Kicking and Screaming to Believing: Two Instructional Technologists’ Journey Bringing AI to Their Classrooms
Levi Belnap: This is Supervised Learning, a podcast where the Merlyn Mind team learns from experts in artificial intelligence, technology, and education. We hope you enjoy learning with us through these conversations with those who know. Time to learn. Randy and Donna, thank you so much for joining us today. My name is Levi Belnap, I'm the Chief Strategy Officer at Merlyn Mind. And today we're going to have a, I hope, fun and interesting conversation on our podcast, Supervised Learning, where we talk to experts and educators and innovators in education, technology, and AI, to learn about the work they're doing and why it matters. So, I'd love if you could both introduce yourselves and tell us about the district you work in, the area you work in, the type of setting it's in, and we're going to learn a lot more about what you're doing to innovate there.
Randy Seldomridge: My name is Randy Seldomridge and I am the instructional technology and media curriculum coordinator for our district here in Caldwell County. We are located in the foothills of North Carolina, which is between Boone and Charlotte. We have some rural areas and some little small towns in this district. We have around 10,500 students and about 800 teachers in this district.
Donna Nichols: And I'm Donna Nichols and I'm an instructional technology facilitator. I work in the schools. There's two of us that are directly in the schools at all times. So, I go in K- 12, all the way through. Just helping teachers incorporate technology into their lessons more meaningfully, go into classes, work with students, all that.
Levi Belnap: Okay, wonderful. And obviously today the reason we brought you on here is you at Caldwell County, especially Randy and Donna, are some of the leaders of bringing Merlyn Mind's AI digital assistant, Merlyn, into classrooms to help with teaching and learning. So, we're going to talk about your role in being at the cutting edge of innovating with this new technology application for schools, but we're going to get to that a little bit more later. First, we want to understand, what does it mean to be an instructional technologist professional in education? And maybe, a day in the life of what you each do. And really what we're looking for here is, what are your goals? What are you trying to achieve? What does it mean to be successful in your job? And what are some of the challenges you face that make it hard to achieve that? So, maybe both of you, if you could start with the work you're doing.
Randy Seldomridge: I think-
Donna Nichols: You started it, you go.
Randy Seldomridge: I think most days it feels like it's a dumpster fire that you're trying to put out, because you really never know what kind of questions are going to occur that you have to deal with in a quicker manner than others. I think our goal is that we really want to help our teachers to help our students to learn how to use technology, but to use it in a way that enhances what they're already learning, and to understand that, that Chromebook or that device is not just like a babysitter. We want them to use the tools in a way that really makes learning come alive and engages our students and helps the teachers offer a lesson that takes the student to a place where they might not normally get to go, in some way.
Donna Nichols: So, this is my second year in this position. As I said, Randy started it. He was our very first in the county and you can see he covers instructional technology and media. I happened to be a media coordinator with an instructional technology master's degree. He and I had worked together before. So, we had a really clear vision when it comes to our professional goals. We are both teachers. We are still teachers. I go into the classrooms and I tell everyone, "I'm actually a teacher on the loose. I just am not tied to a class." Our days are so different because Randy was the beginning for our county, where a lot of counties have instructional technology people, we're never going to go back to a time where there's not technology being used in the classroom or in the world. But it is so difficult for teachers not only to learn a different way, find a different way. I mean, we are all masters of working under insane situations and working on the fly and doing things, but it is so difficult to become a master with the technology part as well. So, our county is working on it. So, there's us. There's another one of us that she goes into the other ends of the schools and like Randy said, our days are different. My first year, I was building relationships because you don't walk into a classroom and you're not the teacher, it's their classroom. So, I had to let them understand me, realize my vision really was to help them help their students. And that's what I spend a lot of my time doing. I go into a different school every day. Now they know me a little bit more, but before that I'd go into your classroom and whatever you needed, that's what I did, till they got to know me. And now they trust me with their students, they know that my goal is their goal, that we're all there to help the kids be better. So, I'm working lots more with those teachers, being able to be that second person there, sometimes guiding them if they're really unsure of the technology we're incorporating, helping them brainstorm how to build lessons that aren't focused around the technology, because the technology shouldn't be the star. Your end goal, the standard and what you're trying to teach the kid, that's where we're going. And this just adds that extra layer to make it great. And then sometimes, just being that extra hand, because I had a teacher who told me, I went into her classroom, this was a month ago, and she was telling her students, she said, " What do we say every time we work with technology?" And they all say, " Grace and patience." And I laughed hysterically, because she is exactly right. Some days it works and some days it's the dumpster fire.
