What will education look like after COVID, and what pivotal role will edtech play in expanding access and addressing equity gaps?

How to make edtech entrepreneurship more inclusive


What will education look like after COVID, and what pivotal role will edtech play in expanding access and addressing equity gaps?

But none of us could have foreseen… I mean, I remember watching the news around end of 2019. “Oh, wow. How unfortunate there’s a pandemic. Maybe it’s going to be like SARS or bird flu or whatever else, or swine flu.” Then you fast forward to February of 2020, which now feels like a lifetime ago, and we started seeing our traffic pickup in Asia. I remember our teams saying, “Why is that happening? What’s going on in Asia?” Then I got a letter from a teacher in South Korea saying how he was using Khan Academy to keep his kids learning during their nationwide school closures. That was the first time that I actually had learned about the nationwide school closures. I was like, “That’s wild that a whole country has shut down its schools.” Then we said, “Okay, that explains why we’re seeing the traffic in Japan and in China.”

Then we know a week or two later, about mid-March March California, and then pretty much shortly thereafter, the rest of the U.S. and much of the world was shutting down. Yeah, it was clear once we started to think that the U.S. was going to shut down, it was one of those moments where you kind of look left and look right, and you say, “I think this is going to be us, because people are going to need something that is clearly online, but also accessible from home. Works with teachers, and teacher tools, and aligned to standards, has efficacy research behind, it is accessible. We’re free, is trusted, et cetera.”

So we started just doing kind of a war room effort. First of all, making sure that our servers could stay up. You could imagine with tens or already if 10, is going to go possibly 20, 30 million people hitting it, doing practice regularly day in, day out. Make sure to keep up with that. Then started trying to accelerate content training for parents and teachers. We saw that happen. Normal times, normal school days, we have about 30 million learning minutes a day. We saw that go to about 85 or 90 million during the spring.

Kevin Hogan: Anne, how about for you? Mid-March had seen here in the States, and more specifically Friday the 13th for a lot of school district tech directors was that day, where as Sal was saying it’s like a whole country was shut down. Now the entirety of 15,000 school districts in the United States are going to shut down. But they made the pivot and they did it. Talk a little bit about your experience with AT&T, because I know a lot of those tech directors, their first calls were to their internet providers and to their telcos.

Anne Wintroub: Absolutely. Absolutely. Kevin, we felt so fortunate in that we had a deep legacy of commitment to those tech directors, as you mentioned, to organizations like Khan Academy. I mean, since 2008, AT&T has invested $600 million in organizations helping to improve student outcomes. Many of which were in the edtech space. So as soon as it was clear what the impacts were going to be on education in the U.S. and beyond, we very swiftly created a Distance Learning Family Connections Fund. A $10 million fund to help the most incredible education organizations like Khan Academy. They were our first contribution to meet what we knew would be an unbelievably increased need for their services. So, that $10 million, again, it went to Khan, it went to other organizations that are now household names. Organizations like Caribou and Common Sense Media, that certainly families, teachers, and relied on pre-pandemic, but they are absolutely a lifeline for education, and tools for connectedness, for people all across the country and beyond today.

Kevin Hogan: Yeah. It’s one of those things. When you talk about access and talk about digital equity and we’ve spoken about it for years, and it’s part of… I know Khan Academy’s mission in terms of getting content that’s available to anybody and everybody. But it always seemed that we’d go to EdTech conferences, or you listen to Ted Talks, and it was always kind of a conceptual sort of thing like, “How do we solve the digital equity gap?” Again, March 13th, you had tech directors solving the digital equity gap by getting into their cars and driving hotspots to kids in their houses, right? Like real concrete things seem to begin to take place. Again, with AT&T’s efforts. I know Khan Academy has responded with a lot of extra programs. Let’s talk about the spring a little bit. Sal, did you see when we kind of moved from concept to reality in terms of trying to address students that didn’t have access? Or even the ones who did, but we’re still in sort of in a bad spot? Any surprises along the way?

Sal Khan: Yeah. Well, some of the things weren’t so surprising. The lack of digital access became a major issue. I think the country’s actually done a decent job in the school system, physically in the school buildings but then the at-home access… I know Anne and her colleagues at AT&T have done an incredible work trying to get it to students, and supporting organizations like ours. It’s been an invaluable in terms of being able to just frankly, stay up and running during this time.

Kevin Hogan: Sure.

Sal Khan: I think the one surprise for me was that in many cases even when there were these heroic efforts to get the access, some of these large school districts distributed hundreds of thousands of laptops, worked with the local telecom carriers to get either low… actually free during the spring, internet access. There were still 10 percent, 20 percent of kids that weren’t engaged. That’s been a little bit of a question. I actually talked earlier today to the assistant superintendent at Detroit Public Schools. I was just trying to get into her head about… or what she’s understanding about why these kids aren’t able to engage? It turns out there’s a lot of dimensions there but that made it even starker in my mind, how important it is to be able to support those kids.

I would say on the other side, on the positive side, it’s been stressful for everybody. But we’ve actually heard stories of school administrators saying, “You know what? These kids in some cases, certain kids are actually able to do a little bit better in this environment.” They’re able to take on a little of independence. A lot of teachers have been able to adapt. It’s been uncomfortable and hard, but they’ve been able to move faster than I think anyone expected. A lot of parents are more engaged than ever as well.

Kevn Hogan: Yeah. Anne any thoughts about that?

Anne Wintroub: No, absolutely. I would echo all that Sal said. Just from AT&T what Sal mentioned, these young people who are disconnected from schools. According to a study that Bellwether Partners… I’m sure you both and many of your listeners have seen it… came out with recently, there are as many as three million kids in the U.S. who have been just disconnected from school since March. Right? We think of the homework gap, you’re all doing everything we can to address that. That’s not a gap, that is a canyon.

Laura Ascione

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