It happened slowly, then all at once. Vague news from Wuhan, stories from Seattle, then a run on hand sanitizer and paper towels. Within a few weeks, districts nationwide had canceled in-person classes, Chromebooks had sold out, and edtech companies were inundated as educators were forced to reinvent school in the digital space.
It has been a year since we started shutting our schools and transitioning to remote learning. Tragically, this has led to many students falling behind—especially low-income students and English language learners. The pandemic has compounded many of the systemic inequities that plague our schools.
Edtech had the opportunity to help address these inequities. In some ways, edtech has risen to this challenge, but the field has also learned some things the hard way. Here are four major lessons our industry should take from the pandemic.
1. Easy access to high-quality, open materials is essential.
When the pandemic hit, students needed high-quality digital learning materials—fast. It became urgently important that the most vulnerable students be able to continue their education with the same learning materials, made accessible to them regardless of their circumstances.
Against the background of compressed timelines and COVID-related budget shortfalls, open educational resources (OER) filled a critical need. OER are free for educators and students to use, customize, and share. Because they’re openly licensed, OER can be personalized to include content that’s fresh, relevant, and localized. And because they’re free, OER allowed states and districts to roll out learning materials quickly and flexibly, without getting caught in red tape. For example, at CommonLit, we used our openly-licensed learning materials to help schools, districts, and states mass-distribute hundreds of thousands of print workbooks for students who didn’t have consistent access to devices or internet.
In a sense, the pandemic underscored the great work that has been done in the past decade to create an ecosystem of high-quality OER that any teacher anywhere can download and use. But the country’s COVID test also exposed two significant areas for improvement.
First, while standalone OER lessons provide a huge amount of flexibility to teachers, not enough districts have adopted OER curricula that cover an entire semester or academic year. District adoptions of full-course OER curricula would help teachers save time and energy, especially as they adapt to new ways of teaching.
Second, like many instructional materials, many OER were developed for in-person learning—not for independent distance learning. The solution moving forward is to create digitally-native OER that can take advantage of the extraordinary benefits of integrating with a digital platform. The pandemic showed us that OER is a foundational piece of the education ecosystem, especially in the highest-need schools, and merits further investment.
2. Equity requires an excellent user experience.
While easy access to an edtech tool is important, it won’t do much good if the tool is so poorly designed that teachers have trouble using it. Many memes circulated last spring in which highly-competent, veteran educators couldn’t figure out how to log in to complicated edtech platforms. I logged in to one recently that required teachers to create “cards” to build a course. What is a card? The edtech field has a user experience problem, which negatively affects teacher utilization and, in turn, student outcomes.
Moving forward, we need to take a human-centered design approach: designing edtech products for how students and teachers actually use them. We need to think deeply about who is involved in the design process, as too often it’s not real teachers and students. In particular, we need to ensure that we include vulnerable students when designing, which means addressing what would be “edge cases” for most engineering teams: a student using an old cell phone, with intermittent data, running an outdated browser. We also desperately need incentives in the marketplace to encourage edtech companies to design with equity at the forefront. Design and equity are inseparable.
3. We need incentives that drive demand for evidence-based edtech tools.
While teaching is very much an art, there is a great deal of science behind how learning works. For example, we know how skilled readers build mental models of the texts they read, and how content-rich learning materials help them do that. Recent disappointing literacy results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have spurred an ongoing discussion about using the science of reading to improve literacy—and edtech tools should follow suit.
Unfortunately, there aren’t incentives in place for edtech companies to ground their tools in what’s proven to be effective in helping kids learn. The truth is that the research community and the edtech community are two different groups who don’t often overlap. The pandemic highlighted this reality, as schools were bombarded with marketing emails for various edtech tools, all seeming to promise better learning—but very few actually citing real evidence of success.
Looking at what has been established by the science—and optimizing based on what data tells us about how a platform or tool affects learning—is critical to student success. It’s even more important that we do this now, in the wake of the dramatic surges in demand for edtech.
What’s more, there’s enormous potential for edtech tools not just to be the subject of research, but to actively participate in advancing the science. Conducting research with students and teachers can take years, but edtech tools can quickly collect a lot of data. If we leverage our platforms, we can help the broader education field resolve research questions much faster.
4. There is no tech substitute for the interaction between teachers and students.
Regardless of how much the edtech industry learns and improves, we must recognize that face-to-face learning is sacred. Teachers are role models that our kids watch and emulate. Teacher-student relationships are critical to fostering students’ motivation. Even the world’s best online educational program couldn’t replicate the powerful effect that face-to-face interactions with a teacher have on our children’s social and emotional development.
Moving forward, edtech providers must design ways to preserve and enhance—rather than replace—live instruction. We should put technology not front and center but instead in the service of teachers—where it belongs. We should look more closely at blended learning, in which students learn how to use technology as a tool to enhance their learning. Too many edtech tools are designed so that students passively click through content doing low-level tasks. This is not the future. Our kids should be reading, writing, discussing, presenting, conducting online research, creating – while using technology as a tool.
In short, we’re moving into a time when school districts have more technology infrastructure than ever. Another positive result is that we have a generation of teachers with a greater willingness to use edtech than ever before. But how that technology was designed, and what our kids are doing with that technology, will make or break our future. Edtech helped America’s teachers and students survive this crisis, but to thrive, we must do better. I hope we start by taking these lessons to heart.