HomeCommunityHow Colin Matheson, CUSD’s premier tech whiz, made distance learning work

How Colin Matheson, CUSD’s premier tech whiz, made distance learning work

By MARTIN SEVCIK

Colin Matheson is proud to be a nerd. He wears T-shirts displaying brands like Nerd Venom or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The goatee on his chin, all he can muster, is a leftover from his grunge days back in the ’90s. He’ll excitedly discuss “Futurama,” the Atari 2600 or the capabilities of synthesizers at the drop of a hat.

This unassuming appearance and demeanor means that Matheson might be brushed aside by students and parents in the Carmel Unified School District as just another tech guy hired to fix computers and maintain websites. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Colin Matheson sits at one of his work stations. Among the wires and electronics is a keyboard, a remnant from his education in electronic music at Stanford. Courtesy of Colin Matheson

Because of his tireless work and credibility with teachers, Colin Matheson is among the most important and respected staff members in the Carmel Unified School District, and his role has only grown more crucial in the era of distance learning.

“There are some positions that are more valuable than others, and I feel that Colin’s position should be nonnegotiable,” Carmel River School principal Jay Marden says. “It is an absolute necessity if we are going to meet students’ needs in 2020.”

His official title as the district’s “technology professional development coach” declares Matheson the district’s expert on technology use in the classroom. Matheson describes that, before the coronavirus, about half of his time was spent working directly with teachers. But during the last few months of the 2019-20 school year, as well as the following summer, Matheson began to retreat from one-on-one guidance for teachers. Every school in the district needed to iron out their distance-learning plan, so he began attending more administrative meetings. He hosted training for teachers, retooled many of the existing staff development opportunities and helped guide the nature of distance learning on a macro level. 

“Post-COVID, his role really became platform-oriented,” notes Carmel Middle School principal Dan Morgan, who describes how concerns such as uniformity among teachers were at the forefront of administrators’ minds. “He streamlined all of that for us and worked with our teachers on implementation while we oversaw that process. Overall, I think it was a very effective program that he rolled out.”

The uniform platform Morgan describes has been perhaps the most significant change between the two schooling sessions: Where students may have had to use many different platforms to communicate with teachers online in March, they now only have to become familiar with those the district has agreed to use. 

Matheson worked with the instructional coaches in the district to decide which tools would be most effective, disseminating those tools to all district teachers.

“Not knowing where to go for information, and not knowing how best to support their students was a real issue for parents,” fifth grade teacher Rose Kershing says. “A priority for Colin was interfacing and making sure we were all using the same platforms to make sure parents knew exactly where to go.”

Despite the increased amount of time spent in the administrative world, Matheson still found time to help individual teachers during the transition. 

“I was using my Google Chromebook to run Zoom, and it never ever worked,” explains English teacher Hans Schmidt, who reached out to Matheson for help. “He got me a whole different computer to run Zoom.”

This type of direct help and guidance is characteristic of Matheson. He took on his current position when it was created in 2008, and since then has worked side-by-side with teachers to adapt burgeoning technologies, like student Chromebooks and Google Docs, to their instruction.

“The district noticed that computers were becoming more important for education,” Matheson recalls. “They also realized that if teachers didn’t know how to use technology or didn’t feel comfortable using it, it would be a waste of money. They created the position in order to solve that problem.”

Before it was obvious that technology was the future of CUSD, Matheson was integrating tech directly into his curriculum as a high school biology teacher. That made him, in retrospect, an obvious choice for the position.

“I think designing his position at the time might have seemed like a risk, but Colin is the bridge between the IT department and teachers,” instructional coach and teacher Barbara McBride explains. “He’s that link that makes us effective in our teaching with technology.” 

Matheson is a bona fide expert in instructional technology–he has a master’s degree in that very area–but his expertise is not the only reason he excels at his work. His experience as a teacher allows him to tailor technology to fit teachers’ needs, and he can empathize with their problems or criticisms concerning tech-based tools. 

“Colin has so much credibility with teachers because, at heart, he was and still is a teacher,” history teacher Marc Stafford says. “He has a good handle on the teacher’s perspective, which makes him incredibly effective because we want to listen to him.”

Matheson’s interests are not limited to tech. He likes to take advantage of the local natural beauty by hiking with his wife, Sunny. Photo courtesy of Colin Matheson.

This impression–that Matheson is uniquely equipped to handle the needs of teachers and students–is consistent throughout the district.

“He has an exceptional view of what learning and teaching can look like,” Tularcitos Elementary School principal Ryan Peterson says. “That guides everything he does. He looks at it from a student experience first, and then looks at what the teachers need to make that experience happen for students.” 

Despite his role focusing on the use of technology in an educational environment, the tech coach finds immense value in face-to-face and analog learning. 

“I don’t think we should give up face-to-face instruction,” Matheson says about online learning. “I don’t think we should have technology be the main way that learning happens. We shouldn’t do technology for technology’s sake.”

The recent transition to online learning has been tough for everyone, especially for someone as involved as Matheson. There have been successes, and there have been missteps.  When asked how successful he thinks he has been during the past few months, Matheson responds in his characteristically enthusiastic and infallible manner: “Some days I feel incredibly successful, and some days I don’t. You’ve got to accept where you are and keep working. You can’t beat yourself up for not being 100% successful.”

Regardless of his own analysis, it’s undeniable that Colin Matheson has had a profoundly positive effect on CUSD during the coronavirus emergency. Principal Morgan describes him as a guiding light for administrators and teachers alike. There are few better ways to describe Matheson’s impact on the district as a whole. 

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