Monday profile: School district tech duo rises to the occasion to roll out online learning in short order
Schools didn’t exactly have a worldwide pandemic plan in place to take learning from the classroom and move it online before COVID-19.
If they had, though, it might look a lot like what has transpired in a few short weeks this spring, according to the Roaring Fork School District’s dynamic technology duo of Brandon Beaudette and Ben Bohmfalk.
The takeaway so far?
A lot of lessons are being learned about how education could be delivered in the post-pandemic future.
“This whole process, to me, has really forced the school district to be able to make decisions far faster than we’ve ever been asked to do before,” Beaudette, the district’s director of technology, said during a recent Google Hangouts interview from his home office in New Castle.
“Internally, I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job being responsive to the volume of changes that came at us pretty fast,” he said. “We’ve never seen our organization work in this manner, so it’s been fun to watch that happen.”
Bohmfalk, from Carbondale, is the technology integration specialist for the district, and a former teacher himself at Basalt and Roaring Fork high schools.
His job is to work directly with teachers to incorporate technology into their instruction practices.
“My position has gone from this optional resource that teachers may access if they want to incorporate technology into their instruction to, ‘OK, this is what we’re doing,’” said Bohmfalk, who also sits on the Carbondale Town Council.
One of the best things that’s come out of the current situation is a heightened level of teamwork across the district, Bohmfalk said.
“The degree of collaboration that teachers are engaged in right now, I think that’s going to last,” he said. “That’s always been hard, because our communities are so spread out. A teacher in Basalt and a teacher in Glenwood might not ever see each other, but now they realize they can do a lot of productive work through these virtual meetings. That’s something I think will last.”
Elementary, my dear Ben
Prior to joining the school district in 2013, Beaudette worked in the IT department at Colorado Mountain College.
Before that, he was a radio signal systems specialist with the U.S. Army and later worked in computer forensics as a police detective.
“I’ve always been involved in technology,” Beaudette said. “After the Army, with my background, I ended up in law enforcement and gravitated into online investigations, mostly white collar crimes…
“I’ve been lucky to be able to pull on those different experiences for my work now,” he said.
Beaudette started with the school district as a computer technician and worked through the ranks to become the lead technology director.
Normally, that involves oversight of information technology throughout the district, and working with Bohmfalk and other members of the instruction team to make sure the right tools are in place.
Online learning occurs every day in a lot of classrooms throughout the district, but no one was ready to go 100% online, Beaudette said.
“Technologically speaking, we had the infrastructure in place,” he said. “That doesn’t speak at all to the extra load on teachers, and what this change meant for them.”
While Beaudette approached the challenge from the technical side of things, he apprciates Bohmfalk’s efforts to keep the teachers in mind.
Digital Down Under
Bohmalk’s technology job was created six years ago to implement a computerized learning management system for the district schools.
He took lead on a project to put school-issued Chromebooks in the hands of all students, fourth grade through high school. That program was expanded to include third grade this year.
He also worked with teachers to set up the online coursework platform called Schoology, where middle and high school students complete and turn in their class assignments. Elementary school teachers and students use Google Classroom.
Prior to that, after having taught high school social studies in Basalt and Carbondale for 10 years, Bohmfalk and his young family lived in his wife’s native Australia from 2012-14.
There, he got a job for an Australian university as part of a team of instructional designers tasked with migrating curriculum to an online distance-learning format.
“It’s like what we’re doing now, except that instead of transitioning from a print-based model we’re transitioning from a face-to-face model to an online model,” Bohmfalk said.
The goal was to create a blend of asynchronous instruction, where coursework is delivered to students to do on their own time, with synchronous components involving real-time online interaction with teachers and classmates.
“I think we have a good blended approach to distance learning right now, where we have core information students can access anytime, along with support and interaction around those resources that students can access in real time,” Bohmfalk said.
It might have been tempting to jump at the latest new tool ed-tech companies were essentially offering up for free when schools across the country had to close down for the remainder of the school year due to the public health emergency.
“We’ve been really intentional in this distance learning transition to say we’re not rolling out new tools,” Bohmfalk said. “That’s where Brandon has been really good about saying, ‘let’s use the platforms we have.’
“With his forensics background, he also has a good eye and a good instinct for things like student data privacy and internet security.”
Closing the digital divide
A big obstacle before the district could begin providing formal online instruction was to make sure as many of the district’s students as possible had the resources they needed.
On the IT side, that meant working with schools to make sure students had access to devices and adequate wifi service to be able to do school work from home.
“It’s really important to me that the product we deliver is of high quality, and is a good experience for students and staff members,” Beaudette said.
But that’s hardly the only concern for families right now.
“People are suffering through this,” he said, noting that the district’s needs assessment turned up a lot of disparity when it comes to family situations.
From the start, the district endeavored to check in on families about basic needs such as, “do you have food? Are the lights on?,” Bohmfalk noted.
“That may be more important than anything specific to content learning,” he said. “That kind of connection and support of our students and their families is one of our top priorities.”
After check-ins were made and needs determined came questions about internet access and computers.
Through that process, the district determined that about 200 families were without home internet service. Some of those families still have not been reached, which is a major concern, he said.
“We’re trying to be as flexible as possible to try to accommodate the fact that there’s just a lot going on for people right now, and we can’t guarantee access to everyone the way we can in the school building,” Bohmfalk said.
Even some teachers and staff members have limited home wifi access and occasions when their internet service is down. The district even opened up its public wifi outside buildings so that, if need be, a teacher or student could at least sit outside and get online.
Kid litmus test
Bohmfalk and Beaudette also both have their own children learning from home, so it’s been a good opportunity to check in with them and their teachers to make sure the systems are working.
“Parents are our teaching partners now, more than ever,” Bohmfalk acknowledged. “Sure, we’re providing the curriculum and the supports, but part of a teacher’s job is classroom management, engagement and keeping kids on task. That’s out of our hands now, and we really do rely on parents to help engage their students and keep them moving forward.”
For his own part, Bohmfalk said that, every weekday morning, he looks at his sixth-grade son’s schedule and helps explain it.
“When he says he’s done, I look at all his work and usually he has to go back and work on something a little more. When he’s done, he has some free time.”
Beaudette said he has enjoyed watching his fifth-grade daughter become engaged in her own learning.
“Whether she’s self-learning or interacting with teachers or her classrooms, it’s been really fun to watch her become an online student,” he said. “I would never be able to see that in school, and now I get to be a part of it with her … because it’s happening in the same house, and sometimes in the same room with me.”
For teachers with school-age children of their own, that juggle between teacher and parent has been another reason for the asynchronous approach to providing online instruction, Bohmfalk said.
“The idea that everyone in the house is going to be actively learning and teaching all day, that’s just not practical,” he said. “That’s why we’ve tried to be flexible and keep the content to a manageable level.”
While there has been some pushback from parents who would like to see a more structured approach and greater student accountability, Bohmfalk said he believes it’s the right path for the current situation.
Once people understand the disparity in home arrangements and gain a little empathy for people who are in challenging situations, he said they might come to understand it differently.
“There are some serious issues going on right now, so we’re trying to say there’s more important stuff than what content we’ll be able to cover by the end of the year,” he said.
In the end, once the district’s approach is analyzed and adjustments made, he said there’s also a good opportunity to evaluate which methods might continue in the long run.
“With some adjustments, we probably have a system we can fall back on if we have another extended closure in the future, or even if we’re out for a week because of a big blizzard.”
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Contact with two presumed positive cases has led to 65 students and staff at Basalt Elementary School transitioning to remote instruction.