Levi Belnap: Okay. So, that's a very helpful description of the roles that you have, the success you're trying to get to and some of the challenges you face. You both have been in the district for a while, right? You're not new to this district, correct?
Randy Seldomridge: Well, I've been here, this is my 26th year in this position. It was created in, let's go with February or March of 2020, so right before the pandemic.
Levi Belnap: Yes.
Randy Seldomridge: There were 10 instructional facilitators in our district. And I had taken one of those jobs the October before the March of pandemic, and in January they decided that they were going to cut all 10 of our positions and then create these four new positions. So, that was coming prior to the pandemic. Our superintendent saw a need for a technology person that wasn't on the tech side. I think interviews happened around the pandemic and all that, and then started in August.
Levi Belnap: Good timing.
Randy Seldomridge: Yes, it was. So, it's been just trying to learn what we needed and how to proceed to get us to where we are. Our intention prior to the pandemic was never to be a one- to- one district. There was never that intention to have the focus on technology like we do now, but I think that pandemic forced our hand, and then I feel like a lot of our teachers were like, " Okay, we're rolling with this." And it propelled us forward at a speed that we weren't prepared for.
Donna Nichols: Right.
Levi Belnap: Okay.
Randy Seldomridge: So, now we're trying really hard to catch up, catch up with devices and internet access. We have some areas in our district that when the pandemic started had no internet access at all. We parked some buses with some wifi capability on the top of the buses, that they would park those outside the schools, so the parents could drive up with the students and sit in their cars and work and be connected. They don't have cell service at their homes. So, it's just the fact that there's no service at their houses, just none. So, that has changed some. We have a couple companies that we've tried to work with that are coming in. Charter's expanding their services, there's Skynet, SkyBest, Skylink, some of those types of companies that are putting in service in those areas. So, we've done a lot of growing in the past two or three years to get us up to speed.
Donna Nichols: Yes. We're building the plane just a little bit while we're flying it.
Randy Seldomridge: Yeah.
Donna Nichols: But we're okay.
Levi Belnap: Believe us, we know how that goes.
Randy Seldomridge: Sometimes it feels like the parts are falling off and we're going to crash, but-
Donna Nichols: But the engine's still there. We're good.
Randy Seldomridge: We keep moving.
Levi Belnap: It's interesting you use that analogy, because I think innovation, often the way we describe it as a kind of technology company that's a startup, that's trying to create something new that's never existed before is, we kind of jumped off a cliff and are trying to build the plane before we hit the ground.
Donna Nichols: Yes.
Levi Belnap: And you're rapidly trying to get those pieces together to get lift before you crash, right?
Randy Seldomridge: Yes.
Levi Belnap: So, we're kindred spirits and we didn't even know it, right?
Randy Seldomridge: Right.
Donna Nichols: That's it.
Levi Belnap: We feel the same way. So, tell me a little about, so you've seen the evolution of technology in Caldwell County Schools and you've had a role as teachers experiencing the different types of teaching with technology and with maybe more or less technology. And now you have the role of guiding and coaching and helping the rest of the teachers succeed with much more technology in the classroom. Could you just give me maybe a good, bad, ugly? Paint the picture of when technology works in teaching, this is why it's better or what it allows to happen that is the aspiration, and here's when it's just okay, and then here's when it's really bad. What can the different scenarios be of technology as part of the teaching and learning process?
Randy Seldomridge: Well, I'm going to go with the really bad first, and Donna, she probably knows where I'm going to go. During the pandemic, every company, every EdTech company in the world, I think, offered their product for free. So, every teacher thought, " I'm going to use all of these products." And now we are still, what, two, three years later? Saying, " You don't need that product. We have something else that works just like that. You can't use every product that was known to man, that was free, and now they're trying to charge us for it. We have to focus on, let's get good with two or three and then maybe we'll add another one in after we get really good with those two or three." I think we found that we can utilize a lot of... We're a Google district, we can use a lot of our tools that we currently have, that will do what those products do, just in a different way. So, we have to guide them. So, I think the ugly has been all of the stuff that was free is now not free and-
Donna Nichols: And everyone wants everything and it's all completely different, because this person's run off on this side and this person ran off with this. And they all scratched the surface but they didn't get deep enough to realize that we're having to deal with our tech department, with the whole infrastructure, what can run everywhere and what really helps the kids, not just the bells and the whistles and the flashes, because that's too easy to slide into with technology.
Levi Belnap: Yeah. So, tell me, what does really help the kids? What does that look like? So, technology work, regardless of which app you use or what tool, what does it look like?
