Technology in a Time of Pandemic: Versatility & Expansion
In March, when the curtain came down on school as we knew it, Renbrook was well-positioned to pivot to online learning. “We had done the heavy lifting in 2018-2019,“ says Dave Blodgett, Academic Technology Coordinator, “when we moved to a cloud-based system school-wide.” In March 2020, teachers and staff were already living in Microsoft’s “more is more” online environment, and the sudden onset of virtual school accelerated their exploration of new ways to connect with students using a variety of apps and platforms.
Experienced faculty stepped up to help others become comfortable with a broad range of tools. Microsoft Teams gave students new ways to share and collaborate, as long-term projects allowed them to work at their own pace and use their time flexibly. Upper School students became accustomed to arranging individual Zoom meetings with teachers when they needed help. While the spring was a challenging—even harrowing—time, students and teachers alike kept learning and growing, and the sense that we were all pulling together was strong.
Upgrading the school’s network, which had been on the horizon, was moved to the front burner over the summer. The old network, installed in 1996, was a two-lane highway, says Dave Blodgett; now we needed ten lanes to accommodate all the traffic. This huge investment, made possible by contributions to Freddy’s Future, set Renbrook up to be effective for years to come.
The next task was to adjust our access points to the new geography of the school, making high-speed Internet available in the outdoor classrooms and sequestered indoor spaces we would need to use in the fall. “There was no playbook,” observes Sue Werner, Director of Technology. “We had to make our best guesses in order to realize the Leadership Team’s vision for how we would operate when the students returned. The only constant was: Don’t get used to any one plan; it’s sure to change.”
Another big investment was purchasing laptops for every student in Grades K through 5. They were ordered on May 15, but due to shortages and distribution issues caused by world-wide demand, they did not arrive until December. They are now in students’ busy hands.
Sue and Dave explain that technology rewards curiosity; it gives the curious tools they can use to dig creatively. For example, Upper School STEAM teacher Olivia Goodrich seized on students’ enthusiasm for Minecraft, and they built virtual models in science and history. A virtual club formed and is building a detailed model of Renbrook School using Minecraft. Many applications and systems became free of charge to educators during the spring—Loom and Book Creator, for instance—and teachers took advantage of them. Betsy Flynn, Grade 5 teacher and Diversity Coordinator, and Dave Blodgett have offered a podcast, “Making Learning Visible,” with more ideas for teachers.
While what’s behind the walls—our infrastructure—enables us to be nimble, Dave attributes the creative use of technology at Renbrook to our culture. “Renbrook is full of faculty and staff who are always ready to say, ‘Yes! Let’s try it!’” he says, “We have people who are intense, but optimistic. And we have an administration who support and expect creativity.”
Asking, “How can we adapt? How can we use this new tool?” comes naturally at Renbrook, and enhanced technology has proved valuable in answering our questions. As Renbrook enjoyed this fall in person—outdoors, socially distant, masked—we knew that if we should have to pivot again to online learning, we would be well equipped to take it in stride.