Sun Devil Learning Labs: a crisis response with long-term value

When the Spring 2020 semester started, ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College had over 1,500 undergraduate and graduate teacher candidates placed in internships and residencies in over 450 schools. Six hundred and forty-six of those were working full-time in schools as residents. 

On March 11, in response to the threats posed by COVID-19, ASU announced that, effective March 16, the university would transition to online instruction.

“We knew we could mobilize our resources to help our faculty deliver classes online,” says Meredith Toth, assistant dean for digital learning at MLFTC. “But creating online professional experiences for students who were working full-time in pre-K–12 schools was a challenge that presented a different order of magnitude.”

There were policy questions, technological hurdles and instructional conundrums. There was organizational complexity within MLFTC, within ASU and in relationships with schools and districts. 

Carole Basile, MLFTC’s dean, says, “We prioritized three objectives. First, student safety. Second, provide meaningful clinical and professional experiences that would allow our teacher candidates to graduate on time and earn our institutional recommendation for teacher certification. Third, create something that would be valuable to our school and district partners and potentially to all pre-K–12 learners.”

What followed, according to Basile, “was like a high-tech Amish barn raising. It was a remarkable and remarkably fast collaboration that ultimately involved hundreds of people, mostly working from home, and many of whom worked 20-hour days in the first week. They spun up a working prototype in six days. Then they spent a week beta testing it. Now we’re making it available to schools and families to use.”

That barn, raised and functioning, is now known as Sun Devil Learning Labs. It’s an online platform through which ASU teacher candidates deliver live streaming lessons, with supervision and coaching from MLFTC faculty, four days a week to learners from pre-kindergarten through grade 8. For high school students, the college is piloting one-to-one tutoring sessions in subject areas delivered by students in the college’s secondary education programs.

The live streams work like this: ASU students develop their lessons and conduct them on the Zoom teleconferencing platform while end users view those lessons live on YouTube channels organized by grade level. 

To make that happen, teams from the following departments collaborated: faculty and staff at MLFTC’s Division of Teacher Preparation and Office of Professional Experiences; digital learning specialists and project managers from the college’s Office of Digital Learning; copywriters, graphic designers and web developers from the college’s marketing team; technologists at ASU’s University Technology Office; education technology and design experts in MLFTC’s Office of Scholarship and Innovation, including student workers known as Educational Technology Champions, who provide real-time tech support and coaching to the teacher candidates. 

In its beta-test stage, the Sun Devil Learning Labs website received roughly 1,000 page views a day, with individual lessons reaching as many as 20 viewers at a time. 

“We hope it grows,” says Robert Morse, executive director of the Office of Professional Experiences at MLFTC. “We know that many schools are developing their own online offerings. Sun Devil Learning Labs is available as a complement to their school and district efforts.” 

Additionally, because many families sheltering in place may not have internet access or the hardware required to use Sun Devil Learning Labs online, the college is in early discussions with public access television managers about broadcasting recorded lessons. 

“In addressing a challenge that faced our ASU students,” says Basile, “the teams that built Sun Devil Learning Labs fulfilled the promise of a socially embedded anchor institution. That’s immensely gratifying at any time but especially so in a time of crisis.”

Jodie Donner, lead technology strategist for MLFTC, notes: "Although we had not prepared for this and did not expect this, we were ready for this." 

One of the reasons MLFTC was ready is that previous support from private donors and foundations had helped the college develop the institutional capability to innovate in a crisis. 

“Not one of those gifts was specifically earmarked for a pandemic,” says Basile. “But gifts supporting technology and design thinking helped us develop the ability to respond quickly and effectively to this crisis. Gifts and grants that support our work on the Next Education Workforce had profound unintended good consequences. A grant from the Kern Family Foundation supporting what we call principled innovation helped us build a thriving collaborative culture that has been invaluable in the development of Sun Devil Learning Labs. 

“If necessity is the mother of invention,” says Basile, “we think we are learning things that will be valuable once this pandemic passes. Much of the future of teaching and learning will be tech-enabled, and we would like to prepare professional educators to excel in that next learning environment. Sun Devil Learning Labs might offer us a way to think and work with our school partners about how tech-enabled learning could fit into Next Education Workforce models as a way to prepare educators to deliver specialized content or instructional expertise remotely.”