Hate it or love – technology in education is here to stay. Parents can feel it, and the numbers back them up. Edtech is booming, with 40 times more venture capital invested in the sector in 2021 than in 2010.
There is no question that edtech has brought new ways to support the learning process and was used extensively by schools to connect remotely to students who could not attend classes in-person during the worst parts of the pandemic. At the same it can also serve as a huge distraction and sometimes to the detriment of student’s growth and development. The data on this is clear. Remote learning during the pandemic led to significant learning loss among students and was a primary driver of the U.S.’ growing achievement gap – meaning that economically disadvantaged students and students of color were hit the hardest.
The conversation has quickly shifted from whether technology should be used in learning to how we can use it to improve learning and ensure that all students have access to high-quality educational experiences. Here are four areas we can start:
Rapidly Train Our Teachers to Harness Tech
Amid historic challenges, with no roadmap and often no experience in remote learning, educators worked tirelessly to keep students learning during the height of the pandemic. But despite their best efforts, online learning failed to live up to in-person education, with students whose schools met mostly in person performing significantly better on math and reading tests compared to their peers who received instruction online.
But it’s not the fault of teachers – they weren’t trained for remote instruction. We can’t wait for the next pandemic. We must develop a teaching force skilled in online and blended instruction – and we need to start today. That starts by rapidly adapting curriculums in teaching colleges and providing extra training for experienced teachers to help them get ahead of the technology curve, regardless of whether one anticipates another crisis that dictates remote learning.
This would be a fantastic opportunity for private corporations with extensive IT infrastructures to partner with their local communities to accelerate digital transformations in the public schools. The good news is that corporate leaders don’t need to look far for inspiration, as some companies have already gotten started, including Microsoft’s partnership with the Norwegian Refugee Council to deliver technology for education projects, or Google’s push to expand technological access for underserves communities.
Teach Digital Literacy to Parents
A key to help students wade-through reliable, educational material from everything else — including frivolity, misinformation, and conspiracy theories — is teaching them digital literacy. They need to be able to identify sources and find corroborating information.
For example, a recent AP story titled Students Turn to TikTok to Fill Education Gaps, suggests that TikTok is a trend that may be driving the future of education. Since 2020, the social media app has invested millions of dollars and teamed with experts, public figures, and educational institutions to post more learning material under the hashtag #LeanOnTikTok.
“Parents and educators should take time to learn more about TikTok to understand the platform and how to reach kids where they are. The videos made by good-faith actors that pique students’ interest can be as educational as anything else they come across in a library or lecture — if they have the background knowledge to put them in context,” says Vanessa Dennen, a professor of Instructional Systems & Learning Technologies in the Department of Educational Psychology & Learning Systems at Florida State University, who was quoted in the AP story.
Close the Digital Gap for Students
As technology becomes more ingrained in education, the digital divide is becoming an ever-larger driver of educational inequity.
Consider this: 1 in 4 U.S. students are unable to access school online, and 42 million Americans don’t have the means to purchase internet access. We can’t expect students to succeed if they don’t have the tools to do it. To address this glaring crisis, we need nothing short of a large-scale public-private mobilization to provide the infrastructure, the funding, and the hardware (wi-fi routers, laptops, hotspots) to students in low-income communities.
It’s a daunting issue – but one that we can solve. Just look at what the city of Oakland, California has been able to accomplish recently.
When the pandemic hit and the need to get students online in their homes became urgent, city leaders, including Mayor Libby Schaaf quickly partnered with the Oakland Public Education Fund, the nonprofit Tech Exchange, Oakland Promise and other community-based organizations to close the digital divide. Everyone from corporate leaders like former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to organization like the Oakland branch of the NAACP joined the effort. The result? As of February 2022, the city had provided nearly 36,000 laptops and more than 11,500 hot spots to low-income public-school students, closing the digital divide for nearly all its students. In Oakland, 98 percent of all students now have a computer and internet service.
The city used the crisis as an opportunity to address a moral wrong that needed to be changed forever, not just during the pandemic. While some students remain unconnected, Oakland’s effort has emerged as an example of how to tackle a citywide digital divide.
Connect Online Lessons to Real Life
In today’s world of ubiquitous technology, it’s not just about controlling screen-time. It’s about making the time they spend online, useful, impactful, and engaging, and most importantly, connecting the lessons that students learn through online instruction and bringing them to life for them in 3D.
Ask any educator or parent who has taken their students on an impactful field trip – the experience can be life-changing. During the pandemic, we lost some of that connection, but it’s coming back in full steam, with pent-up demand for student travel, enrichment programs, and summer camps.
It’s one thing to learn about U.S. history in a textbook or online classroom, but it’s entirely another to visit the Statue of Liberty or the Lincoln Memorial and walk in the footsteps of those who changed history. These types of experiences allow students to put the virtual in perspective, while participating in the experience with others who can share their passion and excitement. Sure, they can share it afterwards on social media and spread the word. But being in the moment is what makes all the difference.
Of course, not every family or school district has the means to afford field trips and educational travel. This is a serious issue that without a doubt contributes to the education gap for students in low-income communities and must be addressed through increased educational funding and continued collaboration between the private and public sector. At the same time, there are many ways to secure funding for educational travel, including through corporate sponsors, fundraising drives, and government grants like New York State’s Connect Kids field trip grant program.
The timing has never been better for using technology to enable and improve learning at all levels, in all places, and for people of all backgrounds.
For all the possibilities of technology-enabled learning, it also creates challenges we will face as we embrace the change necessary to realize its potential. We must continue to find new and creative ways to solve the problem of connectivity in learners’ homes so that the learning made possible in connected schools does not end when students leave for the day, a phenomenon commonly referred to as the homework gap.
As a parent and grandparent, having tried, mostly in vain, to control time on devices, my current strategy is now to provide real-time, fun learning experiences for my kids and grandchildren. I take them to nearby children’s museums, parks, and local theaters. The best part is that they’ve learned to enjoy it, and they spend less time in front of screens as a result.
At the end of the day, technology will continue to evolve and will support both teaching and learning, but it will remain limited in its utility without a connection to the 3D world around us.