Eyes on the Future: Building on COVID Lessons for Enriched Teaching and Learning

By Michele Israel

Understanding and Boosting Student Engagement in Today’s 21st Century Learning Environments edLeader Panel recording link


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COVID-19 was tough on schools, calling for swift shifts in teaching and learning practices to support virtual learning environments and a host of new pedagogical demands. The changes altered the educational landscape, inspiring educators to embrace new instructional methods and carry them over to their classrooms once they returned to normalcy.

In an edLeader Panel, sponsored by CatchOn, An ENA Affiliate and Battelle for Kids, school administrators emphasized pandemic-triggered changes are lessons learned that can frame effective educational practices moving forward.

The Role of Technology During COVID

At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, schools defaulted to online learning. Even though many had been using technology in the classroom, they were not ready for the full-on virtual digital learning environment COVID demanded. Student engagement suffered.

Over time, the need to quickly adapt led to heightened online student engagement, according to a CatchOn survey of 47 school districts from January 2020 to January 2021. Findings indicated that as schools established a mix of learning environments and learned how to leverage technology to support students, learner engagement online grew substantially, from a low of 18 engagements per day per user at the start of the pandemic to 35 daily engagements by the fall. Those numbers increased into the winter as virtual learning continued and took hold.

Behind those numbers were exploring, planning, and trial and error on the part of school districts, schools, and teachers to make sure students were learning as they would have in face-to-face classrooms.

Dr. Kelly May-Vollmar, Assistant Superintendent of Educational and Technology Services of the Desert Sands Unified School District in California, explained that rolling out online learning in her district involved reviewing previous tech advancements and gaps to select technology and create programs to accelerate student learning.

It reflected on potential new initiatives with the “plan-do-study-act” method it always uses:

  • First, it examines capacity: Can the district and teacher knowledge, ability, and time manage something new?
  • Following this assessment is the design of an implementation plan centered on anticipated program outcomes.
  • Finally, if implemented, the program is measured to determine whether the desired impact and outcomes materialized. If not, the district decides what to tweak and where to build capacity.

Dr. May-Vollmar noted that individual teachers who want specific programs or applications first review a flow chart that guides their decision making. They consider factors including data privacy and security and curricular alignment and enhancement. And they confer with peers and administrators to see if what they want is beneficial to teaching and learning.

Leveraging technology to support all student learners is essential. Access and connectivity must be equitable. Without devices and the tech tools needed for online learning, many students will not have a quality virtual education (especially when remote teaching and learning happen every day!).

Professional Learning

While schools had already built successful professional learning programs, COVID shifted some of their thinking. More robust technology-centered professional development was needed and much of it was provided.

Dr. May-Vollmar explained that Desert Sands teachers who adopted and successfully used specific tools shared their impact and outcomes, which grew professional development opportunities exponentially, from after-school academies to how-to and best-practice recordings in teacher portals.

Dr. May-Vollmar and Dr. Aaron Spence, Superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools, agreed that there is no “one-size-fits-all” professional development. Their districts offer several ways for teachers to build their tech skills and knowledge, many of them selected by teachers.

Desert Sands, added Dr. May-Vollmar, drew on teacher surveys to provide rich professional learning to build their capacity in various ways that include after-school academies, gamified online PD, Google boot camp, micro training videos, and surveying teachers first to see what they wanted and needed.

Logged On but Logged Out: Are Students Engaged?

If students are online and connected to an application, are they learning? If they are logged in, are they engaged? Are they paying attention? Are they even listening? How do teachers know?

“If we are intensely interested in learning,” Dr. Spence explained, “we must understand that engagement is about the kids’ engagement in the learning experience. It’s them telling you about what they’re learning and why they’re learning it, what it means to them and how they can apply it in their world, in their community, life and future. They must be deeply engaged that way. And you know, you can’t tell that just because they’re online.”

The goal, said Dr. Spence, is to design instruction that uses sound instructional strategies (as educators should do in all learning environments). Culturally responsive practices, differentiated learning, helpful feedback, self-assessment, checking for understanding, invitational learning, opportunities for students to see themselves in what they learn, etc., should be embedded in online learning.

