Spring feedback leads to new technology for Medford schools

District secures additional software, platforms for upcoming year

A summer’s long review of March school closures and shift to remote learning resulted in new software and platforms for the Medford school district to offer the community.

During an Aug. 10 board of education meeting, technology coordinator Mark Damon revealed Medford Township’s plan to update and improve the use of technology in schools, the result of lesson overviews and parent/teacher surveys.

“The interaction between a teacher and student is dependent on both of their abilities to connect through the window of a computer screen,” Damon stated. “Because of this, we’ve been forced to make decisions and acquisitions that we have vigilantly measured up against a balance of short-term necessity and long-term educational appropriateness.”

A survey of 175 staffers and 1,740 parents enabled Damon and the district’s technology department to request 650 Chromebooks and additional software licenses for the upcoming school year. Devices will be delayed as the district competes with others across the country for supplies.

Not every student had a district-owned laptop in the closing months of the school year, creating problems for students and teachers alike in accessing websites, troubleshooting tech issues and completing work. Chromebooks would be preinstalled with appropriate programs, security and software, which Damon said is within the department’s first phase of upgrades.

Some of the preinstalled software from the Google G Suite includes Kami and Screencastify. Kami allows for teachers to send a PDF file via Google Classroom to students, and for students to work directly on the document without necessitating a physical printout.

A license was purchased for Screencastify after teachers overwhelmingly agreed it would supplement their live instructions. Instructors can narrate and annotate a lesson in the screen recording software, and publish the finalized video on Google Classroom for students to view.

Google’s G Suite is free with a Gmail account and its programs range from email, to Google Docs, Classroom, Meet and others. But as COVID-19  continues, the tech giant has rolled back its free offerings to school districts within Google Meet (a secure video conferencing application).

Features enjoyed by teachers include the ability to record a session and share it on Classroom, virtual hand raising, question and answer and live polling. The district has purchased an enterprise license for G Suite, according to Damon. It will be used immediately when school reopens.

At the same time, numerous online platforms involve a variety of login credentials, an issue parents said created some trouble.

“Our IT department has been working to set up a single sign on system called Clever,” Damon explained. “It essentially presents students a dashboard upon logging on that will contain an icon shortcut to their most frequently used applications. In most cases, the Clever dashboard will remember the login credentials to access the online resources.”

Middle-school students will also have Gmail accounts that will be locked for teacher-to-student communication on the first day of school. Account holders will be able to participate in live document editing on Google Docs to comment and annotate a teacher’s collaborative lesson. A virtual help desk has been created by the technology department for parents to access and seek personalized troubleshooting.

Phase two of the school upgrade will result in Gmail accounts for elementary students and the use of GoGuardian Teacher, which enables educators to secure their virtual lessons and monitor student Chromebook activity in a classroom. Teachers can also have one-on-one chat sessions with students to learn where they stand academically.

IXL for the middle school and Zearn for the elementary school would be added to assess a student’s educational needs and target intervention areas to bridge gaps in learning.

The final phase of the upgrades will come after teachers and students have a full grasp of the software and will involve more interactive websites and software available to both groups. No timeline was given on the upgrades.

Business Administrator Marie Goodwin submitted a $188,900 grant application to the state through the CARES Act Digital Divide program — for school districts only — to supplement Medford’s tech upgrades.

Teachers are being trained for the new programs on professional development days.

The board of education approved sending the district’s plan for the upcoming school year to the Burlington County Superintendent, who will then seek further and final approval from the state Department of Education.

Director of Curriculum Rich Lacovara clarified that the Medford district is moving forward with a hybrid and live, synchronous remote program. The 93-page plan is available on the district’s website at Medford.K12.NJ.US.

Students in school during their assigned days will receive the same instruction as those at home.

Superintendent Joe DelRossi revealed the latest survey results on remote versus hybrid instruction, but cautioned they are incomplete as the district continues to track down families to answer the questionnaire. An estimated 80 percent of parents have chosen the hybrid option; 18 percent the remote plan. The remaining 2 percent have pulled their children out of the district.

No benchmarks were shared by DelRossi following the meeting’s public comment regarding a date for a full return to school. He instead reaffirmed that will be decided when it is safe to do so.

Parents or teachers who had specific questions on the restart plan were encouraged to email DelRossi or Lacovara through the district website’s Contact Us page.

The board will hold its next meeting Aug. 24, at 7:30 p.m. Details about the meeting are also available on the website — Medford.K12.NJ.US.