Custom remote learning solution facilitates student success for Toronto Catholic District School Board
Faculty and Staff
By equipping their students with new devices and training their teachers in online education delivery, the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) saved the academic year for their 91,000 students. Transitioning to online learning would ordinarily take a year or more but was accomplished in less than three weeks due in large part to the use of Google Classroom and Google Meet.
About Toronto Catholic District School Board
TCDSB is a publicly funded school board in Toronto, Ontario. The board oversees 91,000 students in 164 elementary schools, 28 secondary schools, three combined schools, and two alternative schools. In total, TCDSB represents close to 475,000 Catholic school supporters in Toronto.
The TCDSB employs approximately 10,000 faculty and staff who are dedicated to supporting the students throughout the district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, the TCDSB is the largest publicly funded Catholic school board in the world.
The TCDSB had been working with digital technology and online learning for several years, but in-person learning was the primary focus. This changed on March 12, 2020, when the province announced schools would close as a result of the growing COVID-19 pandemic, requiring school boards to facilitate online learning. The Province of Ontario mandated online education would begin on April 6, 2020, requiring the TCDSB to reconfigure its education system in two weeks.
There were two main challenges that needed to be resolved: ensuring appropriate technological support by providing devices for students and teachers; as well as educating teachers on how to best leverage the technology and adapt to a virtual learning model.
After conducting an initial district-wide student needs assessment, TCDSB determined they needed to deliver devices (Chromebooks and tablets) to students at home so they continue their learning during the school closure. In total, 12,000 devices needed to be imaged and delivered to households in the district by April 6.
The board worked with IT staff to ensure the remote learning curriculum and supporting infrastructure were in place, simultaneously laying the technical foundation upon which the remote learning was to be constructed. Understandably, the team encountered unique and unforeseen challenges. For example, securing the network within TCDSB grounds was one thing, but how could they ensure that video links with students in their homes would be secure?
While working through solutions to technological challenges, the board was also tasked with training their teachers how to adapt to a virtual education model and leverage a suite of online learning resources that would complement the new technology.
Facing inventory shortages for 5,000 devices, TCDSB called on Compugen to procure and image the devices within the tight time frame.
“We knew we needed to get devices in our students’ hands quickly because if we were going to deliver any kind of educational base, we needed to make sure that baseline technology was in the hands of people who needed it,” said Steve Camacho, TCDSB Associate Director of Education (former Chief Information Officer).
Board officials launched an initiative called ‘Check and Connect with our Families,’ which confirmed device needs for each household identified in the student needs assessment, ensuring each student’s needs were effectively addressed. From there, Compugen coordinated the configuration and delivery of devices directly to students. By April 6, 12,000 devices had been delivered without touching the hands of TCDSB personnel. The majority of these devices were Google Chromebooks.
While the board engaged Compugen to procure and deploy devices to students, they simultaneously implemented system-wide virtual training for approximately 10,000 faculty and staff, ensuring rapid integration of online learning resources such as Google Classroom, Google Meet and the full G Suite offering.
Google Classroom simplifies creating, distributing and grading assignments by streamlining the file-sharing process between teachers and students. What made Google Classroom vital to the sudden shift to online learning is the specially designed teacher/student interface, which is tailored specifically for the classroom experience. Providing the support and training needed to ease the transition to virtual teaching empowered TCDSB teachers to provide an exceptional online learning experience for their students.
“This was an incredible move from zero online meetings and only a few online classes,” Camacho said. “Technology demands obviously exploded for everybody. It was incredible to set ambitious strategic goals and then blow through them.”
TCDSB’s rapid approach to building and delivering an entirely new education platform ensured teachers and students alike could quickly adapt to the new learning model and achieve academic success in unforeseen circumstances.
By taking the initial step of determining student need, the TCDSB team was able to provide 12,000 Chromebooks and tablets to those in their community who needed them most. Without that assessment at the onset, many students would not have had the technology needed to participate in online learning and would therefore have risked losing the entire academic year.
“That speaks to exactly the kind of impact we wanted to make,” Camacho said. “We wanted to help students that didn’t have access, provide equity within the system, and level the playing field.”
Transforming to the virtual learning model not only resolved a short-term crisis but has subsequently positioned the TCDSB as a leader in education, providing new opportunities and innovative ways to deliver curriculum moving forward.
“I think this whole experience has led everyone to recognize the importance of technology and the role that platforms such as Google Classroom can play in delivering education,” Camacho said. “I think the classroom of tomorrow is going to be everywhere. The pandemic has been the catalyst we needed to move to this new learning model in which we’ve proven we can thrive.”
By the time remote learning was launched in April 2020, the TCDSB had completed an education delivery transformation in just three weeks that would have normally required more than a year of planning and execution. Teachers and students engaged in virtual learning via Google Classroom, an approach that would have been unimaginable just six months earlier. Because of this transformation, students and educators in the TCDSB have the tools and know-how to thrive in the education system of tomorrow.