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We recently had a conversation with Otto Esterle about technology in education and asked him a few questions on how the pandemic has affected the use of technology in learning – for students and teachers alike.

Mr. Esterle hails from the American Midwest, Ohio to be exact, and has lived in various parts of the United States, including California, Oregon, and Florida. His background covers everything from construction to tech, and he had his own company for a few years. Through it all, he has not forgotten what it felt like to be a student, learning about the rapidly changing world around us. Eventually, he decided to leverage that awareness to make a positive impact in the lives of young people via education.

Can you briefly describe your role as a teacher and how the reality of it likely differs greatly from your official title?

Let’s imagine that meme “What the world thinks I do,” “What my parents think I do,” and “What I think I do.” What the world thinks I do; nothing, and I get 3 months off a year. What my parents think I do; Mold young minds and prepare them for tomorrow. What I think I do; I guess, just try not to get in their way, be there when they need it, and track it all.

I work at a private high school/gymnasium, and teach 11/12 year-olds up to 20 year-olds who could be working already and succeeding on the job. I’ve seen it myself when I worked in an office not too long ago: kids in the office the same age as some of the seniors I have. 

Pre-pandemic, how had your role as a teacher changed over the 3-5 years prior, say 2015 to 2019?

I started moving the process of lessons, homework, and grading online back in 2011 and finally moved everything online back in 2016. I’ve spent the better part of the time since trying to make a site that is clear and easy for students to follow. In striving for this, I was compelled to learn all about Google Sites, Drive, Apps and most recently Google Classroom (GC). I’ve come to see that a great many (if not most) students perform just as well – if not better – in an online environment. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to optimize their experience. Needless to say, there’s a lot of competition. 

How has your role as a teacher gotten more complicated over the past year dealing with the pandemic?

My take on this pandemic and the mass migration to online teaching – the corporate world calls it working remotely – is that it makes more sense. Just the way most people working corporate would say, they can work as efficiently or better working 3-4 days away from the office. It’s not that it’s “at home”, it’s that you’re not at the office. 

The pandemic streamlined everything. I was already fully online. I’d done a full paperless year by the time this all started. There are new apps popping up every day for this time we’re in. Two significant differences: First, I am totally organized. Nothing is lost. Every comment I make is recorded, accounted for, and accountable. Students can see it for themselves too. All-access all-the-time; and second, it’s so easy now. Just 5 years ago, to do what, say, Google Classroom does at the stroke of a key, would take hours to do using for example Google Drive and Sites. 

The same way students get distracted by phones, friends, and drama in class, so do people in an office. Online school is more personal. I just had a 45 minute pedagogical jam session last week with one of my students about essay writing. That’s a conversation that would be lucky to last 10 minutes in class/school. This was not the norm, certainly, but my conversations with students across grade levels have increased per capita significantly since lockdown. Also, the students who don’t participate in discussions – and there are plenty of this type of student – the online platform makes it easy for them to succeed in their own way. Plus, it’s likely that they participate more in other subjects that are more valuable to them.

So you were at the forefront among your peers for bringing the latest technology into your teaching approach. Can you describe briefly what you were already doing that other teachers have had to suddenly learn and implement?

Stop, you’re making me blush. Google Classroom (if you are using Google at your school) does everything for you. It’s so easy, and people onboarding this platform now (natives) will see that it is fast and easy. I started way before Google Classroom. I was using Google Sites, Drive, Apps and Calendar. Back then you had to set up your class lists in Drive, Calendar, and Sites manually. That was a painstaking process (and just the tip of the iceberg), but one that I’m glad I endured. I benefit from knowing how all that stuff on GC runs. It matters because there are glitches with GC that are too tedious to go into detail about, and knowing how it works helps me find workarounds. 

What were some of the main benefits that you realized from being at the forefront of digital transformation in education?

That would be a long list. To name a few: better, easier organization; total transparency; complete accountability (for students, administrators, parents, and me); fast and easy distribution of content; fast and easy turn-around times on assignments; and data collection (I’ve got data, whether it’s student work samples, literary essay examples, or standardized test results going back 10 years).

Everything got easier. It’s been a great CYA tool. I’ve developed a file-naming system such that if a colleague, student, or administrator wants to see anything I’ve used for any reason I can find and share it in a matter of seconds. No more rifling through desk drawers and filing cabinets. 

Also, being online has taken the pain out of makeup work for students. 

How frequently do IT security topics come up with students? Do they have a basic understanding of threats or is that something else that teachers now need to worry about?

If you gave it a different name, other than “IT Security Issues”, I think probably students are more informed on security. They know all the fine print on apps and social media. Teachers are probably less informed about who is actually and who is potentially tracking you and your data. Students are very savvy when it comes to security. They recognize we are nothing but data waiting to be exploited and that concept concerns them.

“Students are very savvy when it comes to security. They recognize we are nothing but data waiting to be exploited and that concept concerns them.”

What advice would you give to teachers who are just in the past year getting started with things you were already setting up a few years ago (e.g. cloud-based lessons and grading)?

I imagine by now everyone knows about Google Classroom or Microsoft Classroom. If not, start there. It’s so easy. The caveat being you have dealt with and know what Google Drive/OneDrive is. 

GC saves all your GC Classes, student work, assignments, grades, comments, annotations, in one place. I’ve got three years worth of usable data, lessons, units, objectives, standards all in one tidy and blossoming folder on my Drive. 

Get to know GC. Start as simple as you can, then make it simpler. Stick with 2 or 3 tasks that you know in-and-out, then start looking around. Add a new one once in a while. Be creative. If you can think of it, it’s probably out there already (that’s what YouTube’s for), and if it’s not, well, talk to the nearest developer, post haste. 

What advice would you give to IT Admins responsible for simultaneously enabling remote schooling and ensuring stability and uptime of mission-critical operations?

What advice would I give to IT Admin? You’re awesome! Keep up the good work. Is that advice? I don’t think it would be too difficult for an IT department to move a staff online, either part-time or full. Everything’s in the cloud anyway. If the IT department is able to keep a stable environment in an office, they can do it remotely.

New applications are popping up every day. I stick to what I work with already. I hesitate to say it, but I’m a Google guy. I love Google (in case they’re listening). I like WordPress but they’ve scaled back what free users can access. Google’s doing the exact opposite. Everything is free. Their OCR blows me away every 6 months or so with some new feature. I use Google Sites, it works just like Google Classroom with one difference. All the stuff that Google Classroom does for you, and I mean how cleanly it organizes everything, you have to know how to do it yourself. Like creating class lists, grades, folders...shared and individual, groups, clubs, the list goes on, Google Classroom does that for you, but I learned to do all that stuff just using Google Drive, Sites, and the Apps. The benefit Sites has over Classroom is appearance and customization capabilities. 

About Otto Esterle, M.Ed.

A Midwesterner from the suburbs of East Cleveland, living and teaching in Europe. Father of two boys. A language enthusiast. Currently listening to Tom Waits. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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