Reflecting on a Year of Digital Learning on Digital Learning Day 2021

Celebrating Digital Learning Day 2021

Around this time last year, the education landscape across the US and around the world was on the precipice of a major change. For the first time ever, the majority of education instruction was provided online to keep students and teachers safe during an unprecedented health crisis.

Since then, educators, administrators, IT professionals, and technology coaches have worked hard, day in and day out, to make remote and hybrid learning accessible and productive for all students. This has led to numerous successes that may foreshadow new opportunities for digital learning once the current pandemic has passed.

To put it simply, the nature of digital learning has changed markedly over the past year. However, those changes have looked different for every stakeholder in the education equation. Now, as schools begin the shift back toward in-person instruction, there’s a real chance to reflect on those changes and see if they can inform digital learning planning and implementation in the future.

In celebration of Digital Learning Day 2021, the Learning Technology Center (LTC) team has spoken with education stakeholders from across Illinois to learn about their current views on digital learning. Their insights are a thoughtful peak into the lived experience of working in education over the past year, and the many ways digital learning continues to adapt to evolving student needs.

The Many Sides of Digital Learning

As folks in the education field have learned over the past year, “digital learning” isn’t any one app, piece of hardware, or lesson type. Instead, digital learning can take on numerous forms, each geared toward making educational content more accessible, engaging, and relevant to students of all ages.

To learn more about these many interpretations of digital learning, we asked educational stakeholders around Illinois what digital learning meant to them personally. Their responses were diverse and varied, giving further credence to the idea that digital learning, as a concept, is more than just using electronic devices to carry out instruction.

“Digital learning…is about promoting creation, collaboration, and critical thinking,” said Mia Gutsell, an Instructional Technology Specialist at Bensenville School District #2, “not simply the consumption of ideas.”

Carol L. Kilver, Superintendent for Pikeland CUSD #10, agreed with this perspective and emphasized the kinds of soft skills students can learn while engaging with digital learning resources.

“For me, it is about creating ‘self-directed’ learners,” Kilver explained, “Learners who can determine which tools help them gain what they need to understand.”

“Adaptability would also be key to my definition,” Kilver added, echoing the belief that digital learning must always be flexible, both in terms of how it is implemented and how it fulfils individual student’s learning needs.

Renee Bogacz, an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher with Channahon School District #17, also points out that educators cannot always count on traditional teaching methods when it comes time for digital instruction.

“It is not possible to create an engaging learning experience if you just ‘transfer’ school from the classroom to an online meeting,” Bogacz emphasized while discussing remote learning environments, “Teachers need to discover new ways to engage students, and students need to be shown how to take charge of their own learning.”

Digital Learning in Flux

Since spring 2020, students and parents have become accustomed to change. For many, a temporary shift to remote instruction became more permanent over time, while other schools moved between in-person and hybrid instruction as local health and safety standards changed.

Educators and support staff have similarly felt this flux over the past year, with many emphasizing the challenges of rolling with each week’s new punches. But even so, several Illinois administrators were quick to point out that these swift changes made it possible to unlock new avenues for engaging students.

“As difficult as the last year has been, one of the positives is that we have used technology in ways that we only dreamed about before,” Steve Wilder, Superintendent of Sycamore CUSD #427, praised, “’necessity is the mother of invention’ and the pandemic has given us the opportunity to try things we’ve never done before. Educators have always been creative problem-solvers, but the last year has accelerated the process [of integrating edtech] exponentially.”

Meanwhile, edtech professionals across Illinois have seen their roles grow and adapt to the changing needs of their faculty and students. For example, Sean Mullins, Instructional Technology Director for Olympia CUSD #16, noticed his responsibilities shift from maintaining backend systems to creating professional training materials as remote learning became the overnight norm. Mullins also noted that the changing learning environment required him to dig deeper into the internet connectivity needs of his district’s families – many of whom live in rural areas of central Illinois.

Social Justice and Digital Learning

Not only has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the ways students learn, but also, this moment in history has been shaped by a renewed emphasis on social justice. Digital Learning Day 2021 has recognized this shift in discourse and placed the need to close inequities and personalize instructional opportunities at the center of this year’s annual awareness campaign.

In turn, we asked numerous educators and administrators how they planned to incorporate social justice into their digital learning plans going forward. Responses were more varied on this front, with several administrators recognizing the present need to redouble their efforts toward achieving more equitable learning access.

