Reflections on Mississippi Connects Initiative: Our Journey

Mississippi Connects Summit

Exploring the Relevant, Engaging, Sustainable, and Timely Impact of friEdTech’s Journey with Mississippi Department of Education’s Initiative

Four years ago, friEdTech jumped into the deep end with both feet. We joined forces with one of our long-time partners, CDWG, to provide the professional development services on a multi-year contract with the Mississippi Department of Education as part of their Mississippi Connects Initiative. This initiative was the largest of its kind in the US at the time, bringing 1-to-1 Chromebooks, Windows laptops, and iPads to all school districts across the state of Mississippi. Our intention was clear: help the classroom educators learn effective strategies for using those devices on a daily basis.

Rising to the Occasion

Our work initially felt a little daunting thanks to the unavoidable environmental circumstances in 2020. Districts were rolling out devices while simultaneously building their tech plans, wifi was not readily accessible in multiple areas of the state, and the learning curve for technology integration was steep in many places. But the amazing educators in Mississippi rose to the occasion. Through strategic partnerships with school districts and school leaders, our team was able to target instruction that worked the best for the educators in Mississippi classrooms. Not only did we provide dozens of live learning opportunities designed around strong tech integration, we hosted several conferences, webinars and academies for both classroom staff and school leaders. And for four years, it has been a wild, but gratifying ride!

Our team has become true road warriors in the beautiful Magnolia State. During the summer of 2022, a team of seven friEd Folks made the drive from Houston to Oxford, MS, and then down through Meridian and back home to Houston. It was a SERIOUS drive, but the gorgeous Natchez Trace and surrounding natural beauty of this sleepy Southern state made the drive worth every minute! Mississippi’s dedication to preserving architecture, nature and relics from the past make places like Vicksburg, MS a treasure trove for the history buffs among us. The cobblestone-style streets and the preservation of decades past evident in the aging but functional, repurposed buildings made so many hamlets like Vicksburg a pleasure to visit.

friEdTech team walking in Mississippi

A Foodie Paradise

One of our favorite aspects of our work in MS (beyond working with awesome teachers and staff, of course) is how well we’ve come to know and love the beautiful state and the people in it. Our team will tell anyone who listens that while New Orleans always gets crowned the best food in the South, people are absolutely sleeping on the cuisine in Mississippi. We have eaten at some of the coolest local eateries, like Mama Hamil’s in Madison, MS (outside of Jackson), where we have met and befriended the community while sitting at family-style tables for lunch. We’ve had the best chocolate s’mores cake and banana pudding ever at Saltine, a restaurant housed inside one of Jackson’s oldest standing school buildings where lockers, blackboards, and science cabinets are prominently displayed. They’re both so good, we may or may not have made these two establishments a required part of our itinerary when we travel through Jackson. Beyond Jackson, our team has been privileged to visit some truly unique local businesses, like the tractor factory cafeteria-turned country kitchen at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Macon, MS. Blink and you’ll miss it, the restaurant is nestled right inside the Trailboss Trailers facility off the side of US-45 in one of the most nondescript buildings you can imagine. But inside is some of the best home-cooking you will find anywhere. We’re telling you: Mississippians can COOK.

Our Time to Shine

But back to learning stuff: As amazing as all the interpersonal learning opportunities turned out to be, there was still a great need for more access to on-demand professional development. And that’s where friEdOnline really shined. Our team of classroom educators-turned-digital content designers were able to design and deploy dozens of asynchronous courses, affecting more than 5,000 educators over the course of our work these past four years. Some of the courses were designed for beginning users, such as Chromebook Scavenger Hunt or Google Starter Pack, both of which help new-to-Google educators get started with their student/classroom devices and the integrated cloud based platform of Google Workspace for Education. Some courses addressed the less technical, but always important classroom management aspects of a tech-infused environment. Educators had a robust catalog to explore and choose from as they found professional development resources to best fit their individual needs.

