Reimagining The School Experience

By Amber Rinehart, Lead Technology Design Coach, and Erin Bown-Anderson, Director of Tech Integration


Imagining what “Back to School” might look like under any of the scenarios outlined above is surprisingly much easier and concrete after our lived experience since March 13, 2020, when schools in Austin ISD closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have learned important lessons and uncovered challenges for underserved students in our system. We have actionable data to help us reimagine the 2020-2021 school year, and we need to gather even more. We know that at a minimum, we will need to have the skills to respond to conducting school in various contexts, and should anticipate that we will need to have the skills necessary to navigate the likely, ongoing, and intermittent need for school closures. As we engage in these conversations and decision points, we have an opportunity to design equitable, empathetic, and student-centered experiences.


As this 2019-2020 school year winds to a close, it’s worth exploring what we know about good teaching and learning regardless of the reality we find ourselves in. Doing so can help us be more prepared for the inevitable complexities around how to “do” school as our entire society navigates this global pandemic.

Teachers know that designing authentic, meaningful, engaging learning can be difficult. It does not, however, have to be a mystery. The Technology Design Team has been working and learning alongside teachers in our district to demystify what making learning personal looks and feels like. 

We see time and again that there are clear and concrete strategies for personalization in blended learning models that make student experiences more meaningful and teacher planning more efficient. We also saw time and again that students who had engaged in learning experiences that included these high leverage strategies for personalization in their pre COVID-19 classroom environments had a much easier transition into remote learning.  

This difference in experience is an inequity that we can’t ignore. All students deserve to have their interests and identities considered and reflected in how they engage with their learning, regardless of where that learning is taking place and how many of their teachers or peers they are – or are not – able to interact with face-to-face.

Personalization is key to equity in education. And yet collective understanding about what “personalization” means is fractured. It is a misunderstood term that may even have a negative connotation for some teachers and families. The TDT has embraced a definition from the Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL), which defines personalized learning as:

Tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs, and interests–including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn–to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.”  

The Austin ISD Technology Design Team has focused on key high leverage strategies provide focus for teachers implementing personalization. Positive and purposeful interactions, authentic student choice, meaningful feedback, using data to inform what happens next, student goal setting and student metacognition also accelerate personalization and elevate student identity and agency. These key strategies made a difference in blended, brick and mortar school classrooms because they allowed teachers to systematize the complexities of personalized learning as part of an established classroom culture, AND they continued to be essential after school closures as we shifted to remote at-home learning.

This list is not intended to be exhaustive in detailing all the best practices of teaching and learning. We still have a responsibility to make learning goals clear, provide a clear understanding of mastery, build a safe and empowering class culture, and consider any number of nuances to teaching the whole child. In fact, that is arguably unachievable without strategies for personalization. Teaching practices that promote making learning personal, however, are an accelerant for engagement and achievement, and a necessary component for truly ensuring that students own their learning.

There is a lot of anxiety about the future of school. We want students to be able to reconnect at school with teachers and peers. And we know that school closures are a likelihood in the 2020-2021 school year. That information gives us precious time to plan for that experience. The Hybrid Learning environment deserves our close attention. If we plan and design for this experience, we can create coherence between the “brick and mortar” learning in classrooms and the at-home learning that will continue to be a reality.

Blended learning advocates may recognize or recall the Enriched Virtual Model, which emerged as a solution among fully virtual schools that shifted to blended learning over time to provide stronger support for students who struggled to stay on track without some face-to-face support (Christensen Institute, Blended Learning Universe). As such it may hold the key to helping us mitigate some of the challenges we faced during school closures while leveraging the power of face-to-face learning.

The benefits of this disruptive blended learning model become clear as we conceptualize a way to design a seamless, coherent, and personalized learning experience for AISD students. The graphic below highlights some benefits:

We all hope that students are able to join their teachers at school this fall. Blended learning models like the Enriched Virtual Model help because we won’t be inventing new structures on the fly. Instead, we can reference existing models and research to design what the student experience can look like in a context where students may be home several days a week, but at school several days a week. Other blended learning models, like rotation models, help us conceptualize what school might look like when students are in physical (or “brick and mortar”) school. Regardless of the model, the high leverage personalization strategies should be the litmus test of effective and equity-focused personalized learning.

The Austin ISD Technology Design Team is ready to serve our community, and collaborate during the valuable summer months to prepare for what we face next school year. We believe in the power of our community to overcome the complexities of this public health emergency, to listen to the quietest and most vulnerable voices, and to come together to design and truly reinvent the school experience to meet the needs of our teachers, students, and families.

1 Comment

  1. It is great that after this Leadership training there is a second round of the individual strategies trainings

Leave a Reply