“I feel like the inequities of socio-economically different students have probably widened as opposed to narrowed,” explained Jeff Whitsitt, Superintendent for United CUSD #304. He went on to point out that some of the traditional differentiating factors for student success – including support from parents at home – were brought into more stark contrast once the majority of learning shifted to the home front.

On the other hand, some schools and districts have had a chance to take a step forward when it comes to closing educational gaps during remote learning. Natalie Almasi, a principal in Oak Grove School District #68, was emphatic in highlighting how school-issued personal learning devices helped keep her school’s students on track during remote learning.

“We were able to ensure that all students had a personal device to engage with and because of that, our staff were able to not only provide instruction, but personalize it for students as the year progressed. The device was the portal, and software, websites, and apps allowed us to share and individualize learning opportunities for students.”

Planning for a Digital Future

Even as educators around Illinois profess different views on how digital learning has performed over the past year, there’s one point that nearly everyone can agree on – digital learning is here to stay, in one form or another. That means that students and educators can expect some components of digital learning to remain in place, even as safe, in-person instruction returns to the forefront.

For example, several administrators, including Jeff Whitsitt, foresee a future in which students that would have traditionally missed long stretches of instruction due to illness or injury will be able to keep pace via digital learning tools. Meanwhile, several Illinois tech coaches and directors agree that this year’s experience with long-term remote learning will make one-off remote learning days in lieu of snow days more feasible.

At the same time, this past year’s emphasis on technological integration has reignited some district’s efforts to bring more computer science curriculum into their classrooms. Natalie Almasi’s school is among those with plans to implement age-appropriate technology skills material into grades all the way down through kindergarten.

There’s also enough hope for the future of digital learning to go around. In fact, many folks in Illinois’ education community sound genuinely excited for what the future holds when it comes to digital learning.

“My hope is that we can take everything we learned about creating asynchronous learning, student centered activities, and differentiated instruction and continue to build on it,” Julie Powell, an Instructional Technology Coach with Park Ridge-Niles School District #64, affirmed, “I hope we will also continue to learn from instruction setup in student-paced and student-directed paths.”

David Lerch, a Distance Learning Teacher with Marissa Community Unity School District #40, echoed a similar sentiment with a notable air of optimism toward future student outcomes.

“My hope is that we take something that has had such a negative impact and learn something positive.  From a teacher’s perspective, digital learning allows us to connect across the globe.  We can use this to broaden our horizons and teach our students to become better global citizens and be more aware of their place in this amazing world!” 

Digital Learning Support for All Illinois Schools

On Digital Learning Day and beyond, the LTC is committed to supporting all educational stakeholders as they strive to increase technology access. This includes through the Illinois Learning Technology Purchasing Program (ILTPP), which is free to join and can help districts obtain affordable prices on edtech hardware and software through pre-negotiated contracts.

The LTC can also help your school or district find an edtech integration solution that meets your long-term digital learning needs. We offer a variety of professional learning opportunities, including through online courses, webinars, and more. We also facilitate an Instructional Technology Coaching Program that can help districts obtain embedded instructional technology support at an affordable price.

Thank You to Our Contributors

We want to thank the 15+ educators, administrators, technology coaches, and technology support staff who contributed their views to this piece. While we couldn’t include everyone’s thoughtful responses, your insights make it possible to reflect on this past year and chart a course for digital learning’s bright future.

2020 Words That Will Never Be The Same

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2020 has brought a lot of unexpected changes, from the way we learn to the way we speak. Words like “meet,” “synchronous,” and even “zoom” have taken on new meanings this year, making it hard to remember a time before we used sentences like “We are meeting for a synchronous class over Zoom” on a regular basis.

To help you look back on this “unprecedented” year, our team has rounded up some of the words used most by remote learners and educators alike.

Click through the slide deck below to see what words have become commonplace in the education community during 2020:

This collection was created by the LTC’s Colleen Kaplan and Holly Kelly.

Colleen Kaplan (@cmostyn) is the Remote Learning Outreach Specialist at the Learning Technology Center. She can be reached at ckaplan@ltcillinois.org.

Holly Kelly is a Regional Educational Technology Coordinator with the Learning Technology Center. She can be reached at hkelly@ltcillinois.org.

