The push to integrate technology and instruction at Austin schools


Erin Bown-Anderson has “always been an avid technology user,” she says. Her knack, however, for incorporating technology into curriculum – as a former teacher and later as a digital instruction coach – caught the attention of academic officials at Austin Independent School District.

She soon found herself at the helm of a 60-member team of teachers, administrators, students and parents charged with developing the Texas district’s first full-fledged instructional technology plan, and “setting a vision that has now become embedded within our strategic plan,” she said.

Today, as director of technology integration for all of Austin ISD’s 130 campuses and more than 82,700 students, Bown-Anderson oversees what some may consider a major league team of educational technology design coaches.

“Many of them are teachers of the year, and that’s really what I looked for – people who have the experience of designing powerful, meaningful, engaging, culturally responsive work for students,” she said.

Bown-Anderson sat down to talk with EdScoop about the importance of developing a technology plan, the power of instructional design and the impact of having teachers work as instructional technology coaches.

EdScoop: What was the catalyst that led to developing a district-wide technology plan, and what key issues does the plan try to address?

Bown-Anderson: I think a common challenge was looking at technology as a separate thing. Traditionally in education, we’re very comfortable compartmentalizing things: This is science, this is math, this is language arts and technology is over there. We recognized that our lives and learning experiences are more integrated than that. It’s not just about stacking things on top of one another, but actually redesigning them so that they make sense.

We also knew being in a technologically advanced city, that we have access to a lot more technology than we used to, and we are moving towards ubiquitous access for all kids. So how does that change teaching and learning, and how does that interplay with everything else that we’re doing?

One of the things that the planning process really helped reveal was the need for systemic sustainable professional learning that took a different approach — that was job-embedded, that harnessed the strength and the creativity of our teachers and of our students. We use the term amplify and magnify quite a lot in our work because technology really has this amazing capability to amplify what you want.

So for instance, in Austin we are dedicated to equity: not just with devices and the ability to get on the internet, but access to actual practices that are meaningful and innovative. And that children should have the opportunity to have their voices heard. Technology allows us to amplify those under-represented voices that sometimes are silenced in our world.

How did you restructure your organization from the CIO office down after developing this technology plan and how does your team work within in?

Underneath Kevin Schwartz, who is CTO of Learning and Systems, there’s a director of management information systems, a director of networking, a director of technology support, and director of technology integration — that’s me. On my team, we have 20 technology design coaches … and each of them have roughly eight campuses apiece.

This is a powerful team. They are deeply empathetic to teachers and the work that they do. It’s through individual conversations and coaching that real transformative change can take place; it’s not top-down, it’s from the inside out.

We also embrace the idea of design thinking — empathizing with what the students and the teachers want to do and making learning meaningful. We also use the framework from the Stanford as far as the five components of design thinking: empathy, define, ideate, prototype and test.

Each campus has a campus innovation coach who is a teacher of record. They’re connectors to our technology design coaches … who help foster the capacity of the teachers.

How do manage and filter all the applications and technologies available to teachers and the constant changes coming through every year?

That’s a real challenge. We want to be a responsive and agile organization. That’s in our strategic plan and something that we’re always thinking about. Having this team of design coaches — they’re very much connected in formal channels, and they talk to one another constantly. We’re also getting feedback from the field constantly, so we see a lot of what’s going on.

Our technology compliance department — it’s a small department right now — helps our teachers to understand the importance of student data privacy. We look at really new, amazing things, but we have to press pause a little bit to ensure that they aren’t violating some of the student data privacy laws that are in place.

We’re also implementing a pilot right now with Canvas — we’re calling it Blend, but it’s built upon Canvas — that’s configured it in a certain way that’s unique to Austin. But it’s really helping to pull a lot of [application issues] together. We’re also trying to embed a lot of the tools that teachers are using within that environment … from K-to-12.

Right now we’re doing focus groups with teachers to find out how it’s working, how does this look in early childhood and what kind of things do we need to put into place to help develop those skill sets for students so that they’re successful. But the idea that there’s this continuity or e-portfolio that students will have access to when they leave our institution is really exciting.

As people are figuring out all the capabilities and what they’re able to do [with Canvas], that will expand exponentially, beginning in the fall, when we go full scale.

Most of the other tools that are really taking hold are those creative tools — things like Seesaw, at the early childhood realm, where kids are creating and expressing themselves. These kind of open platforms where it’s not necessarily content that is being pushed out, but it’s creative applications that kids can take and then make.

How are you helping teachers better protect students’ data privacy with all this educational software?

We’re in a rapid zone of learning about it. It’s a painful process when you think about all of the terms that are associated with every application. Thinking in my own personal life, I’ll hit “accept” sometimes without reading the 70 pages.

There’s an awareness piece that’s really huge. We have a big push into building digital citizenship awareness. We recently had a digital citizenship campaign where students came up with a logo and a slogan for what does it mean to be aware of your digital footprint and to be aware of the digital landscape?

The really hard part now is, how do you dig in and … grow that awareness? I think the ‘Why?’ has been missing for a long time. I remember feeling like, “Why can’t I just use this with my kids?” I know it’s great, but a majority of folks don’t necessarily understand why it is important to understand what happens to that student data. Are companies selling it? That’s why it’s so important to protect it. Once teachers understand that, they’re like, “Oh. Yeah.”

How does you compliance team actually help?

They’re on the phone daily with companies trying to establish a data sharing agreement. It’s pretty intense. Once that sharing agreement is in place, and we’ve done due our diligence as far as protecting that data, it becomes a binding document that goes through legal. That’s really has been helpful.

Some companies tell us, “Oh, I didn’t realize that was a problem,” and they will change their terms of service. Some of the coaches have reached out to companies directly and said, “We would love to use this but we can’t. Let me tell you why,” and they make changes. I think the fact that people are empowered to have those conversations is huge. The formalized going through a process is also in place, and so you have to have that balanced communication.

What technology platforms do you and your team use to try and keep up with the pace of things and to help your teachers?

We use Slack as a team to stay in constant contact with one another, and setting up channels about different hot topics. We can communicate about those and brainstorm and solve problems together. Our expertise is very much spread across content and grade level, so when coaches are out working with a high school physics teacher, they can connect with another coach who maybe even taught that in that environment. Slack has really helped with that kind of constant communication. We are wondering if expand from 20 to 200 people what would that environment feel like.

We use Google quite a bit as a home base for all of our shared information. It also integrates nicely with Slack, although Slack seems to work a little bit faster and more dynamically. And we use Trello as our project management tool.

What tips might you offer to other school districts that are trying to leverage this idea of an integration team?

One of the most important roles that I play and that the team plays is to be connected. I probably meet almost daily with members from the professional learning team.

We all have the same goal. Everyone’s trying to integrate technology into professional learning and then to the design of work for students and curriculum. Moving to Canvas, to Blend, is also helping to force those connections too … as we try to translate curriculum, or re-design it in a modular fashion, and struggle along side each other with what could this look like? And how do we ensure that there are still opportunities for teachers to be designers of the work for kids?

There’s some interesting dynamics at play, but I’m super proud to work in Austin ISD where that common goal is so pervasive.

I just think creating those cross-functional teams is where the real innovation happens, to ensure it doesn’t stay in one area.