As the 2020–2021 school year draws to a close, students, teachers, administrators and parents at all levels of education are looking forward to a future that looks more like the past than the present. But, while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging, the experience has generated knowledge we can leverage for future innovation.
So what have we learned, and how will the role of technology in educational spaces change? During the Insight Public Sector Edtech Forum, education IT specialists gathered to share their perspectives on that very question. They shared what they’ve discovered over the past year and how it will shape their approach to educational technology moving forward.
Technology managers from K–12 school districts and higher education institutions spoke with education solutions experts from Aruba, Google for Education, Lenovo and Red Hat to share the roadblocks and opportunities of the last twelve months. As they described their diverse experiences and their expectations for the future, three key patterns emerged:
In the spring of 2020, we all realized very quickly that virtual learning can’t replicate the in-person classroom experience exactly. Though hardware, software and networks have advanced significantly, there are many aspects of “normal” schooling that simply require face-to-face contact.
But that doesn’t mean that virtual learning can’t facilitate some traditional modes of learning. With the right tools and training, distanced classrooms can maintain the teacher-student and peer connections that are central to “normal” schooling and create new, exciting opportunities for engagement and collaboration.
The need to create a balance between the expected and the innovative was especially urgent in districts where students transitioned back and forth between in-person and virtual learning. Some schools adopted a consistent hybrid learning arrangement before the academic year began, while others moved back and forth as a result of schools closing and reopening throughout the year.
Regardless of the reason for it, reliable, user-friendly technology made that transition more seamless for learners and teachers alike, and facilitated a learning environment that was more adaptable and agile.
And, that increased adaptability will benefit students long after districts return to full-time, in-person learning, panelists noted. Districts will be better equipped to handle unexpected disruptions, such as catastrophic weather or building utility outages, that may emerge in the future.
With the goals of augmentation and agility in mind, districts have started to move from focusing on enabling virtual learning to optimizing the experience. The newest or most feature-rich technology might not be the best fit for a particular situation. For example, an interactive virtual textbook sounds more engaging than a PDF textbook, but depending on the subject matter or the grade level, it might not enrich the learning experience in a way that justifies the additional cost.
Procuring devices for use inside and outside the classroom isn’t easy — especially in the spring of 2020, when soaring demand surpassed preexisting supply and strained delivery infrastructure. But, compared to providing the solutions and support needed to keep virtual classrooms running effectively, buying and distributing hardware is simple. As Damien Eversmann, chief editor at Red Hat, succinctly put it, “The easy part is giving the student the device.”
Training students in how to use those devices — as well as applications and learning management platforms — has proven vital to helping them get the most out of the tools at their disposal. And it’s not just learners who benefit from training resources. Teachers and parents also have different levels of comfort with new technology depending on their ages and past experiences. Ensuring that everyone who needs to interface with distance learning technology can do so focuses lesson time and simplifies troubleshooting.
Removing those obstacles made it easier for everyone involved to adapt to the “new normal” classroom. Students learning from home faced many of the same psychological challenges that adults struggled with while transitioning to remote work. Over the last few semesters, they’ve learned to handle new distractions, increased isolation, and the need to balance work and play.
Our panelists noted that functional, intuitive technology mitigated those challenges in several ways. The right solutions and support allowed students to focus on learning during school hours, but they also made it easier to “turn off,” both literally and mentally, at the end of class time. When districts helped remove technological frustrations, students, teachers and families were all better equipped to maintain a consistent schedule and avoid unnecessary stress.
When it comes to fostering a seamless experience, both today and in the future, it’s not just internal users that edtech experts need to worry about. Security concerns will continue to be a top priority for districts and institutions. From “Zoom bombing” to content monitoring to preventing the theft of personally identifiable information, IT departments must address a wide range of cybersecurity needs as they manage infrastructure and networks, as well as district-owned and student-owned devices.
Security is far from the only aspect of edtech that will remain prevalent well beyond the pandemic. Panelists discussed several areas of educational technology that need continued attention — most notably network access, which continues to be an urgent concern across the United States.
Many families, particularly those in rural areas, don’t have affordable, high-quality broadband available to them. This impacts the students’ ability to do homework, access learning management systems and explore topics of personal interest. Pre-pandemic, government and nonprofit efforts to improve networks in underserved communities have proven insufficient to meet increased access needs.
Fortunately, there’s now more support than ever for expanding these efforts. As David Sanders, chief technology officer for Mesa Public Schools, noted, “Even when everyone goes back to a normal classroom, we still have kids who don’t have internet at home.”
While there are still roadblocks in our line of sight, our panelists agree that many of the skills that students and educators developed during the 2020–2021 school year will continue to benefit them moving forward.
Even when circumstances stabilize, agility will still be a major asset, as classroom technology will continue to evolve and future disruptions are inevitable. Colleen Flaherty, director of instructional technology and technology services for Chandler Unified School District, explained, “I think 50% of my job is change management and breaking down barriers … and, in a positive way, I think the pandemic removed some of those barriers.”
The most foundational takeaway that emerged during our discussion is that learning is a constant process for both instructors and students, and this period has reminded all of us of the important lesson that it’s not a clean, linear one. Most importantly, it’s not a journey we undertake alone, even when we’re not occupying the same space.