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Four edtech leaders share how they’ve offered free resources, connected with parents, and supported educators navigating the ‘new normal’

How edtech companies are helping schools navigate an uncertain year

Four edtech leaders share how they’ve offered free resources, connected with parents, and supported educators navigating the ‘new normal’

In the middle of the abrupt changes to the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, edtech companies offered resources and access to help educators, students, and parents make the best of at-home learning.

Here is insight from a select few of those edtech leaders.

Based on what you’ve seen over the past couple of months, what are the major challenges that schools and districts have faced in the transition to online learning?

Chaks Appalabattula, founder and CEO of Bloomz: Kids were forced out of school and sent home with hopes that parents could help teachers in the few months before the end of the school cycle. In our experience talking with educators, I think one aspect that came up as of paramount importance, and was maybe taken for granted by schools and school districts, was the ability to communicate home. In early March, we decided to announce we’d be allowing any school facing closures to jump on our Premium platform at no cost, so they could communicate with students and parents.

Related content: How to make remote learning easily accessible

Brett Woudenberg, CEO of MIND Research Institute: Math is the most challenging subject for parents to teach their children. A majority of American adults — up to 93 percent according to this study — experience math anxiety. Plenty of parents were not truly mathematically equipped when they left school themselves. They can read to their kids at home, of course, but teaching math is another thing entirely.

In the short term, the shift to a distance instruction model is creating setbacks in student learning, and our most vulnerable and underserved students are disproportionately affected. Looking ahead, more students will be behind overall when they return to schools. The disparities between students will be more pronounced, too.
How the technology is being used, what software tools are provided, and how usable they are in a remote mode are additional challenges that must be navigated. The switch to schoolwork at home comes with time constraints. Our youngest learners are looking at just 60-90 minutes per day. That limited amount of time still needs to be highly productive and meaningful.

Todd Brekhus, chief product officer of Renaissance: Access and equity are major challenges educators and parents face—whether it’s ensuring access to the internet or even making sure students have a quiet spot to do homework. Another challenge is student learning. As educators and parents become more comfortable with remote learning, new tools, at-home content, and pedagogy, the need for valid and reliable data is going to increase. I imagine we’ll see more of a focus on individual student learning and less on overall school or district results.

Dr. Chandra Pemmasani, founder/CEO of UWorld: The major challenge for schools and districts has been the immediate and necessary transformation from traditional in-classroom education to an exclusively online model. Reinventing the way schools educate had to be done in a matter of days. It was this urgency that posed a tremendous challenge. In addition, schools and districts had to train educators to connect with their students digitally, determine appropriate workload, and protect against learning gaps in a mid-semester, nationwide paradigm shift in education.

How can edtech companies help them overcome those challenges?

Appalabattula: As many districts are already realizing, the new school year will likely come with the need for blended learning, with some or all students still learning from home. In order to adapt to these circumstances, schools will need to go through a process that includes:
o Figuring out the right fit among the different blended learning schedules and models available to them;
o Understanding the role of school-home communication apply tools and techniques to boost it;
o Establishing the conditions to provide ongoing social and emotional support for the entire learning community;
o Assessing the state of digital equity in their community and planning for the particular needs of all students; and
o Finding funding and resources available both inside and outside of their school district to address these needs.

We are currently working on a complete guide to help our customers follow the process above and help them wherever we can overcome obstacles in their way.

Woudenberg: Edtech companies from across the industry have stepped up to offer free access to their programs and platforms, which has been wonderful and so encouraging to see. Beyond free access, implementation and training resources have been crucial to helping school and district partners—and families. Webinars and pre-recorded sessions for teachers and administrators who are new to your product or service are just a start. We have found it helpful to group that content into smaller, more digestible chunks for educators whose time is at a premium.

Guides and resources for parents have been a big part of the equation. Especially with math, where many parents are already uncomfortable, edtech companies need to make sure their product is easy to use and that any required facilitation materials are accessible.

We’ve also put together a list of eight factors to look for in a distance learning program, in order to get the most positive impact in a limited time.

These programs should:
1. Use tech to remove unnecessary barriers, making learning accessible to as many students as possible.
2. Allow students to self-pace through content.
3. Fully engage students, and challenge them enough to generate productive struggle.
4. Go beyond practice of existing knowledge to provide students with robust opportunities to build conceptual understanding they don’t already have.
5. Have an efficacy portfolio that demonstrates the research-based effectiveness of the program with a wide variety of students.
6. Personalize and differentiate learning to allow students to succeed on grade-level content, regardless of where they start.
7. Deliver program results with appropriate, lightweight levels of oversight by parents.
8. Offer training, support, and community to parents and families.