Randy Seldomridge: I think being in a classroom and seeing kids truly interacting with a text or a math problem in a way that they wouldn't have been able to do a couple years ago. Like, the use of Flipgrid, to hear them explain their thinking. Where you can have all your students in a room do that in five minutes, where before it would've taken a whole class period to do that, and they can interact with each other in a different platform. They're still sitting in the room together, they're still having those conversations, but I think those conversations are a little deeper. Those shyer students are able to speak up and have a voice where before they didn't. We do some stuff with Goosechase, and to see those kids get so excited about a competition that's really not a competition, that they're engaged in learning and excited about it. I will never forget, this was before the pandemic, we were at the middle school where I used to teach and doing a Goosechase lesson, and there was a young man who truly was not the best student, loved him to pieces, but he typically I think, slept through class. And some of our elementary teachers came to watch the lesson, because they wanted to see the Goosechase that we were doing. And they pulled me aside and were like, "We don't know what you've done to that child. He's participating, he's answering questions, he is involved, and we've never seen that out of him before." So, that to me, is where we have the opportunity with just changing the way we focus our thoughts on how we can utilize that technology. Just that one little thing was enough for him, to get him engaged. And I think that's where we have to work with our teachers to do a better job with that. To understand it's not the bells and whistles. It's, how are we using this in the current lessons we use, how can we amp that up just a little bit?
Donna Nichols: Yes.
Randy Seldomridge: Sorry.
Donna Nichols: And what I'm seeing, because we've done it just long enough now to where the kids were introduced to it, it is going into the lessons, but now I've watched the students who are having to show proof of their learning, where traditionally if the teacher is only using an assessment, a test, it's across the board the same. And we are all different. The kids are suddenly now being able to go, " I would like to do, instead of a project, just writing a paper, could I do a Google slideshow?" Or, " I'm going to do a Flip, and I want to record, I want to do some video." I'll have kids do research on, we show them how to use a technology inside of their classroom, they'll like it, realize that they can do more stuff with it. The next time I use it in their class, they come back and they're better at it than I was in the first place. It's the best thing ever, they're doing my job for me. That, I love. I love when they get spurred and I see them fired up about education, because they love learning things. K- 12, I told you, that's what I go into, and every kid, even those kids that don't want to work, love learning something, but it's something they love learning. And when we start incorporating more of the tools that they love to interact with at home anyway, even gamifying things, just simple stuff, it fires them up like it does when they're doing their own research. It's not perfect, but we're getting there.
Levi Belnap: Okay. So, we can start here with this strong foundation of the best scenario in today's modern teaching and learning, from what I heard from you, is you have great technology that engages students, that teachers can use effectively to drive those aha moments, those self- driven like, " I'm curious and I want to go down this path." And then you have the technology can maybe not get there for lots of different reasons. So, let's now shift into, you were one of the first innovative school districts in the country that partnered with Merlyn Mind, a new AI company that had been working for years on how to develop a technology that we believed could not add a new technology to the classroom, because we felt like there was enough great technology in the classroom, but rather make it easier to interact and use all of the fantastic tools and devices and technology that were in a classroom, in a way that was a little more natural using human language and automations. Taking things that used to take many steps and compressing them into one with simple automations and commands. We call it lovingly, Merlyn, our digital assistant for the classroom. But you're some of the pioneers that have helped us understand what Merlyn can do for classrooms and why it's important. So, I would actually love to hear from your own descriptions, what is Merlyn? Right? We know what we think it is, but you are using it in your classrooms every day. Your teachers are using it. How do you describe Merlyn? When somebody asks you about what you're doing with innovation in the classroom and you talk about Merlyn and Merlyn Mind, what do you say? What is it?
Randy Seldomridge: I think, I typically describe it as it's an assistant that lives in your computer, even though it's in its own little box, but it really is there to make accessing files and links and all things on the computer, faster and easier. And it allows the teacher to be more fluid in their classrooms. So, our classrooms are not set up the best, because the teacher computer is either at the front of the room or the back of the room, and if they're trying to use their computer to teach with, they have to keep running back to their computer to click on the next slide or to open up a new file or whatever, to keep the class flow moving. And Merlyn allows them the opportunity to just walk around with a remote and they give the directions. They don't always have to have a remote, but they give the directions and Merlyn accesses those files and opens those files and moves to the next slide and plays the video, and the teacher is still able to move around the room. So, there's more engagement. I think there's less opportunities for students to-
Donna Nichols: Get off task.
Randy Seldomridge: ... get off task and have issues, because the teacher is able to move around the room and to be engaged with the students.
