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Now that the nation is well into the school year, educators are grappling with the new reality of educational technology (EdTech) in and out of the classroom in order to provide quality, safe education for all students. There are several aspects of technology in schools to consider: access to devices and internet; efficacy of online-learning or technology-assisted teaching and administration; use of technology to monitor and prevent the spread of Covid in schools that have opened or are preparing to; and of course the planning and administration of a new teaching order amidst myriad of teaching models and uncertain budgets.

For many of the schools that have reopened, technology likely played a role in some part of classroom learning before Covid, and now teachers must implement new uses of and regulations on technology in the classroom to ensure safety. For students fortunate to have access to technology in the classroom, or are on a borrowing system for hybrid or virtual learning, concerns about spreading germs are being addressed and planned for by school administrators. In the past students may have shared devices, headphones or styluses due to lack of sufficient devices for everyone, but educators are now working on ways to tether such things to devices, clean them regularly, and provide one for each student to prevent the spread of germs. Although a one-to-one model for technology use in and out of the classroom would be ideal, and is happening very gradually, it is just not a reality for millions of students across America.

Whether due to lack of technology access, proper supplies or success during spring closures, classroom and remote-teachers are forced to rethink their class structure and reliance on technology as the only immediate option. While the federal government has allocated billions of dollars over the past six years to their E-rate program — a modernization initiative to provide all schools with broadband internet — experts say an additional  $6-11 billion is needed to close the access gap in schools. According to a recent study from Common Sense Media on the technology gap, an estimated 15-16 million (30%) students are still without either internet access or devices necessary to have success in remote learning. To address this, districts like Los Angeles Unified have partnered with their local PBS TV station to provide educational content via television.Major corporations like Verizon and Comcast have also provided data plans and hotspots to low-income families, and devices like Chromebooks are becoming more affordable for families that don’t have access to them from their schools. But until access for all students is solved, some districts will have no option but to implement some form of in-person learning, tutoring, or assessment to ensure their students are continuing to learn while they wait for schools to fully reopen.

With or without sufficient technology or preparation, many schools and parents have determined the safest route is virtual learning for some or all students. Some experimental studies demonstrate that remote learning is not as effective as in-person, especially for those already struggling with coursework. Nevertheless it is a better option than no school at all for the districts that have yet to open in-person or don’t provide a parent-choice model. As technology, access, and teacher and student ability to use it improves, we may see that online learning can be effective for most students, albeit not the same as in-person. Studies documenting technology use by teachers from the beginning of the shutdown in spring show their ability level has improved greatly due to increased use during remote learning, forcing them to practice technology skills. As teachers learn to navigate new platforms utilized in the new era of education, it’s important to note that one size does not fit all when it comes to technology use for instruction, the context in which a school operates as well as an individual’s teaching style or grade level might be factors to be considered in EdTech’s efficacy.

Fortunately, many higher education institutions and some K-12 schools have already implemented entirely online courses or tech-assisted teaching, so school administrators and educators can build off of their experiences and resources. That being said, with so many products available and being created in response to the pandemic, decision makers might not know where to begin — and planning time is precious. Organizations like EdTech Hub, Learn Platform, and The Learning Accelerator have built search tools and analyzed what EdTech tools schools are already using and how they work. Sites like these aim to assist educators in finding virtual learning resources, platforms, and blended teaching strategies that will suit different school communities’ needs through research and consulting initiatives. In Learn Platform’s analysis of EdTech usage during the pandemic, we see schools are primarily relying on operational tools, mostly for administration and communication, and secondarily relying on tools for remote-learning curriculum during Covid. With teachers out of the office as well, communication and administration via the internet are more important than ever in navigating changing times and comparing remote-teaching notes.

Interestingly, likely due to familiarity and therefore ease of use, Google’s various communication platforms occupy eight of the top ten most used by schools, with Zoom and Clever taking up the remaining two, despite there being hundreds of platforms to choose from. Virtual learning programs for specific subjects and tools to communicate with or monitor students are widely available, but the ones that might work best and for a given school will often come with a price tag and a sharp learning curve, leading administrators to weigh the value of the product over time spent planning its use and cost over the years to come.

Then there is the consideration of internet usage in general, how can we keep students safe online? Services such as GoGuardian allow teachers to monitor their student’s device access remotely — helping to ensure attention and focus without distractions or dangers that come from the web, but this too comes with a price tag. Nevertheless, the investment and research in effective products is certainly the route education is taking in the era of remote-learning as evinced through increased use of EdTech and publication of relevant research over the past few months. The key will be balancing and refining the use of EdTech and concrete materials until students and school staff can get back in the building.

With so many developments in education technology and administrative communication, access to internet and funds, and uses of tech to monitor the spread of Covid, there is an ocean of information for educators to sort through. Although it is not yet sufficient, the access and funding to support EdTech and the inevitable remote-learning for many is improving. Teachers are working harder than ever to support their students. This will take time to perfect. While the education community is doing their best to support the unique needs of each student and school, the key to success will be funds, staff, and time dedicated to planning and researching the efficacy of remote and hybrid learning for all students until we can get back in the classroom safely.

Resistance Resources:

  • Common Sense Kids Action — Advocates for children’s well-being in the digital age. They have specific action areas related to digital safety and equity for children and connect you with even more resources to take action in each area.
  • Consortium for School Networking — A professional association for school system technology leaders, CoSN has an action page that connects you to federal and state legislature related to school technology issues. They provide templates and tools to address letters to your local congress members to advocate for technology access and safety for all students.
  • Everyone On — Works to get internet access and devices to the learners and communities most in need. Get involved with them by donating or connecting those in need to their resources for low-cost or subsidized devices or internet.

Sources:

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