Caldwell County Schools is a mid-sized public school district in northwestern North Carolina. Dr. Katrina McEllen, Assistant Superintendent for Educational Program Services, oversees curriculum for a student population of about 10,500. While edtech isn’t explicitly within her purview, she works hand in hand with the district’s technology department because, as she says, “in this day and age, it’s hard to do much without some form of technology in the classroom.”
Here, she explains how Course of Mind is helping her district strategically incorporate learning technology into their curriculum.
EdSurge: What led you to enroll in the Launch into Learning Sciences course?
McEllen: Actually, it was our Director of Innovation who found Course of Mind. So, I looked at the program and considered where we were, what our skill sets were, what our needs were. And this kind of dovetailed with what we were trying to do to improve our services for students.
We hoped to learn not only about the learning sciences, but about edtech and what to look for when you’re looking at edtech—to be more knowledgeable about all of these different products and companies. We’re grateful for ESSER funds; they certainly have helped us bridge the gap and purchase a lot of devices and software that we may not have been able to. But it’s hard to really sift through and figure out what is best for our students. We want to make sure that we’re good stewards.
We’re just trying to be mindful, methodical and analytical in why we’re choosing what we’re choosing, making sure that it is a good fit. We’ve got to really pair curriculum and technology together to make sure we’re getting the software that works for our district and achieves what we want to achieve. We also have to make sure it meets the technology requirements.
How would you describe your district’s approach to edtech procurement prior to enrolling in this course?
We’ve tried to be strategic. There are some procedures in place before schools can go out and just purchase something. It has to go through an approval process. So, we have created something, but we’re still fine-tuning that to some degree.
And we’ve made some concessions that we will purchase certain programs for everybody in the district to create some commonalities. Some of that decision making was based on our experiences during COVID—what was used, how effective it was, looking at the usage reports and then cost. While ESSER funds have helped, there’s still not an unlimited budget. And then we have to think long-term about sustainability; when ESSER funds are not there, what can we still afford as a district without sacrificing other things? We’re about 60 percent economically disadvantaged here in the district. So, we do try to look at equity. Certainly, we want to make sure that we’re not advantaging one population or one area above another.
Something that hinders us here in Caldwell County is the geography. Not all of our homes have internet or the capability to even get internet because of where we are. They can’t necessarily even get a cell phone or wifi signal to be able to get on a device. It’s no fault of the parents or the families or the communities. There are just areas in the state that can’t have internet.
Can you share some of your most meaningful takeaways from the course?
There are a lot of courses you take in education to become a teacher, but I don’t know that anybody ever broke down the science for me before. When I took this course, we started really digging into how the brain works—the storage processes, and how you can only hold so much information, and then how it transfers from the working memory into the long-term memory, things like that. It’s nice to understand, for example, why it’s a good idea that you chunk the information that you give your students. Don’t overwhelm your students. Don’t overwhelm yourselves.
In education, it’s so often about the strategy, but sometimes knowing the research behind the strategy is necessary. “This is why you organize your class in this way,” or “This is why you go through this concept in this manner.” It kind of brought back to me the science of teaching. There is an art to it, but I think knowing the science behind it helps.
What was nice about this course was that you had the research behind it. You have that knowledge, and then you are able—through some of the exercises that they ask you to do—to kind of apply it in real life. “How does this work for you?” and “What would you do from there?” That’s what we want our students to do; we want them to take their knowledge and apply it. You learn so much more by doing than just by sitting and listening. And I think this course just reiterated some of those things.
How will this help you refine your edtech procurement process?
Now, we have all this knowledge and a place to come back to and reference. So, some of the next steps for us, as a district, will be to take this knowledge and build it into something that we can share with all of our teachers to help them realize there is a rhyme and reason to why you do certain things, or to why certain strategies work better than others.
I think we all look at cost, and that’s a factor in our decisions. But does the tool really meet the needs of all of our students? How accessible is it for a student that is visually impaired or hearing impaired? Will it meet the needs of our English language learners? When we think about accessibility and usability, we don’t necessarily always jump to all of those different angles. The course brought some of those things into the forefront. Talking through these concerns and hearing perspectives from other districts, that was a valuable part of what we did as well.
Let’s discuss your experience with Course of Mind’s coaching. What do you hope to achieve with this support?
We are looking forward to having the chance to work with someone one on one—an outside person with different views, a different perspective, with expertise and knowledge in the area of edtech and procurement. Because there are many companies that do basically the same thing. And how do you sift through and make sure that you’re finding the right ones to choose from? I think having that outside lens can help us be a better district, make better decisions. And if they see something that’s flawed, I expect them to tell us.
We’re working toward consistency. So for me, it’s fine-tuning that process, coming up with a rubric, and then the understanding that goes along with it. We need help framing that conversation and getting a pathway for making these decisions. We’re really trying to do what’s in the best interest of all of our students. Let’s make it easier on the parents and the students and everybody else to get down to that one piece of technology, whatever it may be, so that we’re moving in the right direction. I’m hoping to have some conversations to help us drill down and make sure we’re making that best decision for our students and for our teachers here.
This program is well worth the effort. You gain such valuable information and insight that you don’t get through a traditional education program. And then to be able to take what we’ve learned here and transform it into something that we can share with the teachers in our districts—I think everybody can walk away with something from this course.