This article is part of the 2022-2023 Guide to Baltimore Independent Schools.
How the pandemic pushed educators to embrace the best of technology for learning
Students at Gilman School are taking more virtual field trips. At Roland Park Country School (RPCS), students are using platforms like Quizlet and Kahoot to make their own in-class learning games. The Bryn Mawr School is launching a fully accredited online high school.
Educators throughout Baltimore say the technologies they relied on in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when classes abruptly shuttered and learning went remote, are still in use now that students are back in the classrooms.
The software, apps and other tools don’t replace hands-on, in-person learning, but instead provide new opportunities for creativity and collaboration. Zoom can help students connect with off-campus experts and learn from virtual tours. Combined with devices like the Swivl robot or Owl camera, it enables students to participate in classroom discussions from afar. Technologies like Google Docs and Office 365 allow teachers to critique assignments collaboratively with students, who can see and respond in the same document in real time.
The improvements extend beyond the classroom. Using technologies that were fast-tracked during the pandemic, teachers and students continue to rely on these more streamlined and consistent methods for tracking and submitting assignments via software-based learning management systems. Teachers can more easily collaborate with each other on lesson plans or virtually attend meetings or professional development sessions. And parents have the option of remote teacher conferences.
“I think the pandemic not only jump-started new ways of using technology for education at the St. Paul’s Schools, but also fostered a culture of adaptation alongside using new technologies that has allowed us to continue to innovate,” says Emily Ziegler, director of instructional technology and innovation at the St. Paul’s Schools. “Before the pandemic, I would have had a lot of hesitation asking faculty and experts in the field to connect remotely, but now it isn’t as an afterthought.”
Ziegler described how students in a technology and entrepreneurship course met virtually with business experts around the country to learn about their challenges and successes, and worked with a local entrepreneur to create revenue forecasting models.
Expanding Access to Innovations
In many schools, the technologies were used in moderation before the pandemic, became essential during the spring of 2020, and then moved from educational lifelines to in-person learning enhancements.
Gilman was already using a technology called Portal to connect students and educators on the Baltimore campus with other Portal users around the globe, enabling virtual exploration of landmarks like the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.
Portal, though, required that students gather in a free-standing room on campus delivered by parent company Shared Studios, where life-sized images of collaborators were projected on a large screen. That option ended in March 2020, when students and educators moved off campus and shifted to online learning.
Tye Campbell, director of technology at the time and now director of strategic information and innovation at Gilman, wasn’t ready to abandon those opportunities to connect Gilman students with people and places outside their classrooms.
Seeing that more museums and other educational destinations had started offering virtual tours as a way to maintain interest when people couldn’t visit in person, he helped teachers arrange virtual field trips in place of both real field trips and the Portal.
The trips could be pre-scheduled and led by Gilman teachers, or individual students could explore at their own pace. Some tours made use of virtual reality headsets, while others took place over computer screens.
The innovation continued after students returned to in-person classes and remains a powerful and engaging educational tool to this day, says Campbell, one that lets teachers provide field trips in the space of an hour without the hassles of rearranged days, permission slips and chaperones.
“The pandemic definitely expanded a lot of opportunity,” he says. “So many virtual experiences became available, and we expect the incredible resources that the situation forced us to create won’t just disappear. From a teaching and learning perspective, one of our goals is to make sure the lessons and skills gained, those things don’t go away now that kids are back in the classroom.”
Going Fully Remote
Bryn Mawr will apply the remote learning lessons of the pandemic as it launches a fully online high school experience this fall, says Justin Curtis, the school’s senior director of academic and strategic initiatives and director of the new fully accredited online high school, Bryn Mawr Online.
“We joke that it took COVID for us to realize how well we could do it,” he says.
Curtis launched an online Bryn Mawr summer program in 2020, after the pandemic forced the school to transition to remote learning that spring. “I remember sitting in classes before spring break of 2020, talking about how to do remote learning,” says Curtis. “We have a great team of teachers and we just transitioned to online. We felt comfortable quickly. We learned a lot about how to structure lessons to keep kids engaged, and also realized we could get experts and other speakers from anywhere.”
Bryn Mawr Online launches in the 2022-2023 school year with a class of 9th graders, and will add a high school grade each year, says Curtis. The students are mostly on the East Coast and many have outside pursuits such as sports that make the more flexible online schedule attractive. They will offer a mix of synchronous and asynchronous classes, with opportunities to interact with their Baltimore-based Bryn Mawr college counselors, teachers, and fellow students. Tuition is lower than in-person schooling.
Striking a Balance
School officials and teachers keep tinkering with the balance between using technologies that enhance learning and protecting the in-person and hands-on aspects of education. The best technologies encourage students to create, says Robert Anderson, who joined RPCS as academic technology specialist in November 2020 and recently was promoted to the new role of director of academic technology and innovation.
He likes technologies like Prezi and Canva, graphic design platforms that let students make interactive and animated presentations; and tools like Quizlet, which can be used to make in-class learning games that are particularly popular with middle-school students.
Some technologies even limit distractions to help students focus on in-person instruction. “I’m a tech person, but there are times when technology is not necessary,” Anderson says.
With computers now ubiquitous in classrooms, Anderson adds Go Guardian and Go Guardian Teacher to school-issued Chromebooks to keep students from surfing and scrolling instead of paying attention to the lesson.
Go Guardian blocks and filters content and monitors student activity, so if a student is looking for information about bullying or suicide, for example, it will notify appropriate staff. Go Guardian Teacher lets teachers limit computer use during class, for example making it so students can open just one tab or can only use Google Docs.
Chris Case, director of library services and instructional technology for the Park School, says when the pandemic began, the school made sure all faculty members had laptops with Google Classroom, an app that gives teachers an organized and paperless way to make, collect, and grade assignments.
“We implemented dozens of new teaching tools and web-based applications to support student learning,” Case says. He describes how Zoom, sometimes with a Swivl robot that automatically tracks an educator walking around a classroom, allowed teachers during the pandemic to use remote or virtual instruction, something that continues today when necessary or helpful.
“The pandemic quickly made us pivot to heavier technology use,” Case says. “But having spent time with the technology, we are now seeing ways in which we can continue to improve student outcomes and engage students with more play and activity-based applications.”