Shifting Large-Scale Professional Learning to a Virtual Setting: Lessons Learned From the Washington State MTSS [Multi-Tiered System of Supports] Fest

Shifting Large-Scale Professional Learning to a Virtual Setting: Lessons Learned From the Washington State MTSS [Multi-Tiered System of Supports] Fest

By Justyn Poulos

In this Voices From the Field piece, the National Center on Intensive Intervention (NCII) talks with Justyn Poulos, director of MTSS at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Education (OSPI), about how he and his team shifted their annual MTSS Fest conference from a face-to-face event to a virtual event in less than 3 weeks due to COVID-19 restrictions. Justyn shares how his team modified their event plans and what they learned from the experience about how to engage participants in the future.

NCII: You've previously held your MTSS Fest in person, but you had to transition this year to holding it virtually. How did you make that pivot?

Justyn Poulos: This year’s MTSS Fest would have been the third face-to-face conference that we’ve had. The interest in the conference has been remarkable—in the first 2 years, we sold out really fast, and this year registration was full in less than a week. When COVID-19 closures happened, we were thinking about how to maintain some of that energy and momentum, but, at the same time, we wondered whether this work was a priority or if it was the right time to hold a virtual event.

We decided to send a survey out to everyone who was registered for the face-to-face conference asking if they would be interested in an online option on a specific date. We had only three responses that said no and 130 responses that said yes, so we decided to do it. Because we only had a 3-week turnaround between sending that survey out and doing the event, we also asked what content would be most useful for our attendees right now. Having that feedback helped us adapt our plan and put together targeted content that emphasized the current context. Whether we're talking about mental health or social-emotional learning, it was grounded in what this work means for us now and when we go back to school.

NCII: What went well with the virtual MTSS Fest?

Justyn Poulos: One of the things that was important for us was acknowledging that as educators are transitioning to distance learning, lots of people (including myself) have kids at home and are tending to their educational or personal needs. We wanted to ensure the conference was as flexible as possible. Instead of doing a full replication of what we would’ve done face-to-face, we tried to create a lot of flexibility in the day by allowing people to register for individual sessions (e.g., the keynote, a morning session, an afternoon session), which they could attend live or watch recordings of later. This flexibility didn’t lead to any drop-off in engagement; we saw consistent attendance and engagement levels throughout the day. We were able to really energize our participants during the virtual MTSS Fest: people like the idea that this is an event where people are tweeting what they’re learning using our hashtag, and sharing screenshots from their phones or computers.

Our face-to-face conference venue only had capacity for 1,000 people total and 200 people or less per breakout session; by using Zoom meeting rooms, we maintained capacity for 1,000 people in the plenary events and 250 people per breakout session (3,000 people for breakout sessions in total). We also livestreamed the sessions via YouTube, which expanded our capacity, having a total of 1,100 people watching the keynote live and over 1,700 people who viewed the keynote recording later. We also had an additional 1,700 people who watched breakout sessions live, and over 1,500 views across the breakout recordings later. By going virtual, we didn’t have the same constraints and were able to easily double our attendance with less effort.

Using survey data to identify the most relevant information for the broadest audience, we went from 50 planned breakout sessions to 12 breakout sessions. Although that sounds like a big loss, during the face-to-face conference, attendees would have only been able to attend five of the 50 available sessions; through the virtual conference, attendees were able to attend two of the 12 virtual breakout sessions live but could access all 12 recordings later. The trade-off was fewer sessions to choose from but access to more sessions in total. We were already set up with all the technology—we just had to push a button to record instead of hiring a company to come in, set up all the equipment, and manage the livestream or recording of those sessions.

In addition, the virtual conference was a fraction of the cost of a face-to-face conference. We refunded registration costs and offered the virtual conference free for participants, but we didn't have any venue, food, or travel costs. Even the staffing and materials were cheaper and easier to do. It was liberating for us to just be able to allow people to come when, if, and how they wanted.