Special Education During Remote Learning – Insights from Today’s Educators

Many educators in the field today can attest to the challenges of facilitating remote learning. However, special education teachers in particular have faced a steep learning curve when it comes to planning and carrying out instruction that meets the individualized needs of their students.

Facing the Challenges

In some cases, these unique challenges derive from the shift toward an at-home learning environment. In these settings, parents and caregivers are expected to play a more primary role in their child’s education, from ensuring that they join synchronous classes on time to keeping them on-task while completing an assignment. These adjustments, current special educators say, have been smooth for some parents and rocky for others.

Melissa Wolski, a Behavior Specialist in Algonquin, IL, noted that “one of the hardest challenges is trying to teach parents about the different behavioral strategies that may be needed to help their child be more independent.” Wolski also explained that these growing pains can be even greater for single parents, who may not be able to physically manage some of their child’s negative behaviors on their own.

When it comes to synchronous learning, Katrina Evans also noticed parents endeavoring to balance their work obligations and their child’s educational needs.  

“It can be a challenge for them to match their schedules to the hours we are providing live instruction and individual sessions,” Evans, a teacher at an Illinois-based therapeutic day school, acknowledged, “I try to overcome this by sending materials home preemptively… in the hopes that parents can still work with students on their own schedules.”

Embracing New Technologies

Technology has also taken on an outsized role in facilitating special education services remotely. While some special education classrooms already made regular use of technology such as AAC (Augmented and Alternative Communication) devices prior to the pandemic, all special educators have now found it necessary to lean on digital resources and apps like never before.

For example, both Wolski and Evans voiced their support for “Boom Cards”, an online interactive lesson creation platform. Evans, who works primarily with younger students, also utilizes “Reading A-Z”, which allows her to remotely read with and to her students. As expected, “Zoom” and “Google Classroom” have also become mainstays for Illinois’ special educators, for both full class and one-to-one instruction.

Celebrating Success

Along with these challenges, Illinois’ special educators have also found unexpected successes while teaching remotely. Some students, for example, have grown in their functional autonomy over the course of this school year.

“I’ve been impressed at how independent the students can be,” Wolski praised while highlighting changes in her school’s students since moving away from a physical classroom setting. In some cases, she emphasized, their students were actually making progress toward behavioral goals that had not previously materialized during face-to-face instruction.

Evans, meanwhile, found her students growing more amicable to their regular remote learning sessions. While the adjustment period varied from student to student, Evans still sees this progress toward more sustained attention as encouraging.

As Thanksgiving approaches, Illinois’ special educators have also expressed their gratitude for the work put in by parents to make remote learning work for their students. As Wolski pointed out, “It’s not easy doing this day after day after day,” so she is relieved that the parents she works with routinely exceed her expectations for engagement.

Some parents have even deepened their bond with their child as a result of their at-home learning environment, Wolski said. In turn, that closer relationship between caregiver and child has helped reinforce behavior-based goals, while also providing parents with a richer understanding of the work put in by their child’s teacher – even beyond the context of distance learning.

Looking to the Future

In all, most of Illinois special educators have maintained a positive outlook as the prospect of distance learning continues. Many have even stressed the need for patience at this time, as students, parents, and peers adjust to the new normal.

“It is a stressful time for everyone right now,” Wolski concluded, “be kind to yourself, your students and their families, and your coworkers.”

Learn More about Special Education and Remote Learning

Over the course of the 20-21 School Year, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has published new guidance on facilitating remote learning, including for students with special needs.


To read the latest on this topic, be sure to check ISBE’s website, where you can find links to up-to-date guidance and resources.

Save Time on Instruction with free Google Chrome extensions

We’ve heard it repeatedly: this school year will be nothing like we’ve ever experienced. Districts and teachers are creatively finding solutions to the barriers they encounter to distance learning, blended schedules, and virtual student engagement. These twelve Google extensions will help educators save time, deliver their lessons, and ensure students learn no matter where their classrooms are or how they’re instructing this year.


1. Screencastify

What is it?

Screencastify can record your screen, face, and voice. A user can use select tool functions while recording and editing videos. Users can record a single tab in a web browser, capture all screen activity, or use the webcam to record or insert a video.

What role can it play in instruction?

