction. Toole is hoping that those remaining online will be drawn back into the school community if the tech supports them, and that the in-person students will be re-energized by being back in the classroom.
“Once they come back, we want to keep them,” said Toole. “While some teachers may think, ‘Well, I’m just going to do what I’ve been doing [online],’ my hope is they’ll realize that if a kid is coming in to school, then you need to take advantage of some of the things that you can do beyond just virtually. The big buzz word right now is ‘teacher time,’ which is obviously at a premium.”
Even as the focus is on technological solutions to these problems, Toole would like that part to be almost invisible. “If the focus is on the tech, then we’ve lost, and I haven’t done my job as well as I thought. If you go to a play and return talking about the lighting, then something technological has failed,” he said. He also pays close attention to both teacher and student tolerance levels. “For instance, I know from the experience of video editing, people will put up with bad video image if they can hear it, but they won’t put up with bad audio. If you can’t hear what’s going on, forget it, so we are purchasing high quality audio equipment to make sure that piece works.”
Toole says that building community and relationships is central to all that they do as LTIs, and that extends to his relationships with harried teachers. “People get frustrated [with tech], but I tell my teachers, ‘If you spend more than 10 minutes on something and you’re frustrated after that, you should call me, text me, or email me and let me do that part for you,’ he said. “If I have a teacher who is pretty sure that the technology hates them, then I’ll talk with them in person instead of just email.”
“You know when someone is in an emergency situation one of the first things they tell you is ‘just stay calm,’ and that’s what I try to tell everyone,” he said. “Yes, the tech is not behaving as we would like it to, but we’re going to get it in line for you.’”