Changing Educational Culture Through Practice | An Interview with Erin Schiller
Introducing technology into the classroom is one thing; embedding it into the educational culture of an institution is entirely different. When when iLearn coordinator and Schoology Ambassador Erin Schiller and her team introduced Schoology to their district in Eden Prairie, MN, the aim was to create unity and equality districtwide.
From classroom interaction to professional development to internal staff communications, Erin and her team have integrated Schoology into the framework of the Eden Prairie school district. The results have completely changed the way the district operates.
We had the opportunity to chat with Erin about her district's journey and the lessons she learned along the way. This is what she had to say:
What was your overall vision or goal when implementing a new learning management system?
One of our goals was to have a common place that teachers, coaches, leadership, and administration could come to; a one-stop shop for our students and families to have access to curriculum … [a place] to collaborate with peers and teachers, to have opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning and share that learning; a destination that encompassed a lot of what happened in the classroom, but available for students outside the classroom as well.
We were looking for a digital platform that was very intuitive for our teachers to use—we wanted something that they could come and learn about in one day and be able to start exploring with it and trying out different features that bring learning into their classrooms in a whole new way.
Okay, so you chose Schoology. How has that decision affected the classroom environment? Has the day-to-day work or overall attitude of the classroom changed?
It looks different in each of our classrooms. But [one] of the common threads that I’ve seen throughout our elementary, middle, and high schools has been the opportunity for students to have access to their teachers’ plans, curriculum, and thinking.
They’re getting more access to revisit their learning, to preview or review that learning. Schoology brought a lens into the classroom that previously could only be seen inside the classroom.
The second thing that I see throughout our system has been the opportunity for enhanced communication. Whether that’s through a discussion board feature or a calendar feature or an updates feature, it is that common thread of being able to ask questions, get feedback, and demonstrate their learning through collaborative spaces.
Being able to collaborate and communicate is really a strong feature that gives each student an opportunity to share their voice and thinking. In the class teacher’s can only choose four or five students [to speak] or only four or five students that raise their hands, and those voices are the only voices that are being heard in the class. But if they use a Schoology discussion board or another Schoology feature to bring in the other voices, then it's more powerful for learning for all.
One of the other qualities that has been brought into the classrooms for families as well as for our teachers has been consistency—having a consistent location for calendar updates and any other events or learning experiences that are going to be taking place in the classroom.
How has the educational culture and mood changed in your district?
Students have more ownership of their learning. I think the mood is that students have felt more invested in their schoolwork and invested in the opportunities that they can bring to the classroom, whether that is through their voice or through their learning and their projects. I think teachers feel more ownership to their students and their work because they are able to share that outside the school day.
It's a crosswalk that teachers get to have. [For example], if a student is absent for an extended period of time, the student and teacher can still interact with one another. So I think that the mood is overall really responsive and receptive to having Schoology in our classrooms. It has also brought new experiences and conversations into the classroom that maybe weren’t present before.
How have students reacted to your focus on blended learning?
As a whole, I have seen a lot of students be really engaged and very purposeful in how they're engaged. Our student responses have been really supportive—they really have appreciated the consistency among their teachers and the opportunities to be able to show their work on a digital platform and get that continuous and autonomous feedback from teachers.
I really think that students are getting opportunities for learning both inside and outside class that they may not have had if we hadn’t brought Schoology in.
What about the parent reaction? What changes have you seen in parental roles and interaction?
Our parents have really appreciated having a consistent place to get notifications about their students' progress, work, and events. Parent involvement is still an area of progress for us. While all parents can have access to Schoology, I know not all of our parents have enrolled in it yet.
So, I think one of the avenues for improvement is in the benefits and communication opportunities that we bring to our families. I think that the power in the community and in the experience for parents is when their child comes home and says, "Hey, look at my progress!" When we can involve the students in bringing that energy and curiosity and excitement forward for the parents to take the time to look and see what’s going on in Schoology, we can better reach all of our parents.