Brekhus: At Renaissance, we’ve curated helpful resources and materials for remote learning, including on-demand webinars, helpful guides, and more. It’s a tough time for all of us, and being there is what’s most important. Parents didn’t ask to be full-time educators this spring! While we can’t solve all the challenges schools and districts face, we can be a helpful partner through all of this. Quick, accurate assessments are going to be instrumental in helping educators and parents measure and understand each of their student’s needs. Personalized learning is going to become even more important as we work through this new normal together and shift to individual student-focused instruction.

Pemmasani: Edtech companies are uniquely positioned to help schools transition from traditional classrooms to online learning through accessibility, performance-tracking, and unique insights. Having already developed high-quality, digital learning platforms, the edtech industry has been able to assist schools and districts by allowing access to products, sharing best practices for online education, and tracking student progress. A considerable challenge for schools and districts is the potential to lose track of an individual student’s educational needs when you don’t have daily, in-person, classroom engagement. The edtech industry is meeting this challenge by allowing schools to gauge student performance through faculty portals and online performance tracking—this ensures that no student falls through the cracks.

Edtech companies have been generous about offering free tools to educators during the peak of the crisis, but of course you need to generate revenue to keep the lights on. How are you handling a return to asking school and districts to spend money on your solutions?

Appalabattula: When we made our Premium platform available to schools, we made it clear to them that it was at no cost and with no strings attached. A couple of months after that, we asked them for their feedback and close to 90% of respondents said Bloomz had definitely helped them with their transition to distance learning, and 75 percent of them said they were likely to continue using Bloomz Premium in the new school year. We were confident in our product, and it was clear that administrators got value from it at a time they really needed help.

There are still challenges ahead, budget being a big one for most schools. But we believe that, with the savings they can get in resources and time back, the help that Congress has put forth in the form of the CARES act, and the flexibility of our premium plans, all the schools who want to upgrade will be able to do it in the new school year.

Woudenberg: Our focus has been on meeting the needs of as many families and schools as we can during the crisis. But as we all adjust to distance learning’s challenges and opportunities, we know that the need for meaningful math learning will only continue to grow.

With the help of philanthropic supporters and program fees from schools, we have invested heavily in an all new ST Math for the 2020-2021 school year. The new version of the program includes features that will help mitigate the effects of the COVID slide and will assist educators in providing differentiated learning.

As we reach out to schools and districts who have received no-cost access to ST Math, we are focusing on those who saw the most usage on the program. Our data team has researched ST Math usage for more than 200,000 students since the program was made free on Pi Day (March 14th). We are seeing that students are still engaging in productive learning at home:
o Quiz effect sizes are roughly the same as before Pi Day.
o Post-quiz scores are an average of 3 points higher than they were prior to Pi Day.
o Minutes per week are up from 54.7 to 74.6. That last number speaks to student engagement, and is something we’ve seen time and again: when students can solve puzzles in ST Math as much as they want, they play more!

Our message to these schools and districts is that ST Math is worth using because it’s been proven effective, and by design, it’s just as powerful a learning tool outside the classroom as it is inside of it.

Brekhus: When schools and districts made the transition to remote learning, our roadmap changed. We provided free access to myON, myON News, and Freckle to any school or district—including those outside the US—that requested access. We also made Star Assessments and quizzes in Accelerated Reader accessible from home for our current customers.

With such a quick pivot, the at-home versions of myON, myON News, and Freckle didn’t include all the reporting, digital books, or math content that a school or district would normally get when purchasing the full versions. We’re working with a number of large schools and districts to help create and understand their fall plans for remote and blended learning. We believe that if educators use our programs and their students do as well, they’ll be interested in purchasing the full versions this fall.

Pemmasani: Education is a unique profession in that profits are not the priority. Whether you’re a teacher, an administrator, or in the edtech field, the betterment of the student overrides all else. Over the last several months, we have extended subscriptions for students and offered free access to many districts in order to help during this unprecedented disruption.

As the crisis begins to ease, students and professionals are turning their attention back to pursuing their educational and career aspirations. In doing so, they look for superior learning tools to give them the best chance to succeed on their high-stakes exams. We’re handling a return to normal business by offering exceptional solutions to schools, districts, students, and professionals that are proven to help them—especially as they’re required to do more distance- and self-paced learning than ever before. It’s this quality and consistency that bring stability and justify our existence in the educational community during this time of uncertainty.

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