Member Spotlight: Being Thoughtful with Technology
We are excited to shine a spotlight on one of our newest members, Renaissance Learning, a national Educational Technology provider of literacy solutions for over 30 years. Renaissance creates assessment and practice solutions that put learning analytics to work for educators, saving hours of prep time while making truly personalized learning possible.
We sat down with Anna Utgoff, Director of Product Management, Literacy, to learn more about what unique contributions Renaissance is making to the field of Ed Tech for Oakland teachers and beyond, and to learn more about where we stand with virtual learning at this critical moment in time.
What do you think makes Renaissance Learning stand out in the field of continuous learning? What’s your hidden talent?
Renaissance has an amazing history, this company has been in the education technology game for 30 years. And it was founded by parents and educators who really care about kids and really value the role of the teacher. At Renaissance, it’s always been core to the mission that we are helping teachers do their incredibly valuable work of instruction and supporting them. If you compare us to other Ed tech providers, the superpower I’m really proud of is that teachers are really at the center for us, and we try really hard to honor and support their work.
Do you have a particular Aha moment for Renaissance learning or a specific story or that really jumps out?
I feel that everybody in the industry is having a big Aha the last couple of years. Ed tech has obviously become more and more a part of schools, but there were still teachers hadn’t brought it into their classrooms. Over the past year we’ve seen educators using technology for the first time, and realizing “Okay, the only way I’m going to get books to my kids during distance learning is if I have digital books to share with them.”
So that was terrifying and exciting to have a big group of people, for the first time, say, “These tools are going to be part of my classroom; I’m teaching with Google Classroom; I’m using digital books; I’m using personalized learning.” I think it changed what we do forever. I just don’t think there’s any going back.
However, I also think we’re seeing something of a backlash this year. Many educators are so tired of looking at zoom screens, and are looking for authentic moments of connection with kids that don’t involve technology, which of course, is so valuable and important.
So I think an Aha for the company has been that this is a really exciting, crazy scary moment in the history of classroom technology, and we’re just touching a lot more classrooms, some for the first time. In this moment, we need to be really thoughtful about what technology can help with, and what teachers and students really need to be doing without screens.
Can you speak more about this year of distance learning, given your long experience in this field and share more about what this past year has revealed to you?
One of the things that Renaissance does is assessment, so we have this big body of data on what the last year did to kids.
The resilience of Oakland families is amazing- the things that families did to help their kids learn and have positive experiences and be safe last year was incredible. But I also think, and we see this in the data at Renaissance, that there are learning experiences some kids missed, especially early readers. Students are coming into first grade without the same knowledge of letter-sound correspondence, and without the same oral reading fluency they would have had after a normal year of Kindergarten. Those are building blocks you need if you’re going to become a fluent reader. This was part of why I’m excited about the Oakland Literacy Coalition. It’s clear that the kids in younger grades are going to need to really focus on those foundational skills. I’m glad there’s an organization like OLC supporting the families and educators doing that work.
Do you have a story about working with a teacher or working in a classroom that impacted your work?
I think the thing that’s made me want to serve teachers is the feeling that you get when you walk into a great teacher’s classroom. You’ll see them stop and just have a moment of interaction with one kid that is so full of joy and caring, and you can see what a huge difference it makes for that student. I love watching those moments and feeling that positive energy. Teachers are amazing people who do amazing work, they deserve support. That’s why I work on software tools for teachers.
What do you think are like the most are going to be the most impactful lessons from this past year, specifically for addressing learning loss and accelerated learning? What can we take forward?
The thing that I would really want as an educator in this moment, is a reliable foundational skills assessment, one that was easy to do quickly and fit into the flow of my classroom. It’s so critical for teachers to have really useful data that tells them quickly, clearly and reliably: what does this student need to progress as a reader?
The thing that I heard from a lot of educators is that when you’re not face to face with kids, it’s so much harder to keep tabs on how are they doing. Are they learning or growing? Distance learning sometimes felt like teaching in the dark. To accelerate learning now that we’re back, we need the right data about their skills and progress.
Why did you decide to become a member of the OLC?
Renaissance’s mission is to accelerate learning for children and adults worldwide… but I will admit, I care most about that mission in my hometown of Oakland. I was looking for a way to support literacy in Oakland, and I was so glad to discover that there’s this network of really thoughtful educators, doing that work.
I came to a meeting before everything shut down, and got to sit at a table with several Oakland teachers. They had been teaching for 30 years, and they had such amazing stories and ideas to share. I learned a lot from them just in that one meeting. I’m so glad that there is an organization bringing together families, educational practitioners and service organizations, and different groups of people in Oakland who really care that kids learn to read.