Donna Nichols: When I first tell people about Merlyn, I tell them that it's Alexa on steroids, because when Alexa first came out I thought, " Huh, that's interesting." And now I really do have an Alexa everywhere, and Merlyn does so much more, but in a classroom everything's so much more. But where Alexa really became very helpful to me was making a lot of things seamless. And Merlyn does that in a classroom when everything with our infrastructure is working and when everything's going well with it, because just like in my classroom, if I'm teaching and it brings up an idea which everything always does, of something I didn't know or they didn't know, I'm like, "I don't know, let's run over here and we'd have to look it up." I don't have to do that now. They can actually say, " Hey, Merlyn, Google this." Or, " Pull up YouTube." And those little, tiny things make such a difference. And you'd think it would only do that in younger grades, but I see the older grades, because it's really easy to be that kid in the back of the room, trying to fly under the radar. Either they're doing something they're not supposed to. And we were that way, even me growing up, the kid in the back is always the trouble kid, but I was that kid. So, now the teacher's up, they're moving, they're interacting. And kids will always, of all ages, interact with you and learn more when they're engaged. And engaged doesn't always mean just that they are really paying attention like they should. Sometimes being engaged is, 'Oh you're close to me, so now I am engaged.' And Merlyn really opened that up and helped with all of that.
Randy Seldomridge: I think it's being able to ask those natural questions in the middle of a lesson, that you don't know something. And I think in the past, maybe students have been leery to ask, 'I don't know what that means.' And then when they ask the teacher and the teacher's like, 'I don't know what that means either.' And the teacher didn't want to take their time to go back to their desk or their computer and search real quick, because that takes a couple minutes. Well, now they just say, 'Hey, Merlyn, dah, dah, dah, dah.' And off they go. So, they're learning on the fly and then getting back to the main idea of the lesson without impeding the flow of the lesson.
Levi Belnap: Okay. So, that is a great introduction. Thank you. I think you described Merlyn even better than I do or we do, because you're living it. So, this is why we want to learn from the experts, the practitioners, the people that are applying this in the classroom. Did you always believe Merlyn would be helpful? Right? I already know Randy, because we've talked about this, but I actually want to hear the real, honest truth of, sometimes when you hear new innovations, new ideas, we have doubts, we've seen new tech, we've seen it fail. What was your first thoughts when you heard about this, when you saw it?
Randy Seldomridge: Prior to me taking this position, we had a director of innovation and she had a big, long, weird title, and she has since retired, but she's the one that introduced us to Merlyn through some of the work she was doing. And the first time she talked about Merlyn and then we saw the demo, I was not a fan, I was like, "It's just an Alexa." And it was a little unpolished, I guess.
Levi Belnap: You won't hurt our feelings. Innovation is hard, right? We're jumping off that cliff. We're building the plane.
Donna Nichols: Yeah, because it was in beta, it wasn't even on-
Levi Belnap: Yeah.
Donna Nichols: They weren't putting them anywhere yet.
Randy Seldomridge: Yeah, it wasn't available on the real market yet. It wasn't available for sale quite yet. They hadn't released it. I think we were seeing it in August and their planned release date was in January, to be able to put it on the market.
Levi Belnap: Right.
Randy Seldomridge: And I was like, "This is not for me." I was not happy that yes, it frees the teacher up, but they had to carry a remote around with them, because we all know they don't have to carry that remote around, they can have Merlyn on and anybody in the classroom can give Merlyn directions. And so, that was a concern for all of us, because we've all taught with students and Donna and myself have worked with middle school students, which I think is probably the harder group to work with, sometimes you have to be on your toes with them, and just that they could give any directions to Merlyn. So, the teacher still had to carry the remote around. They would give the directions though and it wouldn't pull up the files. But then working with the Merlyn team and how responsive they have been to every request that we've had, or asking us, "Does this work? Does this work?" They came, they talked with our teachers-
Donna Nichols: They were amazing.
Randy Seldomridge: They spent afternoons with our teachers, listening to the issues and the concerns that our teachers had. And when you have a company that wants to hear the voices of the users, and truly, I don't remember his name-
Donna Nichols: Juan.
Randy Seldomridge: Juan, that came from California, that sat in our room and somebody would say something and he was immediately on his computer trying to figure out how to fix that, so that it worked better.
Donna Nichols: Yes, and they had the team there.
Randy Seldomridge: Yeah. I think that's the part where my thinking shifted that, 'Oh, they actually do want this to be a successful product.'
Donna Nichols: But not because it's a product.
Randy Seldomridge: Right.
