Edtech and credit recovery go hand-in-hand. Most educators can envision how to structure a credit recovery lab, and many have already implemented one in their school or district. But administrators at Putnam County schools thought beyond the lab and are using edtech for more than credit recovery. They brought technology into the hands of almost every student and teacher in their district by implementing comprehensive training and providing support for teachers. This small-town personalized learning supervisor is redefining personalized learning in his district, and here he shares the lessons he learned from early credit recovery labs, and details how he brought edtech to all his students.
Where Learning Clicks: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Putnam County Schools.
Sam Brooks: I’m the personalized learning supervisor for the Putnam County School System, leading all student and teacher personalized learning opportunities in the district. I’m also active with the VITAL program, launched in 2009, which includes a full-time K–12 virtual school in Tennessee. We’ve actually outgrown our name because now it’s not about virtual as much as personalized learning. When the program started getting going in the spring of 2009, we were trying to define what VITAL was going to be, and at that time, it was really just credit recovery and an early look at what digital learning might do for an initial credit student. Then we switched our edtech provider, and that really helped us to solidify our program as something for every student and teacher.
We believe personalized learning empowers students with voice and choice in the learning process. It’s a student-centered approach that is facilitated by the teacher, based on each learner’s mastery.
When you look at what we’re seeing in personalized learning today, like the lower costs and getting technology into regular classrooms, it really all started with credit recovery in the lab setting. Labs were something big at the time, so Putnam County funded the building of computer labs in our schools. Credit recovery was a very useful tool for kids who were not successful in a traditional classroom, and we gave them the opportunity, through digital means, to recover and recoup a class. Then we started wondering, could this be possible with initial credit or credit advancement? We also started to look at technology as a tool for competency-based learning. So once we switched to Edgenuity®, we saw that it was mastery-based and centered on state standards, which allowed us to develop different uses for the same tools.
WLC: It’s great that you’re using edtech for more than credit recovery, and you’re creating personalized learning opportunities for your whole district. But “personalized learning” is a somewhat ambiguous term, so how have you defined it for your school?
Sam: One big suggestion I have for schools is to define personalized learning before you set out to create it. We believe personalized learning empowers students with voice and choice in the learning process. It’s a student-centered approach that is facilitated by the teacher, based on each learner’s mastery. For us, personalized learning is about giving the teacher the ability to reach more student needs on an individual basis. So, sometimes, that’s a device, and many times it’s not. Personalized learning is not about a computer; it’s about giving students resources to learn in a way that is most beneficial to them.
We also talk a lot about personalized learning pathways. This is an opportunity for the student and the parent to define what they want their learning to look like. For example, we have about 600–700 middle-school students taking high-school classes for credit, and that’s just going to provide them with more options and opportunities for Early Post Secondary Opportunities (EPSO) when they reach high school. That’s a pathway choice they have made, and we support through the use of technology.
A lot of schools are using blended learning, but if you can’t personalize it, then you’re just using technology in a classroom or digitizing traditional teaching. We ask, what value does it give the student and the teacher? If we’re not meeting the individual needs of a student, then we’re in a traditional classroom, regardless of whether or not you’re using technology. If the student is ahead, we want to give them more, and if they’re behind, we need to support them. And that’s why we talk in terms of personalized learning and focus on using edtech for more than credit recovery.
WLC: You’ve said you want your students to be “future ready.” What exactly does that mean?
Sam: Well, we were seeing a lot of people talking about being “college and career ready.” We like that, but that language separates the two categories. When I grew up, everyone said you needed a four-year degree to be successful, but now there is an equal need for skilled, educated workers. So it’s no longer a reality that students have to go to college, and when they earn a professional certification in high school, many go on to work for companies that will fund their college education. So we wanted a term that incorporated both paths and didn’t separate them, which is why we talk about being future ready. Our entire Pre-K–12 Teaching & Learning Department is now under the Future Ready umbrella and uses a common language to help our students and families understand the pathway options and opportunities available in Putnam County.
Technology is the focus of future jobs, and 65% of the jobs our students will have in 5 years don’t exist today. If teachers aren’t using technology in the classroom, then we are not doing what we need to be doing to get them ready for these jobs. While we don’t focus on personalizing learning with technology, it’s certainly a key component of their future.
This is an opportunity for the student and the parent to define what they want their learning to look like.
WLC: So are all of your students using technology for learning?
Sam: Our goal is to be 1:1, but we’re not throwing away the things we’ve done for years. Every facet of pedagogy is still relevant, including writing with a pen and paper. But how can we meet the needs of all of our students? That was the hardest thing to do when I was a biology teacher, but now technology gives us the ability to differentiate in ways we never could before.
WLC: Can you talk a bit about the importance of training teachers to use the technology?
Sam: Teacher training is so important to success. We have dedicated technology specialists, and we all learned how to use the programs ourselves before we went out to train our teachers at our schools. When I got into this role in 2014, it was imperative that we learned everything we could to make the connections for teachers. We like to partner with our vendors to be more than just product users, to actually learn about the product.
WLC: Have your teachers been receptive to your initiatives?
Sam: Everyone is still very early in the “proper” use of technology in the classroom. Some teachers look at it like we’ve added something else to their plate, but once they realize it can give them back time in their day, they tend to buy into it very quickly. It gives them the ability to reach those students that otherwise get left behind, and when they see that value, they are all for it.
WLC: What would you say to teachers who are reluctant to start incorporating technology into their classrooms?
Sam: It gives you the ability to differentiate. You can use Google Classroom to pull things in from Edgenuity that will help support a standard that you’re trying to teach to your class. And that can help you support the students at any level. We show teachers that they can provide opportunities for their students by incorporating different tools into their classrooms, and they are amazed. We help them see that these different resources can be blended together to do things that they never could do in a traditional classroom.
Our director is always asking, “How else can we use it?” So, we started looking at the flexibility it provided. We have the ability to reach a student in 10th grade who has gaps at the 8th-grade level, which is very useful. On the other end, a gifted kid in 8th grade who is working at a 10th-grade level can get the resources he needs in the same classroom as his peers. We are able to meet the needs of the students in a regular setting and provide more resources to both the students and the teachers.
WLC: And how do you measure a successful year?
Sam: Unfortunately, most student success is measured by a score on a test that supposedly defines how much they’ve learned all year. I realize that’s always going to be a requirement, but I like to look beyond that. Putnam County wants to be able to give students outcomes that mean something, give them the opportunity to be a critical thinker, work in a team, and go through an interview to get a job while integrating soft skills that will make a difference. I understand the test is what we have to do, but there are a lot of other things they do, too, and those are the things the VITAL program helps our students with. Yes, our program helps with ACT® scores; yes, our program helped with graduation rates, but it’s really the unofficial things. When teachers call us and say we were able to do this with a student today and they’re happy about it, that success on a personal level is what gives you chills and makes you think you’re doing good things.
Tennessee just put out the report card for our schools’ career readiness, and our score increased 7.2% this year. But what’s not shown in that score is the number of students that are already going to college while in high school. If it included that number, it would be much higher because we have over 700 students getting college credit while in high school. There are so many benefits to that. It helps them learn what it takes to be a successful student in a post-secondary setting while they’re at home with their parents. And as a parent, I knew when my son stepped foot on his college campus, he knew what it took to be a successful college student because he had that experience in high school. And all of our students will continue to grow because we provide these opportunities.