remote learning

When It Comes to EdTech, We Can't Ever Be Caught Off-Guard Again

Over the last 15 months or so, while students in many communities have attended school virtually or in hybrid settings, technology has been a tremendous support. Now, as we look ahead to a somewhat more typical school year, it’s vital for education leaders to take stock of which digital tools and practices to keep and which to retire.

Why? For starters, writer and education activist RiShawn Biddle has persuasively argued that virtual learning continue to be an option for students until the pandemic is completely behind us. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Biddle noted that many families of color still want the ability to attend school remotely for now. By making that a possibility next year, education leaders will be addressing both health and educational inequities.

Taking a look at the contribution of education technology generally this past year or so, it’s clear some digital tools have been absolute game-changers in education, allowing students to keep up with their studies and thrive even under difficult circumstances. However, it’s also clear some digital strategies didn’t serve students particularly well. Resources that fell short of expectations for student engagement, didn’t align to learning goals, failed to provide students with feedback, and led to unfair grading practices have made national news. And education experts have forcefully made the case that we need to wean districts off some of these resources before their use becomes a bad habit schools can’t shake once the pandemic ends.

A key problem was that some schools and systems expected digital tools to do too much heavy lifting, essentially instructing children and developing student knowledge in vital subjects. But that’s not good pedagogy. It’s teachers who best support students with a balanced mix of teacher-facilitated, student-led learning, and direct instruction. And it’s teachers who shape discussions about great literature, lead virtual or in-person labs, and engage students in the various ways of solving math problems. Educators must always be supported with strong professional development opportunities and  high-quality materials that build the knowledge students need.

What to do With Asynchronous Learning

Asynchronous lessons, in which students learn on their own, became commonplace during the pandemic. And, while there is a place for them, they can never replace live teacher-led or teacher-facilitated instruction. Teaching is complex. Teachers know their content and their students. A computer, for example, can’t read a child’s emotions, see the manner in which they might be struggling, and recognize student misconceptions and the point at which they occur.

There are ways asynchronous learning can enhance education. But we must balance digital resources and human interaction. We must also balance between real-time instruction—whether it happens in-person or  over a digital platform—and teaching delivered through asynchronous, recorded lessons. 

Through the pandemic, I continued to serve on the board of a company that provided schools with digital interactive lessons, created by experts. These lessons supported the work of classroom teachers and lined up with their learning goals for students. For example, a teacher might ask students to watch the digital lessons to deepen learning, go over a concept or preview what’s to come. In the year ahead, to deepen student engagement, we are looking at ways to try to build more interactivity into those lessons. 

Tech Tools that Support In-Person Instruction

Other tech tools will likely play an even stronger role in schools. Digital surveys and quizzes foster engagement, provide teachers with useful feedback and are easy to administer. Teachers may also continue to turn to platforms that foster collaboration through the online sharing of student work. 

New online assessment and grading tools have also freed up teachers’ time so they can plan lessons or attend to other forms of instruction. But tech tools can’t assess all aspects of student learning—such as contributions to a class discussion and a child’s involvement in groupwork. 

As a longtime classroom teacher, I have seen firsthand the power of tech tools to support differentiation and meet students’ various learning needs. These tools continue to get better, offering new ways to help students access texts and multiple methods for demonstrating what they know and can do. Often, the best tech tools allow students to generate something that shows their knowledge and skill in an area. Math teachers are particularly excited about tools that allow students to write out equations and models and help make their thinking more visible, even if they’re working online. So, with the right software, tablets and a stylus can be extremely helpful. 

I also appreciate the way digital platforms enable teachers to invite outside experts from anywhere into the classroom, whether in-person or remote, to engage with students. Similarly, teachers from different parts of the country, and even the globe, are connecting their classrooms, expanding students’ horizons and allowing for perspective-taking.

We can’t ever be caught off-guard again—like we were 15 months ago. Schools should have strong, continuous learning plans in place to make sure they are ready to serve their students under any possible circumstances. Getting those plans in place, and meeting kids’ day-to-day needs, will continue to require investments in technology. But we must make sure they are smart investments, rooted in and contributing to high-quality learning experiences. Whatever else we take away from the pandemic, we can’t forget to choose technology that puts students and teachers at the center of the school experience.

Nell McAnelly
Nell McAnelly chairs the board of directors for curriculum developer Great Minds, publisher of  Eureka Math

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