There are some trade-offs and downsides to going virtual, but for us the biggest key to our success was that we didn't try to do the exact same thing we had planned for the face-to-face event. We tried to figure out what the advantages of a virtual environment were and leveraged those as much as we could.

NCII: What are you taking away from this experience? Do you have any plans to continue using virtual engagement in the future?

Justyn Poulos: For future events, we are thinking about how to take the best of the virtual environment and our past face-to-face events. We had a few sessions where we had people share school-level examples of what their work looks like, which we will probably do more of in the future. What we didn't do in shifting to virtual was have a dedicated time for team planning or networking built in. Those are things that kind of happen organically in a face-to-face environment, often over lunch or at the end of the day. At our face-to-face conferences in the past, we had a room that was available for teams to talk and do action planning at any time during the conference; we didn't build that time into the virtual MTSS Fest, but I think we could have. Every school has a virtual meeting platform right now, so we don't necessarily have to provide the meeting link, but we could have provided more time for teams to get together. We could also create networking sessions with topic foci where people can ask questions of one another and learn from each other.

Technology allows for options, but in a virtual world, everything needs to be intentional in design because it’s not going to happen organically. When we travelled to the face-to-face MTSS Fests in the past, we had 2 really long days of learning, then everyone went back home. But in a virtual conference, that doesn't all have to happen in 2 or 3 solid days in front of a computer. Some of my ideas for next year are to use our conference sessions as a starting point, and then have ongoing or semiregular virtual sessions where we can go deeper, give participants a chance to practice things at home, and get iterative feedback. We can embed what we know about good learning practices into future MTSS Fests more easily by embedding opportunities for practice and feedback through virtual engagement opportunities. We can chunk out the content so that we're not just throwing it at participants, expecting that they will be able to retain and act on it all. We don’t know when we're going back to full face-to-face conferences for both health and budget reasons, so we’re thinking how to make that continued shift while also thinking about how we do it so that virtual events embody what we know about good learning. We have so much to learn yet about how to do it well.

One of my biggest personal takeaways is that there's a lot of opportunity that we have not tapped into yet for virtual events. We might be able to shift away from having cognitive dissonance between where someone learned new information and where they have to apply it; we can avoid cognitive overload from all the transitions that happen during a 2-day conference. In previous conferences I’ve done, we've always seen a big drop in the last session because people are ready to go home. Through virtual opportunities, we can probably prevent some of that and keep people engaged on a deeper level.

NCII: Is there any other advice you'd have for other states that might want to shift their conferences or convenings to a virtual setting?

Justyn Poulos:: Right now, we have to do school differently—we’re not planning to do a 6-hour school day every day on Zoom. It's the same with how we deliver professional learning supports —we have to adapt to the context and technology we have available. Planning for and executing a conference or convening in a virtual setting is a team effort. Keep it simple and decide what you want to accomplish or what the biggest benefits are for doing the event virtually. Everything that you want has to be intentional—if you want teams to meet and plan, people to network, or people to ask questions, you have to build it in. Be thoughtful about what a virtual opportunity may provide and how to take advantage of the opportunities that you can get with a virtual event instead of trying to replicate a face-to-face environment. You can also take advantage of the information collected during the event. For example, one cool thing that we were able to do was to develop an FAQ (frequently asked questions) document that has been posted on our website. This was developed from participant questions and presenter responses collected during the event, and provides another way to leverage the content covered during the virtual event.

About the author

Justyn Poulos
Justyn Poulos
/ Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

Justyn Poulos recently joined the Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction team as the Director of MTSS. Prior to coming to Washington, he supported statewide MTSS implementation for the past 10 years in Wisconsin as Wisconsin's PBIS Coordinator and Assistant Director of the Wisconsin RtI Center, the training and technical assistance hub for MTSS in Wisconsin. Justyn's background is as a school psychologist, practicing in Alaska, Arizona, and Wisconsin.


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