PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire County Education Task Force unanimously decided Saturday to move forward with a plan members hope will address a short-term need and bolster its argument for a long-term solution to problems confronting the county's school districts.
The task force endorsed a framework for a countywide online learning management system for remote learning that it hopes to present to school superintendents and school committees in the next couple of weeks.
The ambitious plan would have an online platform for course delivery, teacher collaboration and training in place this summer, in time for the 2020-21 academic year.
The immediate impetus for the project is the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the closure of school buildings and for districts to develop remote learning programs on the fly — and on their own. The BCETF believes that a countywide structure would help support local schools and teachers, giving them tools to more effectively teach in a remote environment.
"We would own a space in which content is available," said Howard "Jake" Eberwein, who was tasked by the panel with developing the LMS proposal. "Teachers would exchange content. We would put up professional development — videos, tutorials, courses.
"That, in my estimation, is one of the most powerful parts of what we're proposing. It is the link and highway between which teachers in the county can exchange information and share in this time of some significant challenges. If a teacher is building online content, many haven't been trained in online instruction other than what they've received the last couple of weeks in crash courses.
"Many are trying to find content online, and a lot of that content has already been created and can be used and borrowed"
Since 2015, the BCETF has been focused on studying how to the county's schools can address the "challenge of eroding educational quality due to declining student enrollment and revenues that are not keeping pace with costs."
Two years later, the task force recommended that the county's school districts aspire to forming a unified Berkshire County school district within 10 years, That recommendation was met with strong resistance in many quarters, but the task force has continued to espouse formal cooperation mechanisms among districts that it argues will build economies of scale.
Eberwein, the former superintendent of Pittsfield Public Schools and a former administrator at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, noted that building a remote learning platform would mark a departure from the task force's past work.
"We haven't been an action-oriented group, and I say action in the sense that we haven't been implementing programs and managing programs or particular solutions," Eberwein said. "This particular memo is suggesting that we move into the action side of the work, specifically this first step would be moving into supporting this online remote learning platform across the entire county.
"We historically were not set up to do action work. We were set up to do planning and modeling, which we'll continue to do. … That won't stop, but we're discussing today the possibility of moving into some actionables."
Eberwein reminded his colleagues that the task force has $20,000 available to help finance collaborative programs that districts bring to the countywide body. The program it advanced Saturday shifts that model to potentially funding a program generated by the BCETF itself.
It was not lost on the members participating in Saturday's virtual meeting that something like the LMS could demonstrate the benefits of cooperation across town and district lines.
"I'm not delusional, thinking that every district is going to get all excited and jump in," Eberwein said. "I think we'll have some interest among some districts. Part of our intent as a group is to demonstrate that we can work across districts. That's another motive for this project — in addition to trying to solve a problem, it's also to create connections and build a proof of concept in terms of what we're trying to do."
The task force agreed that gauging interest from the county's school districts will be an important first step in advancing the LMS. Eberwein recruited a couple of other members of the group at Saturday's meeting to review and revise his four-page memo by Tuesday with the intention of putting it before school officials later this week.
In addition to the $20,000 in BCETF pilot project funds, additional state grants (including, potentially COVID-19 recovery funds) and private grants, implementation would rely on funding from county school districts who choose to participate in the online learning platform.
Eberwein did some "back-of-the-envelope" calculations that show creation of a central platform with the needed software licenses would cost anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000, depending on the number of schools involved. He also did some rough estimates for the personnel costs needed — $40,000 for a central manager for the platform and, potentially, a $5,000 stipend for an in-house trainer on the faculties of specific schools.
"We'll probably need someone to manage this at some level, countywide — working with Canvas, setting it up, being a liaison to the various districts and whoever their tech point people are," Eberwein said. "Then I'm suggesting we'd stipend people at each of the schools. With the number of schools we have, at $5,000 apiece, that actually ends up being your biggest cost at $230,000.
"Again, that's just me shooting from the hip and throwing out an idea that can be absolutely criticized."
Eberwein's draft proposal generated some critiques from task force members, who mentioned that while online tools have proven effective at the secondary level, the jury is still out about their usefulness for elementary schools.
Cynthia Brown, a former interim president at MCLA and current official with the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, said online learning platforms work best for highly motivated students and may not help students of all abilities.
"To the extent that an online platform that's available, paid for, trained on is an element of a remote learning, mixed modality solution to what's going on right now with schools, I'd be in favor," Brown said. "A second comment I made that would be backed up by the research I presented last spring … is that if you don't have access and the right tools in the hands of every household, every student that would need them, we are only replicating some of the inequities we already know exist and, in some cases exacerbated, frankly, by the closure of schools and the scramble to try to get things in the hands of students and educators in order to continue with some kind of educational framework this spring.
"I think a platform project is a great project, but it's a partial build. I think we could get some better information, or some additional information about what it would take and districts could put their hands up and say, 'We will participate and we will provide some additional devices. We'll get Spectrum and Verizon and whoever else to pay for Internet access through the end of June, whatever it is. But I wanted to remind folks that the data on digitally-mediated remote learning shows that its effectiveness tends to be in a couple of very specific directions."
Eberwein pointed out that his draft proposal notes some of the challenges to instituting a countywide online platform, and he hastened to add that he never saw it as a replacement for schools.
He was "surprisingly impressed" by the elementary school tools he reviewed with representatives from Utah-based Instructure, the creator of learning management system Canvas. And, while not optimal, students underserved by the internet could take advantage of downloadable content that could be delivered on thumb drives or, "you can literally send your buses around on Friday to pick up devices, load them and deliver them on Mondays."
But a countywide online learning platform also could be an incentive for making sure all communities have access to broadband and residents can afford it.
"Even when we have access … do families have the funds available to access it," Eberwein said. "That would be the second part of that question. I would expect that would be part of our deliberation. And, to be honest with you, our jumping into this space and saying that we need this to provide educational solutions to kids will only strengthen the argument to get this done.
"I know from a quick conversation we had earlier with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and other folks, the issue of broadband quickly has risen up the priority chain to the top, A) because of education and B) because the area is thinking about how people are going to work remotely and can we position the county as a destination for remote learning in the post-COVID economy?"
That leads to another potential challenge for the BCETF initiative: the possibility that the task force spends the spring and summer building a solution to a problem that does not exist in the fall.
"We could get through the summer and what does September look like?" asked Andrea Wadsworth, the chairman of the Lee School Committee. "It may look like what it normally does, or we may have to socially distance. … Maybe one half [of students] goes to school one week and then the other half goes and the first half has to remotely learn the second week."
And even if the immediate crisis does pass, there are other remote learning needs that could be addressed by the LMS platform, including help for home-school families, maintaining educational continuity on snow days or creating elective courses that could be shared across districts, expanding educational opportunities for students in all the county's high schools.
Throughout Saturday's meeting, the members of the task force emphasized that the remote learning platform will not get off the ground if the districts it is meant to serve do not buy in.
"Teachers lead this charge," Eberwein said. "This is about equipping them with tools, training and a network but letting them really lead and work on this. I am arguing that this is not a solution. This is what I'm calling a 75 to 80 percent solution, and I don't even know if that's not overly ambitious. I'm talking about access gaps, specialized and differentiated needs gaps, some of the equity questions that [Brown] raises.
"But then I'm arguing that if we can get our 75 to 80 percent up and going, we can really concentrate our resources and our teams on digging in and solving the needs of the remaining students who will need more intensive supports."
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