Distance learning demands that districts close technology gaps and ensure teachers—and students—are equipped for a virtual world

How IT can take distance learning to the next level

Distance learning demands that districts close technology gaps and ensure teachers—and students—are equipped for a virtual world

Last spring, school districts rushed to transition to distance learning as quickly as possible to protect the health and safety of students, teachers and staff. Now, schools are reflecting on what worked, what didn’t, and how these learnings can be applied to prepare for safe and effective learning this fall.

Related content: 7 steps to stellar online learning

Setting students and teachers up for success starts with access to the internet and learning devices like laptops. But it also means taking advantage of additional opportunities that remote learning offers, such as recorded instruction, and making smart investments in innovation to deliver long-term results that maintain value well after the challenges of the ongoing pandemic subsides.

Remote learning as an opportunity

Distance learning is a solution to the crisis we’re currently facing, but it’s also an opportunity for personalized instruction with benefits for students and their teachers. Moving to remote education is often positioned as “can be as good as” or an “acceptable substitute” for in-class instruction. However, what is sometimes overlooked is how technology and virtual learning, when done correctly, can be an improvement on the status quo.

The move to online instruction means that curriculum can be highly customizable – student needs vary by grade level but also by personal ability. Technology and distance learning offer opportunities for teaching more tailored to an individual student as well as relearning opportunities. Distance learning means lectures can be recorded, allowing students to re-watch them if a concept is difficult or catch up rather than miss a class due to a sick day. Similarly, it gives parents a means to watch with their student to reinforce learning at home. This “relearning” applies to any digital content that can be accessed when outside of the classroom.

Closing the gap

IT departments must focus on closing the technology gap that students and faculty are still experiencing, which often begins with access to a reliable internet connection, suitable devices, and efficacy in teaching/learning on new platforms.

Devices are not a one-size-fits-all tool across K-12, demanding user requirements be tailored by grade level – think along the lines of providing first graders with durable, drop-friendly touch-screen devices that emphasize ease of use, while high schoolers require laptops with applications suited for essay-writing and processing power equipped to handle computer science homework.

Because distance learning is still new to many school districts, connectivity requires educators to be creative in how they expand broadband capabilities. School districts can look to innovative solutions like extending Wi-Fi to students by turning school buses into mobile hotspots.

Depending on the level of remoteness schools are undertaking this fall, they need to ensure students can access their learning materials, but also that instructors are versed in these new tools. Districts that successfully implement distance learning will have provided education and onboarding programs for teachers and staff emphasizing the functionality of these tools – like in business environments, educators may only be using a fraction of the digital power at their fingertips. Computer literacy is not optional for educators, and districts must ensure their instructors know the utility of new tools and learning platforms, feel comfortable using them and understand best practices for keeping students engaged in an online environment.

Looking ahead

It’s essential that schools think about how to best serve students now. But today’s investments shouldn’t have a shelf life that only serves the short term. Adapting innovative new tools and processes should retain value over the course of years, and schools that make smart IT investments to support distance learning now will set themselves up for longer term success and make future innovations even easier.

In this moment, we’re creating an infrastructure for remote learning that can take on a new role even beyond the pandemic. Now isn’t the time for cost-cutting or quick fixes but for schools to devise IT strategies and online programs that establish agility and continuity for the long haul.

If this transition is done well, the U.S. school system will be prepared for all kinds of scenarios to help students and teachers stay in school. Today’s infrastructure improvements mean that in the future we’ll likely see a drop-off in school cancellations related to snow days or other environmental disruptors.

There’s a real opportunity to make a positive, lasting impact on our education systems. IT investments should be sustainable and scalable so that today’s choices maintain value as the environment evolves and our educators and students grow savvier in a virtual world of learning.

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