Donna Nichols: They wanted it to be a tool for schools and students. That was the difference. They weren't going, "Oh, how can we make this where someone else will buy it?" Because when we first heard about Merlyn, I didn't want to be involved because yes, it was great, and I do think, just like I thought Alexa was crazy when it first came out and now I have Alexas everywhere, I felt like, "Oh yes, this is definitely going to be something that will be a thing." But I didn't want to be the pilot for it, because we were already building a plane and now you guys just landed another heavy piece of equipment that we're really the ones trying to help our teachers because they can't be alone in this. Get it up, get it running, get it working. Dr. Case, who was the one that brought it to us, I mean that was her position. She had been removed from being a teacher for quite a while, and your listeners are going to know what that means, when you're moved out of a position, that you're no longer in the classroom, it can go a couple of ways. And Randy and I both are really so teachers without a classroom, that oftentimes that's not the case when you've moved out of that position. That's all I'm saying. And I didn't want to deal with it because I thought, "Yes, it's going to be great. Caldwell County Schools is going to get all of this great publicity for that." We're a rural community. Randy moved here from another rural community in a different state. I was born and raised in Caldwell County. I went through our school systems. I didn't leave, because I couldn't. I like our school system, but I don't want anything else that's not going to really make my kids better, because that's the bottom line. And that team, when they came, I can't explain to you, we had meetings that went until five o'clock in the afternoon. Teachers came straight from school to this place, to meet with the Merlyn team. Nothing short of food will keep a teacher till five o'clock, because they're about to die, because we're tired.
Levi Belnap: Oh, yeah.
Donna Nichols: They were not ready to leave at five, because Juan and that team were not trying to make Merlyn better for you guys to sell a product. They were making Merlyn better because they saw and they wanted it to impact those students. That is impressive to me and still my favorite thing about your company.
Levi Belnap: We believe good people have to be behind good technology. From the founders down to little old me, we have people who care about education and they're here because we believe AI can help teachers. And then, what matters most, they can help students.
Donna Nichols: Exactly. And that shows.
Levi Belnap: So, now-
Donna Nichols: So, that's why we like Merlyn now.
Levi Belnap: Okay. So, it's almost a year later now, from when you first started, if it was just nice people but the technology still didn't do anything helpful, I think we'd-
Donna Nichols: Yeah, we would've left.
Levi Belnap: ...be friends, but we wouldn't still be using Merlyn in classrooms. Right?
Randy Seldomridge: Correct.
Donna Nichols: Exactly.
Levi Belnap: So, tell us a little bit about the journey and now, how do you feel about it? And why do you keep using it? What's going on with Merlyn in your classrooms?
Randy Seldomridge: So, our teachers have, when you go in a classroom and you see how they feel less stressed about teaching because they're able to be more involved with their students. And I feel like that's what Merlyn has enabled them to do, is that they are now a part of the class because they're not behind their desk the whole time.
Donna Nichols: Right.
Randy Seldomridge: They feel like they're a member of that group, where they can interact in a different way with their students. We have some teachers, like the beginning of the school year, there was a pairing update that Merlyn did and it was supposed to make pairing seamless. Well, it wasn't working. And she like, " I am not on the tech side. I don't know how to do this stuff on the backside. That's not my lane. I don't want to know. I don't care. One of our tech guys keeps trying to tell me all this." I was like, " I just want the yes or the no, can you make this work? That's all I care about." But she said, "You are not leaving this room until you get this fixed." And so, those things, when the teachers are that passionate about using the tool to make them a better teacher, that's where I love being able to see that every day.
Donna Nichols: Yes.
Randy Seldomridge: We have purchased 47 more Merlyn, so that will be a total of 100 for us, that will be placed in classrooms. We have a K- 5 elementary school that was actually, they had separated out several years ago, so it was a K- 2 and a 3- 5. And then they've since merged that school back into one school. And the hopes will be that, that will be a Merlyn school. So, every teacher in that school will have a Merlyn. We're having some issues right now. We use a new line display panel, and so it's not wanting to communicate well with that display panel, but that's something that we hope the Merlyn team can help get worked out with that. But I just feel like seeing the teachers, if you are on the Merlyn Facebook page, one of our high school teachers put a post out there yesterday or Tuesday, it was Tuesday, sorry, about how he was observed with the Merlyn and how he didn't realize that had impacted his teaching so much that the other teacher noticed it.
Levi Belnap: Yeah, in fact-
Donna Nichols: Yeah, that's great.
Randy Seldomridge: Sorry, I keep talking.
Donna Nichols: Go on.