Teachers are using Screencastify to record instructional videos and post to their instructional platform for asynchronous teaching. If you’re using a flipped classroom model, students will watch your instructional video before attending class, which is where they will receive support, intervention, and enrichment from you, their teacher. Not only does Screencastify allow you to record your screen, but it also allows you to mark up the screen with a whiteboard feature. You can use this feature to model problem-solving in math, writing in ELA, and drawing in art, among other things. Because you can record your face and voice with Screencastify, you can connect with your students and establish a classroom community a little more quickly if you’re in virtual settings.


2. Tab Resize

What is it?

Tab Resize allows you to split/ divide tabs into multiple windows. This extension works very well on larger screens and also provides the options for a number of different present layouts.

What role can it play in instruction?

This extension allows kids and teachers to work from multiple applications simultaneously. For example, they can instantaneously split their screen between Google Meet and their homework assignment. Teachers can split their screen among a list of directions, an example, and a working model to share with students during a Google Meet.


3. Google Calendar

What is it?

Google Calendar extension displays an icon, if pinned, of your calendar in your web browser. It will show the time left until your next meeting on the extension icon and you will be able to click the icon for a quick summary of your calendar. You must open Google Calendar and be logged in before using the extension.

What role can it play in instruction?

Keeping yourself organized is vital this year. You can track schedules for your remote learners and your classroom students. Post your Zoom or Google Meet links in your plan to streamline the virtual meeting process. Share your calendar with students, show them your office hours, and schedule blocks of time for one-on-one meetings.


4. Save to Drive

What is it?

Save to Drive extension allows you to capture content from anywhere on the web and store it in Drive without having to open Google Drive. You will be able to save an entire page’s image or a single image on a page.

What role can it play in instruction?

Avoid printing a page to a PDF, save to your desktop, and move it to Drive. This extension will shortcut the process for sharing resources you find online with your students.


5. Web Paint

What is it?

Web Paint is a drawing tool which you can draw lines, add text boxes, shapes to a live web page. You also have the ability to take a screenshot of the web page to use for later use.

What role can it play in instruction?

If you’re looking for an interactive whiteboard, this is one option. Not only can you annotate on any web page or screenshot, but your students can also, too! If you want them to annotate an advertisement they find online for rhetorical devices; they can take a screenshot and write directly on the screen. They save it and upload it to the instructional platform to share it with you. This extension works well with screencasting and video conferencing apps and extensions, too. You can share your screen in Google Meet and annotate directly on your web page with Web Paint.


6. Vocaroo

What is it?

Vocaroo is a tool for recording audio in a browser. You can record using the featured buttons and/or add the recorded audio into your learning management system.

What role can it play in instruction?

Vocaroo is particularly powerful for younger students, students learning to read and write, and English Language Learners. This simple app allows kids to provide a voice memo response with the click of a button. They can upload their audio response to Classroom without having to type. They can verbally share their response to a story, walk you through a math problem, or describe their observations of nature. This is just one possible way Vocaroo expands accessibility to students.


7. EquatIO

What is it?

EquatIO is a tool that allow yous to create mathematical equations and formulas. It can be used in Google Sheets, Forms, Slides, and Drawings.

What role can it play in instruction?

Writing mathematical equations and expressions online is tricky without using code. This extension translates handwritten mathematical language into the proper mathematical format. Students can show their work in a digital form. Not only will you not receive sloppy handwritten work anymore, but you can streamline the grading process by pairing this extension with an app like Google Forms. For example, kids write their answer in proper form using Equati0 and insert it as their answer in a Form. You can use the Quiz feature on Forms to automatically grade and provide feedback to students’ math work.


8. Google Translate

What is it?

Google Translate can translate web text and google docs.. There are over 100 languages to choose from. Easy accessibility allows you to translate a live web page.

What role can it play in instruction?

This app is a no-brainer for students learning a second (or third or fourth) language. Suppose you’re sending written instructions or texts to English Language Learners students, and you do not have access to a translator. In that case, Google Translate is a great place to make documents accessible to students and their families in their native languages.


9. LightShot

What is it?

Lightshot is a tool that allows you to take screenshots of a whole page or just a selected area. The image will be downloaded for you to use in your learning management system.

What role can it play in instruction?

Show your students a process by taking a screenshot. Pair each screenshot with text to create a set of visual instructions to print or post. Then, students have access to tutorials without needing wi-fi or technology. This is particularly useful for showing kids how to do hands-on projects like graphic design or art or how to navigate a computer program.