The parents who [are] checking Schoology each week … have been very excited to see what kind of progress and work and commitment level the students are demonstrating. Because unless the teacher has another avenue to show it, parents don’t always have access to see that learning.
What is the main focus of Eden Prairie’s Professional Development program? What methods do you use for professional development?
Our professional development with Schoology has been a “good-better-best approach”. When we started, it was really focused on opportunities for how we could use Schoology to teach our teachers about LMSs. So we designed a list of the “Top 10” skill sets at a foundational level for our teachers to start learning in Schoology.
As the coaching team evolved, we moved into a “better" stage. Our teachers design learning for their students as part of their own professional development.
All of our professional development in Eden Prairie for teachers is done through Schoology. We set it up through discussion boards, pages, media albums, embedded content. We design all of our professional learning for teachers in Schoology so that they can see different types of interaction strategies and different ways to collaborate online, to mirror what they’re seeing … and then bring that over to their classes.
When we moved into our “best" cycle, it was an opportunity to be reflective about how our students participate in their own learning. So instead of taking it from the lens of thinking about what the teacher is contributing to the learning, we refined it to how the students are contributing and driving their own learning.
Once we reached this level, we started the process over again. It has been a continuous wheel of improvement and opportunity for reflection and refinement of our own practice with Schoology.We are modeling best practices for our teachers to implement in their own classrooms.
We have now started to lay a foundation for a Schoology 101 course, 102 course, 103 course, for our teachers to have hands-on access to learning about designing their own learning and then implementing this through the lens of Schoology [while] also learning the ins and outs of all of the different tools and opportunities that Schoology can bring them.
Does the entire district staff use the platform, beyond teachers and students?
Just as we have built online courses for our teachers, we also have built other themed courses for all staff. For example, all staff in our district just took a Schoology course on culturally relevant practices, and so all staff in our district have now had an experience in using the platform in that capacity. If we have other trainings or other professional learning for staff in the district, we run that all-staff training through Schoology.
The other thing that we’ve done is designed Schoology “courses" for each of our building sites. All staff in that building join the course, and it might be used as a communication platform for all staff to be aware of different events or messages, or if there is a survey or we need to get feedback from all staff, we include that into our course.
It really has been an opportunity to have common communication and to experience Schoology from the eyes of our students. We use Schoology to help our staff learn about everything from Twitter and Google Drive to culturally responsive practices! There are all different practices and concepts and themes and learning concept areas that we have built into Schoology groups or courses for our staff.
How do you strike a balance between unity and personalization?
Teachers and coaches still have the autonomy to design a course or a group according to whatever is needed for the purpose ... we can design everything, down to what the folder structure and course design looks like, including what level of communication we use within a course or group.
What’s the biggest impact your technology strategy has made on your district?
One of the most important is the opportunity to connect grade levels across the district. For example, we have six different elementary schools, so to have curriculum resources or groups where all grade levels have access to their grade-level curriculum group has been really powerful and provided a new level of consistency.
[It has also enabled us] to bring forward teaching ideas and classroom ideas and activities that they can share and learn from one another. That cross-district collaboration and communication helped expand the opportunities in each of our classrooms.
From our middle school and high school perspective a big impact has been that our students can start to develop in an online environment that is a safe place. They’re learning the skill sets of how to have a discussion online, how to interact in an online course or through an online presence, but within the realm of a K-12 classroom with that support network built-in.
What’s the one thing you would tell an educational professional considering Schoology for their own school or district?
Sign up today. Really.
It has changed my work with teachers—the lens of collaboration and communication, the opportunities that I can bring for students to really have access and ownership in sharing their learning within their classrooms, with classrooms around the district, or even those around the country.
Instruction and teacher expertise that has otherwise been limited to a single classroom is now able to be expanded into the homes of our families and students. I really think that if you are an educator looking to bring forward experience and opportunity for your students to be creative and collaborative and work on communication practices, Schoology is the place for you.