Levi Belnap: I was going to say, I actually want to read that quote, if it's okay? So Shawn Moore is this teacher. I think we're going to bring him onto the podcast later, because his story seems so interesting. But I want to read his quote and then we can talk about it. And I think you even have some interesting context about his own journey with Merlyn. But when I saw this quote, we at Merlyn Mind, we believe that what we're doing matters, right? We've devoted our lives and our careers to this work, right? And we spend a lot of our time working days, nights, weekends, to try to get this new technology working in a way that actually helps teachers and helps students learn. So, when we see these kind of quotes, they spread through our internal messaging platform, right? We use Slack and everybody's like, "Oh, did you see this? That's amazing." Because we care that it's working, right? We want to know that. And so, when we saw this, what struck our team and what was so important to us is, this is what we aspire to do. So, let me just read the quote. So, Shawn says, "I was recently observed by another teacher in my school. Our school- wide professional development program goal is to do one peer observation per semester. And I received this feedback from the peer that observed me. 'It's truly amazing to see how a classroom should function! The students work so intentionally! Are these all high achievers? My classes this semester are so low, very low on motivation. I love that they, your class, actually read and used the assessment tool that they were given. They underlined, they circled, they boxed things. Also, the collaboration, they had clear rules to follow and the timer to keep them on task.'" And then this is what Shawn says about this observation from another peer teacher. "I didn't realize how polished my use of Merlyn has become. And this outside perspective from the other teacher, helped me to see how much I have offloaded to Merlyn and how much I'm able to just teach. I like having an active, well- managed classroom and Merlyn has helped me immensely." For us, it's like wow. Right? And I'll tell you, wow, from our perspective, but then I want to hear you guys say, is it real? Right? Because it almost sounds too good to be true to us, right? Because when I hear this, what I just heard this teacher say was, "Look, someone else just saw that I'm a great teacher, and they saw that I'm a great teacher because my students were engaged." Which again, if we go back to what we started with, that's the end goal. We're trying to get technology to help students be engaged and we're trying to make technology easy so that teachers can do that with every single student. And here you have a teacher who says, "Hey look, I'm doing it and the reason I believe I'm doing it is because Merlyn made it easier for me to teach."
Randy Seldomridge: Right.
Levi Belnap: That's really hard to quantify. It's really hard to prove. We've done third- party studies with academic institutions, with you guys, and we're trying to get to that. This is anecdotal testimonial. It says, "Wait a second, maybe Merlyn is really doing what we think is possible with an AI assistant in the classroom." So, tell me, is it real, do you believe Shawn? I'm going to talk to Shawn, I'm going to bring him on here and really dig into this, but why is Shawn attributing that to Merlyn?
Donna Nichols: I can't wait till you meet him.
Randy Seldomridge: I know. So yes, Shawn has a science degree and he also has his instructional technology certification as well. So, he is very techy. He's working with Rocketbook to try to make his entire classroom paperless. So, he's a Canvas user, so we're trying to switch our teachers over to Canvas. And so, he uses Canvas and he's working on an integration with Rocketbook to be able to put some of their tools into Canvas, so that the students can do the paperless in a different way. If you don't know what Rocketbook is, it's the paper, use the erasable pens. And so, it's a harder paper that you can erase and reuse, so you're not using-
Donna Nichols: Right. And it saves into your drive and does all that stuff.
Levi Belnap: Right.
Randy Seldomridge: But yes, so Shawn, he uses the technology. He uses the tools that the district provides. He might have a couple others that he uses, but he's really good about using, "These are the things that I have access to, so these are the things that I'm going to use."
Donna Nichols: And he'll work hard to be good at them or tell you he hates them.
Randy Seldomridge: Yes.
Donna Nichols: He's very direct.
Randy Seldomridge: So, with that being said-
Levi Belnap: Yeah, tell us the history.
Randy Seldomridge: In the beginning, or not in the beginning, probably two or three months in, we were checking to see how usage was going with Merlyn and we were talking to the teachers and Shawn wanted the Merlyn removed from his classroom. He didn't see the benefit or the power of it, and he just didn't think that he was utilizing it the way that it was meant to be utilized. And so, Dr. Case went and talked with him and I think he just needed to know that, "We don't expect you to use it every day. We don't expect you to use it every minute. We want you to use it when it's convenient and when it works best for your lessons." So, he decided to keep it. And then fast forward to Tuesday, I don't know when the post was written, I saw it Tuesday. So, fast forward to Tuesday, and here we are.
Donna Nichols: Yes.
Randy Seldomridge: Almost full circle.