He described a teacher in his district who transitioned differentiated learning into the online setting. “She really impressed me with her grasp of how this has forced her to differentiate learning experiences for children,” he explained. “How having some of them in person with her and some of them online with her…really hit home for her that kids need different things in order to enter into the learning experience successfully.”

For engagement to happen and stick, no matter where the learning takes place, teachers need to recognize different ways of learning and other ways to spark student interest.

Gathering Data to Inform Teaching and Learning

Teachers should leverage technology coupled with what they already know about effective learner engagement to design learning with the expectation of demonstrable progress.

Which goes back to questions like this: How do teachers know whether students are engaged and not just online? How do they measure engagement, productivity and success from afar?

Desert Sands uses a variety of data-collection methods to determine how students are faring. Some existed pre-pandemic; others were instituted during the crisis. The measures include looking at attendance and grades, engagement logs that allow teachers to track learner engagement at different levels (online activity, turning in assignments, etc.), a universal diagnostic tool that measures student growth three times a year, and formative assessment. Dr. May-Vollmar said the district is also exploring engagement monitoring tools like CatchOn to determine that students are online and what apps or tools they are on.

Dr. Spence emphasized that to effectively measure learning means designing it to allow learners to showcase what they have learned, and to be able to “describe, attend to and care for their learning.” All of that is measurable, albeit “tricky,” but with tools like digital portfolios, it’s doable to measure what “really matters most in these moments,” he added.

Data collection and measurement also involve adaptation and change, especially in times of crisis. For instance, Virginia Beach did not administer standardized tests last year.

“And this really interesting phenomenon happened,” joked Dr. Spence about canceling out the tests. “I went outside and the sky was still up in the air, and it hadn’t fallen! …You can have a year without standardized tests and nothing falls out of the sky …What I think we should do is forget about those as being important measures [when measuring what matters most].”

Because the pandemic has greatly affected everyone’s well-being, both districts are monitoring and measuring socio-emotional health.

Desert Sands follows students to see whether they are struggling at home, experiencing hunger or navigating other stressors that impede their learning. The assistant principal of one school has been tracking students down who are not showing up online and have been difficult to reach. Once he locates them, he visits them to see what’s happened. All to make sure they don’t fall through the virtual cracks.

Virginia Beach has developed and issues a twice-a-year survey to see how learners are navigating social-emotional competencies and supporting students at the moment where challenges exist. The district also administers “pulse checks” to teachers, students and parents to see how they are doing. Dr. Spence said the few they have done to date have led to creating family-voice groups for discussion and assistance through existing family and engagement teams.

Dr. Spence and Dr. May-Vollmar emphasized the teaching and learning novelty, innovation and creativity that emerged during the pandemic should not be viewed as temporary solutions. The solutions are reflective of what high-quality education should look like. Education has changed, but in many ways for the better.

Dr. Spence asks the most critical question educators need to think about in this regard: “How might we utilize this moment to push forward and not slip into old habits?”

That, he said, will be the most interesting part of educational leaders’ work.

This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by CatchOn, An ENA Affiliate and Battelle for Kids.


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About the Presenters

Dr. Kelly May-Vollmar

Dr. Kelly May-Vollmar has worked in education since 2004. She served as a classroom teacher, academic coach, site principal, and chief innovation and information officer (CIIO) prior to starting her current position as Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services. She served as CIIO for Desert Sands Unified School District for three years. For the last two years she has served as the assistant superintendent over educational and technology services. Her experience has allowed her to marry the technology and the educational services departments. As a technology leader in California, she has had the honor of receiving several awards. She was awarded the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) California Technology Administrator of the Year award in 2019 and the California IT in Education (CITE, formerly CETPA) Educational Leader of the Year award in 2020. Most recently Dr. May-Vollmar was awarded the Community Leadership for Digital Equity Award: Desert Sands Unified School District from CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking).

