Tech-whiz heroes help learning continue across cyberspace during pandemic

Tech-whiz heroes help learning continue across cyberspace during pandemic

Seventh-grader Drew Houck uses a laptop during class Sept. 17, 2020, at Maria Regina School in Seaford, N.Y. (Credit: Gregory A. Shemitz/CNS.)

For nearly a year, Catholic school students in Oregon and nationwide have reaped the benefits of often behind-the-scenes technology experts whose jobs have taken on a new significance.

PORTLAND, Oregon — They built Web pages and mastered robots, addressed login issues, responded to a deluge of software-related questions and even stood atop wobbly ladders to fix glitchy Wi-Fi extenders.

Many professionals have been dubbed heroes of the pandemic, and schools’ tech whizzes — those who’ve ensured teachers could teach and students could learn — should likely be counted in that esteemed mix.

For nearly a year, Catholic school students in Oregon and nationwide have reaped the benefits of often behind-the-scenes technology experts whose jobs have taken on a new significance.

“I can’t imagine facing some of the daunting challenges of the last 10 months without Ellie Gilbert’s expertise,” said Nicole Foran, principal of St. Mary’s Academy in Portland. Gilbert is the all-girls school’s director of instructional media and education technology.

During the pandemic, Gilbert’s responsibilities swelled. She created online resources for teachers and ran tech training camps including a session on Swivl, a robot that has a dock for an iPad and can follow teachers around a classroom.

She also hosts morning drop-in tech sessions with the information technology director and his assistant. “If I can give teachers a minute back in their day, that’s my marker of success,” she said.

Pre-pandemic, St. Mary’s Academy, like most Catholic high schools in western Oregon, had integrated technology into classes and had experience with designated distance-learning days. But teachers had not employed technology for long-term instruction.

The pandemic, Gilbert said, meant even the most experienced educators were like first-year teachers again.

“Yet the best teachers are the most experienced learners in the room,” she told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland. And when it came to learning how to adapt to ongoing online instruction, “the master teachers at St. Mary’s rose to the occasion.”

Carrie Coleman is science, technology, engineering and math director at La Salle Catholic College Preparatory in Milwaukie, southeast of Portland. She coached teachers on a variety of tools and platforms during the pandemic but said effectively using technology requires a shift in perspective.

“First and foremost at Lasallian schools is a focus on the relationship with students and on building an inclusive community,” Coleman said. “But how do you do that when not in a classroom?”

To help answer that question, Coleman was part of a COVID-19 task force that interviewed 50 students about their experience with distance learning last spring. “We asked what teachers had done well and what teachers could do better,” Coleman said. “It was very eye-opening” and informed instruction and built stronger relationships.

Craig Huseby, IT director at Jesuit High School in Portland, echoed Coleman and Gilbert when describing one of the pandemic’s biggest hurdles.

“We had the learning tools and experience with digital learning days, but curriculum was not set up for the long-haul,” he said. “People underestimated how difficult that would be to transition to a virtual environment.”

For example, if a teacher wanted to show a movie for history class and start and stop the film for discussions, “that’s very hard to do remotely,” Huseby said. But with his team’s help teachers were able to make the necessary shifts.

“This experience showed me that if you commit to quality remote content it can be done. I’ve been amazed at how much has been accomplished,” he said.

Dale Goodno is IT director for Valley Catholic School in suburban Beaverton. Because his team already had the capacity to provide 24-hour remote support to the Maryville care facility — which, like Valley Catholic, is a ministry of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon — “our infrastructure was well-suited for our immediate needs when our schools moved online,” he said.

But the challenge was the multiplicity of needs. Valley Catholic has an early learning school, elementary and middle school and a high school.

“Every teacher has different requirements and different preferences,” he said. “For example one wanted a GoPro to demonstrate cooking and another needed a camera that could follow them at the chalkboard.”

Goodno said he is proud of the creative ways his team responded. “Despite the many things we are ready to forget about 2020, I have asked my team to remember how they helped everyone succeed in difficult times,” he said.

At small Catholic elementary schools, official tech support positions do not typically exist.

Rosemarie El Youssef is first-year principal of St. Therese School in Portland. “I am the IT team,” she said, laughing. She quickly added that she has received essential support from the school and broader Catholic community.

When El Youssef began the job last summer, the school had outdated technology, teachers had limited training, and there essentially was no bandwidth.

“I was resetting passwords, walking people through Google Classroom and updating the school website. I’ve also spent time atop a ladder trying to fix a Wi-Fi extender that wasn’t working,” El Youssef said.

This is the first time El Youssef has worked at a Catholic school, and she has been grateful for her proximity to a church.

“I spent a lot of time sitting in the church, sometimes crying, sometimes praying for direction,” she said. “But I feel closer to God than ever, and the kids and their faith is so beautiful. They are why we’ve been doing this.”

Scott is special projects reporter at the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.

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