Teachers in Hamilton County Schools, Tenn., have learned to use ed-tech tools and platforms with the help of a local digital literacy program, boosting their confidence while adjusting to remote instruction.
Recent research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and other sources suggests most K-12 students today have a sense of familiarity with technology such as laptops, iPads and tablets from a young age. When COVID-19 school closures forced them into remote learning environments, kids already knew how to use many of the tools they needed. But for some of their teachers with decades of classroom experience, school closures meant a steep learning curve with new digital tools and learning platforms.
As instructors across the country changed their teaching habits to accommodate remote students, some in Hamilton County Schools in Tennessee looked to a digital literacy training program, Tech Goes Home Chattanooga (TGH-CHA), for guidance. The initiative, launched in 2015 under its parent economic development nonprofit Enterprise Center, has trained teachers to navigate and best utilize ed-tech platforms like Google Classroom, PowerSchool and Canvas, the county's current learning management system.
Over 500 Hamilton educators have received digital training since the program was established. About 200 of those signed up for the program during the course of the pandemic.
“When we started out, we had around 15 teachers in that first class. Now we have waiting lists, and we’re doing 100 at a time each summer,” program manager Sammy Lowdermilk said, adding that the program so far has offered nearly 350 courses. “It’s been impressive to see our Hamilton County school teachers look for that growth.”
Hamilton County Schools tech coach Michelle Bettis said much of the district's recent focus has been on professional tech development for teachers who rapidly pivoted to remote learning platforms with little digital experience.
Bettis believes the tools that have been used to facilitate remote learning will play an increasingly critical role in classrooms in the years ahead. Though many of Hamilton County's 45,000 students began returning to full-time, in-person learning this school year, Bettis said digital literacy is still a must for educators in the 21st century.
“We had teachers who had never been on the [video conferencing] platform Zoom, or had never used Nearpod and some of the other presentation apps available to them, so we offered a whole menu of professional development opportunities to them,” she said. “While there was a drastic shift, I think all of the changes are ultimately positive. We’ve empowered our teachers by giving them greater technology skills."
Bettis said the pandemic served as a catalyst for professional development, such as the courses offered by TGH-CHA. The partnership, she said, was established to supplement other teacher training efforts in Hamilton County, including courses through which teachers can become Google Certified Educators.
“Over the last couple months especially, we’ve looked at ways to share tools [for teachers] to help them whether they’re in person or doing virtual learning,” she said, adding that training programs boosted their confidence.
According to TGH-CHA's website, the program was based on Tech Goes Home in Boston, a separate program of the same name that also focuses on digital skill-building and assists residents unable to afford devices. Drawing from the Boston program, TGH-CHA sought to offer tech training through 15-hour courses designed to help participants with their digital blindspots.
Lowdermilk said the training, also geared toward students and parents, provides trainees with about $500 worth of courses and tools. He noted that participants can choose to purchase a Chromebook for just $50 – a fraction of the retail price – and learn about where to find affordable Internet service from TGH-CHA trainers.
“The only cost to the teacher [or participant] is the $50 if they choose to take the Chromebook, but they can take the class for free without the device, as well,” he said.
Since its inception, TGH-CHA has received approximately $2.8 million in local government funds and philanthropic grants to continue its training programs and provide devices. Last year, the program's efforts were further boosted by funding from the CARES Act, and its parent nonprofit received $1.5 million in federal relief funds to provide free fiber-optic Internet to 30,000 students – building upon the district's other efforts to provide devices to students in need during remote learning.
While Chattanooga and the county have been lauded for their strides toward digital equity and modernization, Lowdermilk said more is needed for digital inclusion. And he believes tech training programs for schools have been a crucial component alongside other efforts.
“Learning was definitely moving toward a digitized landscape before the pandemic. The pandemic just kind of highlighted that,” he said. “In Hamilton County, almost every student has a device. We need to utilize that technology as best we can, and our teachers need to be trained around that technology.”
Lowdermilk and Bettis said TGH-CHA training sessions have provided a space for educators to learn from each other, which has been important throughout a difficult process.
“I think the biggest takeaway is their cohorts and the relationships that they establish [through the courses],” Lowdermilk said.
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