Dr. Aaron Spence

A passionate and visionary leader in public education for 26 years, Dr. Aaron Spence is committed to ensuring that all students have access to the rigorous coursework, innovative learning opportunities, and resources they need to prepare them for success in college or the workforce. Dr. Spence has served as Superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) since June 2014. As Superintendent, he is responsible for the instructional leadership and administrative operation of 86 schools and centers serving more than 67,000 students. The more than 10,000 employees of Virginia Beach schools credit Dr. Spence with creating and fostering a culture where input is welcomed, opinions are valued, and differences are celebrated.

About the Moderators

Monica Cougan

Monica Cougan is Manager of Strategic Relationships and Initiatives at CatchOn, an ENA Affiliate, where she leverages her more than 35 years of experience in education and technology to help schools make the most of new technology. Throughout her career, Monica has been an evangelist for the adoption of technology as a transformative educational tool. She also has extensive experience helping K-12 schools implement 1:1 programs and in disseminating problem-based and project-based learning methodologies that focus on helping each student develop his or her own voice. Throughout Monica’s extensive career, she has sought out the diverse experiences required to know how to implement positive changes in education: she has served as a classroom teacher, adjunct professor, and education consultant for national, technology-based curriculum companies. Away from the classroom, she has served as an independent math consultant, worked in curriculum development, evaluated research on school-based programs, and developed professional learning opportunities for educators looking for a new mastery of technology.

Dr. Karen Garza

Dr. Karen Garza has led the recent transformation of Battelle for Kids, including the emphasis on realizing the power and promise of 21st century learning for every student, the increasing adoption of Portraits of a Graduate by school systems across the country, and the additions of EdLeader21 and the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) into the Battelle for Kids family. Dr. Garza has dedicated her life to bettering educational opportunities for all students. She began her career as a kindergarten teacher before embarking on an administrative and advocacy path that included positions as government relations director, curriculum director, deputy superintendent, chief academic officer, and eventually becoming the first female superintendent at both Lubbock Independent School District (30,000+ students) and Fairfax County Public Schools (188,000 students).

Dr. Garza is a frequent thought leader on 21st century education through her writings and presentations at state and national conferences. She has presented at many national and state convenings including, the National Governors’ Association, National School Boards Association Conference, ASCD National Conference, AASA’s National Education Conference, the National Forum to Advance Rural Education, and SXSW. Over her career, Dr. Garza has been recognized with various awards, including receiving the inaugural Tom Cookerly 2016 Exceptional School Superintendent Leadership Award from The Neediest Kids—a program of the National Center for Children and Families. She was also named 2016 Superintendent of the Year by the Virginia Commonwealth PTA, 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award honoree from the University of Houston, 2013 YWCA Woman of Excellence Award, and was named by the Washingtonian Magazine as one of ten most powerful women leaders in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area (DMV) in both 2014 and 2015.

Join the Community

Analytics in Action is a free professional learning community on edWeb.net for school technology leaders, superintendents, curriculum and instructional leaders.


CatchOn is a user-friendly data analytics tool that collects real-time data on every device, enabling school districts to make data-informed decisions about the apps and online tools their educators and students are using. In 2018, CatchOn joined forces with ENA, a leading provider of comprehensive technology solutions to education institutions and libraries across the nation. Collectively, CatchOn and ENA leverage their respective resources and expertise to deliver critical services and solutions that help school districts produce positive outcomes in the communities they serve.


Battelle for Kids

Battelle for Kids (BFK) is a national, not-for-profit organization with the mission of realizing the power and promise of 21st century learning for every student. We put our core values and dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion at the center of everything we do and every decision we make as we collaborate with school systems, communities, and partners to achieve our mission. Our work centers on helping education leaders engage their communities to re-envision and transform their school systems. We take a systems approach to promote enduring transformation of the system and equitable, deeper learning outcomes for every student.

Michele Israel writes about the ideas and best practices that are shared in edWeb’s edWebinars so they can spread innovative and best practices to the education community. Michele owns Michele Israel Consulting, LLC, which serves large and small educational, non-profit, media, corporate, eLearning, and blended learning organizations to bolster products and programs. Her rich career spans over 25 years of successfully developing educational materials and resources, designing and facilitating training, generating communication materials and grant proposals, and assisting in organizational and program development. In addition to lesson plans and other teacher resources, Michele’s portfolio includes published articles covering a range of educational and business topics.