Georgia’s Fulton County School System is a large district, spanning 78 miles from top to bottom. And as one may expect, with this geographic span comes a wide demographic range. So, how does a district of this size and diversity innovate? And how do educators share best practices across the region?
In 2013, Fulton set out to answer those questions by launching their Vanguard Team, a group of 25 passionate educators who were on the forefront of technology integration and innovation. The plan was to provide training and support for the Vanguard Team members and, in turn, have them spread knowledge to their peers. This distributed model of learning took off and has grown over the years to a network of nearly 300 Fulton County educators who are pioneering new approaches to education technology use, testing new tools and helping others in their schools and communities do the same.
Heather Van Looy joined the Fulton County Vanguard Team early on as a middle school math teacher. She was curious and excited about finding meaningful uses for technology in the classroom. This passion paid off, and Van Looy worked her way up through the ranks, first as an Instructional Technology Program Specialist and now as the Director of Instructional Technology.
EdSurge reached out to Van Looy, as well as members of the Vanguard Team, to discuss creativity in the classroom and intentional integration of education technology.
EdSurge: How do you go about introducing new technology to students and teachers in a way that’s sustainable?
Van Looy: By having a vetted menu of tools that we support, we’re able to really focus our training efforts. It’s not just a one-time thing. We might do a training, and then the Vanguard people are available in the schools to help with questions and implementation afterwards.
It’s important to follow up with people and monitor progress. That can be done in various ways. Other districts might have 20 instructional coaches; our method is the Vanguard Team. Either way, having an approach that provides ongoing coaching and a resource for additional help and ideas is really important.
I feel strongly that instructional technology is best when it is not the focus of the lesson. It should be about strong learning and having kids creating and collaborating with each other. The technology is seamlessly making that happen in the background. It’s a fun and exciting way for them to delve deeper and use higher-level thinking and skills to show what they know.
How does the Vanguard Team mobilize when you start working with a new tool or technology partner like Adobe?
We have been Adobe customers for a long time, but mostly for our high school CTAE (Career, Technical, and Agriculture Education) courses. We felt that, in the midst of the pandemic, we needed to engage kids in being creative and showing their learning in different ways. We adopted Nearpod district-wide and expanded our Adobe license. Now, Adobe Creative Cloud is available for teachers and students in grades 6-12. Adobe Spark is available to all of our students, pre-K-12.
We let everyone know that Adobe was available and then focused on helping them understand what the tools can do and how creativity can be nurtured in any subject and any grade. We sent 140 Vanguard members through training where they earned their Adobe Creative Educator I and II badges. We have additional learning opportunities coming up that are available to anyone. The plan is to have all 300 Vanguard Team members earn their Adobe Creative Educator I and II badges by the end of the 2021-2022 school year. This will give us experts in each of our schools who can assist teachers with implementing Adobe creatively in the classroom.
How do you think creative digital tools keep students engaged?
When we get kids thinking creatively, it unleashes a joy of learning. Whether they are solving a problem or creating a product, kids can develop a love of the learning process, which is really powerful. It also engages them in some deeper kinds of thinking that can elevate the level of rigor. We’re getting kids to think outside of the box.
You can think creatively in lots of ways. You can do it with paper and pencil or other media. But there’s something really cool about creating a polished, finished product using technology. Like, “I created a web page, and it only took me 15 minutes.” Or, “I created an infographic that could be published.” Or, “I created a movie. And it had credits and everything.” Kids really like that. I like that, too!
When you leverage technology for those creative processes, you get a great end product. And you have engaged all that thinking and fun! That’s where I think the magic lies.