Donna Nichols: And when Dr. Case talked to him, because he is the kind of person that he is and he is going to attempt to use it and he's going to work out all the kinks and he will find the things that are not working in his class. And he is not ever going to tell you, "Oh, this is great." Just to make you feel nice about it. Those are the kind of teachers we needed, to know if we wanted to even continue with Merlyn. So, when she talked to him and encouraged him to stay, that was important for us. So, him getting to that is pretty impressive. I had not heard the quote until now, so it's impressive. I can't wait till you meet him.
Levi Belnap: Okay. Well, I look forward to hearing Shawn's story from his own mouth and learning about his experience. That'll be really educational for all of us, I believe.
Randy Seldomridge: Yes.
Donna Nichols: Yes.
Levi Belnap: So, Shawn's one end of the spectrum, very technological, understands all of these tools, is doing what you want to do. I mean, right now you said you're going to soon have 100 different classrooms and teachers using Merlyn. There's probably a spectrum of teachers. Can you tell us maybe about some teachers who are in younger grades or older grades, or not science subjects, that are maybe not as technological? Is it just one kind of person, or one kind of teacher, or one kind of subject that gets value of Merlyn? Or, do you see it broadly in every classroom? Where's the opportunity?
Randy Seldomridge: I think that the teachers that we choose and the teachers that were chosen, they had different tech skills, but I think they were chosen because they were open minded to be willing to change and to try. So, they have that growth mindset of being willing to try something. We've had it in pre- K classrooms and some of our communities in schools classrooms. I'm trying to think, kindergarten. We tried to pick-
Donna Nichols: We got a big spectrum, because we needed to know if it was going to be beneficial.
Randy Seldomridge: And some ELA teachers. One of our top users in the district is a K- 5 music teacher. So, he is phenomenal and he uses the, I think, daily he uses Merlyn at the school. And so, I think once they see what it can do and use it a little bit, it becomes almost second nature for them. And so, it's just, they pick up that remote and they're moving around and doing what they need to do.
Donna Nichols: Right.
Randy Seldomridge: I also think it helps our teachers be a little bit more organized.
Donna Nichols: Yes.
Randy Seldomridge: You have to be very clear on when you want Merlyn to open a file, you have to know the name of that file for Merlyn to get the right one. And so, I think it's helped them be more intentional on how they name things, where they store stuff in their Google Drive, when they're planning, to be more intentional and, "Okay, if I'm going to use Merlyn every day, I need to make sure I have this, this, and this set up." And then, I think the better planned we are, I think the better your classroom flows.
Donna Nichols: And the better your lesson is. Exactly.
Randy Seldomridge: Sorry.
Donna Nichols: I think because what Merlyn is capable of doing, it doesn't matter what grade level you are, because all of us are using the same tools for our teaching. Pre- K teachers, they're still using their Google Drive, they are still utilizing YouTubes, things that Merlyn is helping them pull out. And like Randy said, we have definitely had a learning curve because when we became the Google district, of course forever ago, even me when I started teaching, I didn't think things through. And now, I have layers upon layers, upon layers, of how to get into my Google Drive. So, it has streamlined our planning, our thought processing. The backwards planning model that you use to teach a lesson is working really nicely just from backwards planning on how you're going to get this out of here from Merlyn as well. So, I think that's why we're seeing it all over the place. That music teacher that utilizes it so much, his space that he has is huge, because he has a multipurpose room that's like an auditorium- ish thing. So, it is very good for him to be able to work with all ages of his children and be up and moving and around. And he's worked so seamlessly with it. I brought it up to another classroom when we were talking about just technology, and they didn't have a Merlyn in their room. And all of those students were like, "Oh yes. Yes, Mr. McGlynn. I know, exactly." And everything.
Randy Seldomridge: And I don't know Mr. McGlynn that well, but I think in life, he's not the most put together. He's a little all over the place.
Donna Nichols: He's artsy.
Levi Belnap: He's creative. He's creative.
Randy Seldomridge: Yeah, very artsy.
Donna Nichols: He is very creative and musical.
Randy Seldomridge: And so, I think Merlyn has pulled the way he teaches, it's made that more streamlined for him. So, in his class he can be more creative, because he's got the planning already done in the background.
Donna Nichols: Yes. And the tools are there for him and he can be his creative self, to do what he does with the kids.
Randy Seldomridge: Yeah.
Levi Belnap: Well, I so appreciate, Randy and Donna, you spending time with me today, telling us a little bit about the story of this wonderful corner of the world in Caldwell County, North Carolina. We know that being at the cutting edge of innovation often means you get cut, right? You probably have heard this before. It is hard to be at the front. It's hard to be a pioneer. You both said that when you got dragged in somewhat to being part of this whole Merlyn thing-
Donna Nichols: Kicking and screaming.