And while the genuine interest in our engaging and fun PD resources was impressive on its own, it is important to note that the Mississippi Department of Education requires all educators to accumulate a minimum annual number of professional development hours, called CEUs (or SEMIs and OSLs for administrators) to maintain their professional licenses. These credits must be approved through one of the regional education service agencies, or RESAs, and must meet specific time and content requirements to be considered. Our friEdOnline team was able to create and offer over a dozen completely FREE asynchronous learning opportunities as part of the Mississippi Connects Initiative that qualified for CEUs/SEMIs/OSLs. We received so many positive comments from busy educators that found friEdOnline to be the perfect solution to their annual renewals.

Mississippi Connects Summit

“I really like the fact that it is self-paced. It really helps as a single mom and teacher!
I was able to obtain all the CEUs I needed to renew my license without missing work or soccer games for my children!”

The course content for both our live and online learning has always centered around strong pedagogy and what we know to be highly effective teaching strategies. For example, we draw upon John Hattie’s evidence-based educational framework and other strong adult learning theory to create our learning experiences. Plus, every person at friEdTech is a highly-qualified career educator who knows what our peers are looking for in meaningful professional development. Let’s call it REST: relevancy, engagement, sustainability, and timeliness.

Purposeful PD

Nobody enjoys sitting through a learning session where the content being delivered is disjointed from the work being done in their classroom. Ensuring that our creative learning sessions meet our intention of helping classroom staff implement the technology into their teaching practices without disrupting the learning outcomes is central to our goal. Relevant professional development is happening when we’re hearing from our participants how they’re actually using what they’ve learned with us. One way we have kept our pulse on these outcomes is through our WOW! Academies and our Tech Influencer Academies, both of which seek to bring our learners into smaller, more focused groups to expand, plan and implement the tools and strategies they’ve learned with us.

friEdTech professional development in Mississippi

Cracking the Code on Participant Engagement

We also know that engagement is about more than simple attendance and compliance. And designing for interactivity within our in-person learning experiences is typically a no brainer; however, the challenge came from including interactivity within our asynchronous, friEdOnline experiences. Our content designers did just that. From standard online learning fare such as quizzes and clickable content to downloadable interactive learning journals, it seems they have cracked the code on engagement through interactivity in all of our learning experiences. With friEdOnline, our learners were able to create notebooks, download printable infographics, and engage in real-time discussions with classmates through their coursework. It created a dynamic learning environment that made the barriers of time and space far less important than they used to be!

No matter how relevant or engaging a professional development session is, what’s being implemented is only valuable if there’s a clear pathway to sustainability, meaning a way to incorporate the strategies over and over again to aid in the learning instead of being a one and done, flash-in-the-pan “trick” that teachers can pull out of their toolkits to get students through a learning unit. That’s why our friEdOnline courses also included implementation guides for on-site staff to leverage when working in small groups with their educators during their on-going professional learning throughout the year. Being able to follow up with staff who have learned new ways of using their technology is key to seeing real change in the classroom.

“As soon as I began the course, I could tell it was created by teachers. I especially loved the Note-Catcher and am thinking of implementing something similar in my classroom for guided notes during lectures, etc. Very effective and super useful.”

Leaving a Lasting Legacy

It’s taken us several years to really become entrenched in our education technology professional development role in Mississippi, but the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The educators we met and worked with, the school leaders who helped us plan and deliver what their staff needed, and the state leadership whose vision made this plan a reality…each group helped us ensure we gave Mississippi educators and their students the coaching and support they needed to use their technology tools right away. And being able to deliver that support just when they need it (whether it was in-person or virtually), helped us make the impact we set out to make when all of this began.

As we look ahead, we will miss our daily and weekly interactions with the education leaders we’ve come to know and respect (and we will most certainly miss the excellent eats you can find in their great state); we leave behind what we know is a legacy that celebrates the journey of growth and learning that Mississippi educators have embarked upon, knowing that our work will ensure the future of education in Mississippi is brighter than ever before.

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Jessica is a Google Certified Educator, Trainer & Innovator and Lead Learning Guide at friEdTech. Her goal is to empower teachers to provide excellent digital instruction through high quality, timely professional development. Jess is passionate about reaching all learners through purposeful instructional design and she enjoys sharing tips, tricks, and applications that help educators achieve that goal.

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