As part of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN)’s Rural Leadership Initiative, we have had the opportunity to partner with Team4Tech, a non-profit organization that provides immersive service learning to technology professionals to improve the quality of education among other places, in school districts.  Last May, CoSN, Team4Tech, and Pure Storage came together to bring a unique project to the Yukon-Koyukuk School District (YKSD).
YKSD is a rural school district with their main office located in Fairbanks, Alaska.  The district’s ten village schools are located along the Yukon, Koyukuk and Tanana river systems, a geographic area larger than the state of Washington (encompassing about 65,000 square miles of territory). More than 98% of the district’s 315 river school students are Alaska Native (Athabascan). The district also sponsors a statewide correspondence program called Raven Homeschool of approximately 1,500 students.
The district’s vision is that  “every learner will attain excellence and learn with passion in a challenging and culturally enriched environment.”  The district also wants to ensure that teaching and learning occur in ways that are culturally relevant for the students.  In the Athabascan culture, students learn from their parents and elders by watching and doing – they develop the skills to hunt, fish, and create what they need with their own hands.  They are resourceful and resilient. Bringing modern and western skills to these students while maintaining their culture and respecting their way of learning is a challenge.
Team4Tech, Pure Storage, and CoSN partnered to bring YKSD teacher professional development from the Project Based Learning and maker movements that encourage students to build and create with their own minds and hands, aligning with their culture, and bringing in modern skills and technologies to broaden the set of skills the YKSD students need for graduation.
10 Pure Storage employees, with Team4Tech and CoSN representatives, travelled to YKSD for an 8-day immersive service-learning leadership development opportunity.  The Pure Storage team offered professional development to of each of the 10 schools and also supported the efforts of the YKSD’s IT staff to prepare for the future of teaching and learning at YKSD. In total, the team provided technology workshops to 13 teachers and principals from the YKSD and 3 neighboring school districts and tailored consulting to 3 YKSD IT staff.
Specifically, the volunteers presented hands-on workshops for YKSD educators on:
  • assorted tools that students could use to present evidence of their learning or final products developed through Project Based Learning, including Book Creator (that allows one to create visually appealing online books), Microsoft Sway (allows one to create brochures and presentations) and WeVideo (allows one to create professional looking videos);
  • how to use modern technologies including, robotics: Ozobots and Lego WeDo 2.0, 3D printing and designing using Tinkercad and Flybrix, where you can build and program your own drones.
In parallel, technology leaders worked with the district to virtualize their servers, performed penetration testing, a security audit and provided feedback on best practices.
The hands-on approach to educator workshops had an energizing effect. Teachers with more technology experience quickly jumped to more advanced applications of the technology while those who faced numerous new concepts and information dug in and successfully worked with the technology within a few short hours.
There were several key takeaways from the YKSD experience:
  • Articulate a rationale for ongoing professional development – YKSD had a clear desire to make school culturally relevant to its students.  As a result, they focused on professional development that supported hands-on learning for the students.
  • Provide hands-on professional development – It is costly for some rural school districts, such as YKSD, to gather their teachers in-person for an in-person training, so most of the training happens virtually. This is great for cost reduction and scaling. However, there are benefits for teachers to meet in person. Each teacher applied to attend this in-person training and was very committed to the workshops despite the workshop coinciding with the last days of school. The teachers came to the project with different levels of experience and confidence. By supporting teachers to work with the technology at their own level and pace in a small and dedicated group setting, the volunteers made the experience relevant to each educator.
  • Take time to understand the needs of the teachers and staff In both the professional development and in working with the technology staff, the volunteers took time to understand the needs of the teachers, principals and IT staff through interviewing them prior to arriving at the district, and then spending the first day understanding their needs and interest. The Pure Storage team was also open to feedback and suggestions and made changes and modifications to their workshops throughout the week.