10. Quick QR Code Generator

What is it?

Quick QR Code Generator converts your web page or link into a QR code which allies another person to be able to scan with their device camera for accessibility. By using a QR code, another person does not have to type in a URL and saves time or mistyping error.

What role can it play in instruction?

We know students will use technology to access instructional materials more than ever this school year. Link instructional materials, useful websites, and recorded videos to a QR code for easy access. Any student or family with a smartphone can take a picture of the QR code with their phone’s camera or a QR code reader and instantly access the resource without having to type a long URL.


11. Bitly

What is it?

Bitly is a URL shortener. A user can customize a URL link to add personalization.

What role can it play in instruction?

Pair a shortened URL from Bitly with a QR code and ensure that your students and families have access to important information and resources. You won’t risk a mistyped URL or case-sensitive addresses.


12. Kami

What is it?

Kami a tool that allows you to markup a document and allow annotation. You are able to underline, highlight, add images and shapes as well to a document. Kami works with Google Drive and integrates into the assignments tab in Google Classroom. In order for a student to use Kami, they, in addition to their teacher, need this extension.

What role can it play in instruction?

Your students can write directly on a document using Kami. They can mark up text with questions, big ideas, connections, etc. They can even complete practice problems or write explanations on it using Kami. Because students can write directly on the document or use text boxes, the app increases accessibility and possibilities for students.


How to add extensions in Chrome

Closing Summary

We’re in no short supply of tech tools, applications, and extensions to use this school year. The twelve above are just a small sampling that will save you and your students time. No matter which tools you choose to prioritize and use, always ask yourself How will this affect student learning? This important question keeps our purpose in the forefront of our mind as we plan lessons to reach our learning targets and choose extensions to increase accessibility for our students.

Back to School on a Budget

This post is part of the LTC SPARK Initiative, providing quality parent-focused resources and support for remote learning.

Are your kids ready for remote learning, but your house is not?

Are you dreading shelling out too much money for yet another piece of furniture (let alone where it is going to fit in your house!)?

Check out these creative workspace solutions for the at-home, remote learners in your life. Most importantly, each solution comes in at under $40.00 (including optional supplies)!

*designates an optional, but suggested supply.

Option One

Source: Diana Elisa Falcon

A simple TV tray table, supply cart, and lamp can fit just about anywhere in your house! The tray table can easily fit most computers and can be folded and stored away when the school day is done. The supply cart is a great addition, especially if it is on wheels since it can travel around the house with your student (or be easily moved to a closet when cleaning the house).

Folding Tray Table (Walmart): $8.94
Supply cart (Walmart): $15.88
Lamp* (Walmart): $6.88

Supply caddy* (Dollar Tree): $1.00
Writing supplies* (Dollar Tree): $5.00

Option Two

Source: Angelina Harper

Maybe you already have a great, centralized location for at home learning, such as a dining room or kitchen table. The table is big enough to fit all your children – however you can already anticipate the bickering and distractions that may occur. If that is the case, this solution is for you!

A tri-fold board (yes, like what you use for the science fair!), trimmed down and jazzed up can make a great divider and give each of your students their own personal remote learning nook, free of sibling distractions.

Tri-fold board (Walmart): $2.77
Clip on light (Dollar Tree): $1.00
Supply holder* (Dollar Tree): $1.00

Headphone hook* (Dollar Tree): $1.00
Writing supplies* (Dollar Tree): $5.00

Option Three

This option is specifically for your littlest remote learner. A small end table, paired with a child’s chair is the Goldilocks of workspaces for students in primary grades – not too big, not too small. Just right (and it won’t break the bank)!

Table (IKEA): $9.99
Supply holder* (Dollar Tree): $1.00
Writing supplies* (Dollar Tree): $5.00

Children’s chair-plastic (IKEA): $14.99
Children’s chair-plastic (Walmart): $14.31
Children’s chair-wood (IKEA): $19.99

Build Your Own Combination

Looking for something a little different? Or maybe you just need to supplement what you already have around your house? Check out these great, low-cost solutions to help you create a dedicated learning space for your student.



Teach Better with Chad Ostrowski

Chad Ostrowski of the Teach Better Team joins us to discuss teaching, professional learning, and educator self-care. In this episode, you’ll learn tips that can help you elevate your practice, both in-person and remotely. Check out the episode and the links below to learn more!

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