Randy Seldomridge: Yeah.
Levi Belnap: Yeah. You weren't necessarily thrilled about it. We can't thank you enough for helping us get the technology to where it is today. We want this to change teaching and learning for every teacher and student in the world. We believe that it will help drive that engagement, simplify teaching, and really improve what we're all trying to do here. But we wouldn't have gotten here without you, we wouldn't gotten here without your teachers, without your patience and your grace to help us get to this point. So, from the whole Merlyn Mind team, we really do thank you for everything you've done and we look forward to much more collaboration and building together as you... Sorry, go.
Randy Seldomridge: I was going to say, we really appreciate our relationship with Merlyn.
Donna Nichols: Yes.
Randy Seldomridge: That has grown so much over the past year, year and a half. I don't even know how long it's been. We have a tech showcase that we do every summer and this past summer we asked Merlyn, " Hey, would you help sponsor this for all the teachers in our district?" And they were like, " Yes." So, because of Merlyn, they don't only support their program, they allowed our teachers to experience two days of great keynote speakers, great presenters, and learn about multiple programs that could be used, ways to use programs, ways to integrate other tools. And it wasn't just focused on Merlyn, it was a two- day conference that we could not have put together without Merlyn because we had two amazing keynote speakers. One was very motivational, one was tech- centered, and it was just a great process. And without Merlyn's support, we would not have had that great conference that we were able to put together for our district. So, we really appreciate that relationship as well, because they've been very supportive of our efforts here, not only with Merlyn, but to help our students be successful.
Donna Nichols: Right. You support your product, but you are supporting our community as well. We've definitely built a family relationship, so it's nice.
Levi Belnap: Yeah. Well, we appreciate it and it's fun to be friends with folks in Caldwell County. The last request I'd have is, speaking to other instructional technologists in the world, what do you recommend? What if they're feeling those same things, like, " Oh, one more thing. I don't want to add another thing to my plane that feels like it's a dumpster fire and the world's falling apart." Is it worth it? Should they jump in with Merlyn at this point? Can it drive the same results for their teachers and their students?
Randy Seldomridge: If they have the same experience we've had with Merlyn, yes. Now, looking back over a year, yes, I feel like we're only going to continue to grow and as time allows to purchase more units, I know there's a couple of our other schools that would love to have one in every classroom.
Donna Nichols: Yes.
Levi Belnap: Okay. So, are you getting requests from the rest of the schools, the rest of the teachers? People want Merlyn?
Randy Seldomridge: We are. And we work on that as we can.
Donna Nichols: Yes.
Randy Seldomridge: Trying to find funding to be able to provide those in the classrooms. So, I would say, yes.
Donna Nichols: Yes.
Randy Seldomridge: It's scary. And I know that one thing more, because not only is this, but there's so many other things that keep piling on and weighing that plane down, but I feel like in the end it's been worth it.
Donna Nichols: Yeah. If the other instructional technologists are in... You have to think, our county was just getting us where others already had that. So, we're building this plane, we're working on our technology infrastructure. We just rolled off a pandemic where everyone's losing their minds. If we could work Merlyn and decide, " Yes, you are a valuable tool and we'll continue to work with you." I think anyone not dealing with the crazy of that, yes, you should definitely. It's going to be way easier than what we've dealt with.
Levi Belnap: Well, thank you.
Donna Nichols: It is worth it.
Levi Belnap: Okay. Well, we look forward to continuing the story with Caldwell County. I look forward to talking to some of your teachers and I'm sure we'll have one or both of you maybe on the show again in a year and figure out, how are things going? What's changed? You were fantastic guests. Thank you for your time. Appreciate it.
Donna Nichols: Thank you.
Randy Seldomridge: Thank you so much.
Donna Nichols: Thanks.
Levi Belnap: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Supervised Learning. Until next time, keep learning.
In a rural North Carolina school district, two instructional technologists felt like they were building the plane as they flew it through the pandemic. Then, they were approached with piloting Merlyn, the first-of-its-kind AI assistant for teachers. They were hesitant: “I didn’t want to be the pilot for it [Merlyn], because we were already building a plane and now you guys just landed another heavy piece of equipment.”
Today, they report even their most skeptical teachers can’t teach without it: “She said, ‘You are not leaving this room until you get this fixed.’” From keeping students on task to organizing Google Drives, teachers have found Merlyn to be a true teaching support, rather than another app with bells and whistles.
How did their relationship with Merlyn and innovation change from “kicking and screaming” to believing? And what can other instructional technologists learn? Listen to our host, Levi Belnap, unpack their journey.