June 25, 2021
Back in July 2020, Arizona was leading not just the nation but the world in its rate of confirmed new cases of COVID-19. Instruction had abruptly stopped or petered out four months earlier, leaving students at home, some without much-needed services.
Educators in Arizona, along with the parents of the more than 1.1 million students in the state, were desperate for some certainty about what the fall would look like and how school would function in the likelihood that it would begin remotely.
The Arizona Virtual Teacher Institute will continue serving Arizona teachers with no-cost professional development throughout the 2021–22 school year.
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In the face of this uncertainty, Arizona State University, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and the Helios Education Foundation launched the Arizona Virtual Teacher Institute in August to offer free training for Arizona teachers to prepare for digital learning on an unprecedented scale, sharing the data-driven best practices that ASU Prep Digital educators have been using for years.
Now the partners have announced that the institute will continue serving Arizona teachers with no-cost professional development throughout the 2021–22 school year.
For the more than 59,000 classroom teachers in Arizona, this has meant a chance to receive accessible, free professional development that would help them not only survive in this modality but thrive. For educators with different comfort levels with technology, this was a lifeline to assist in figuring out how classroom management, participation, testing, homework and more would be possible if at least part of the school year had to be conducted online.
The $7.5 million Arizona Virtual Teacher Institute partnership launched in August 2020 and to date has trained 11,250 teachers in 392 districts in every county in the state. The trainings continue to provide professional development to help K–12 teachers deliver quality instruction and support for online and blended learning environments as schools have had to adapt on the fly to school closures and blended learning models on a nearly universal scale.
“As the world abruptly moved to remote learning, it was evident that teachers across the world needed support on how to hone their in-person teaching craft to be relevant and impactful in an online setting,” said Amy McGrath, deputy vice president of Educational Outreach and Student Services at ASU and chief operating officer of ASU Preparatory Academy. “I applaud the state for its progressive investment in providing resiliency training for our teacher workforce through this innovative fund established and accessible to every Arizona teacher. The work continues this year, and ASU is eager to share our success in how to harness technology in a way that improves learner outcomes and empowers teachers to meaningfully engage students on individual learning paths.
Free training programs for schools and teachers included topics such as Zoom basics, best practices in synchronous and asynchronous instruction, advanced Canvas training, virtual field trips, classroom management, reaching English language learners in hybrid modalities and more. Synchronous and asynchronous sessions were available throughout the school year, and 67 school districts received customized training to expand upon their sessions.
Teachers who took the courses gave them high marks for having an impact on student outcomes. Tina Leach is the professional development coach for the Maricopa Unified School District, which serves 7,872 students in Pinal County. It was a district goal to have as many of its staff trained in the Arizona Virtual Teacher Institute as possible; Leach said the training helped build upon the work they were doing with technology and also gave educators practical tips they could immediately apply in virtual or in-person classrooms.
“The training received has helped us as a district with being able to transition between brick-and-mortar and distance learning at a moment's notice based on current data and need,” she said. “We have grown so much this year as a district in our knowledge and use of technology as a result and look forward to continuing to grow to meet the needs of our students, staff and families alike.”
Some of the tips that stuck out to her were flipped classrooms, which refocuses classrooms around guided independent learning; station rotations, which facilitate shifting to different activities; and playlists, which give students more choice in what they tackle when. Leach said the trainings were invaluable this year and will continue to be, as the district continues with customized training through ASU Prep Digital.
“I had the opportunity to attend some of the training the Arizona Virtual Teacher Institute was offering. We quickly learned that this information would be instrumental for our staff,” Leach said. “We know technology will not be going away as we plan to return to brick and mortar instruction. It will still be a part of our daily learning. We will still need to be prepared for the future and whatever the future may bring. We will also be starting Maricopa Virtual Academy next year, so parents will still have that option for their children.”
ASU Prep Digital has similar partnerships with more than 150 schools across Arizona to offer training options that provide customized professional development and fill instructional gaps, in addition to building innovative and customized models based on local schools’ needs and goals.
Christina Cohn is the assistant principal at Western Valley Middle School in the Fowler Elementary School District in southwest Phoenix. The Title I school serves about 750 students. She said all the hybrid staff members participated in the training after their school’s principal thought it would be beneficial.
“These trainings made an impact on our educators because it provided them with new tools and technology to incorporate into their classroom as we were online and in a virtual classroom setting for most of the school year. Teachers still use the technology from the trainings to implement in their hybrid and online classes as well. This has been beneficial for our students because teachers took the skills to then implement in the class to create a more interactive and engaging virtual class,” she said.
Cohn said that the trainings undoubtedly helped teachers make the online and hybrid classes more engaging and interactive and that the methods continue to be relevant.
“This was something that really worked for our staff and helped them especially in the virtual school setting. Teachers have continued to use and implement resources from the training,” she said.
Chantelle Frazee is the professional development coordinator for the Casa Grande Unified High School District, which serves about 3,300 students in Title I schools. She said the professional development from ASU Prep Digital was vital in a year when Casa Grande teachers were pivoting between different modalities. She said they were surprised that more students than they anticipated — about one-third of their students — opted for an online-only option during COVID-19, and after going hybrid from online only, the district found that both teachers and students were struggling.
“I think one of the things that really helps is that AllisonAllison Hernandez is the professional development manager for ASU Prep Digital and her team, they were online teachers. And I think that really makes a difference when you're learning from teachers who've done it,” she said. “To be able to learn from people who have done it for a while and done it by choice I think made a difference. And it's practical. It's things that they can take back and apply, you know, the next day.”
Frazee said the district is continuing professional development since the district has started an online program. What used to be an offering only for credit recovery will now be a third high school in the district. She said the student population includes a large English language learners population as well as many Native students from the Gila River and Tohono O'odham tribes. The district has a diverse set of student needs, and they anticipate many will want to stay online.
“I think for some of our students, it's really been about life, even more than the instruction. A lot of our students are from low-income families, and many of them have had to go to work to help support their families. Many of them care for siblings at home, or they help care for other family members,” she said. "That's part of why we're keeping the online school, because I think that many of our students will need the flexibility for a while; I don't think that need is going away.”
Casa Grande will continue with virtual professional development through ASU Prep, especially for the online-only teachers moving forward, and has been happy with the customization it provides. Frazee noted that the trainings had credibility with educators because they were hearing from educators who had a lot of experience online.
Public school districts’ new investments in technology and digital professional development signal what many districts are finding: Technology’s role in education is going to continue to transform schools. According to a survey from EdWeek, due to school closures teachers reported that their ability to use technology was rising, that online instruction was expanding and that one-to-one computing was also becoming the norm. Although equity issues in connectivity and computer access remain, it’s clear that education will never be the same again.
“It was a difficult year, to say the very least, but Arizona educators rose to the occasion, and we’re so proud to have been able to support them,” said Betsy Fowler, ASU Prep Digital executive director of strategic initiatives. “We’re facing different challenges now, including catching up students who fell behind in the last school year. ASU Prep Digital is here to connect teachers and students with the tools to advance their educational opportunities.”
The Arizona Virtual Teacher Institute continues to look ahead to what’s next for educators and students. Registration is open for trainings and boot camps for summer 2021 and beyond, covering topics as varied as technology tools for the classroom, social-emotional learning, project-based pedagogy, assessments in online environments, Google classroom basics, Bitmoji in the classroom and much more.