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The pandemic has forced many educational institutions to move towards virtual learning, or at least some form of distance education, in an extremely short time-frame. While this is not a new method of teaching or learning, school administrators and teachers were not prepared to sift through the resources to find the tools that might work best for E-learning on such a short notice. Nevertheless, as the pandemic moves along, schools are getting more familiar and more successful with virtual learning and Educational Technology. While EdTech certainly has a learning curve and barriers to entry due to associated costs and uncertain effects on student learning outcomes, researchers from the Brookings Institute suggest that “when schools use technology to enhance the work of educators and to improve the quality and quantity of educational content, learners will thrive.”

In a recent study from the Brookings Institute, researchers propose that Education Technology can be an effective tool for learners if three things are considered: context, evidence, and outcome. If technology is introduced into a classroom but other changes are not made, students and teachers may not be able to benefit from the new resources. For example, if teachers are unfamiliar with a certain tool or have not been trained on its uses, it may become a distraction or a burden on them, impacting how effective teaching and learning is for that classroom. Relying on previous studies by education researchers Cohen and Ball, Brookings suggests that in order for Educational Technology (no matter how great it is in theory) to be an effective tool for learning, it must accomplish at least one of four things: “scaling up quality instruction, such as through prerecorded quality lessons; facilitating differentiated instruction, through, for example, computer-adaptive learning and live one-on-one tutoring; expanding opportunities to practice; increasing learner engagement through videos and games.”

Harvard has developed a Remote Teaching site with Best Practices for Online Pedagogy that aligns with the findings of Brookings. Harvard echoes the current research and general sentiment that long lectures just won’t work with online learning, but if one facilitates engagement and provides opportunities for interaction in multiple ways, different types of online learning can be effective for all types of learners (provided they have the equipment and safe place to learn).

Overall, online learning, no matter what software or medium you use to deliver your lessons, should still follow the same principles that a teacher follows in the classroom. Consistency, setting norms, creating clear transitions, and forming discussion groups, are all things that can be done online through a video lesson or separately during specified periods. Furthermore, Zoom, which has become a mainstay for teachers adjusting to virtual learning, has pedagogical tools built in. One can use polls to assess understanding of the lesson, chat to engage students who might not normally speak up, keep an eye on all students with “gallery” view, use the “raise hand” feature to facilitate class-wide discussion, and set up “breakout rooms” for small group work. If done thoughtfully, video-based instruction can be one effective way of supporting learners.

An example of the ineffective use of technology is exemplified by a 2016 study which explored the outcomes of schools essentially replacing textbooks with laptops. Researchers found that there was a similar outcome of learning success as with books, but the costs associated with the new technology are greater. Moreover, the laptops themselves did not enhance learning necessarily — the software used and supervision of the student’s web use was found to play a large role in enhancing the usefulness of the hardware. In theory a laptop could enhance learning, but in practice it wasn’t able to accomplish one of the four things outlined by Brookings. In the push to give every student a tablet or laptop, administrators must not stop there, quality software and a plan for use must be employed to reap the benefits that technology brings.

A major area of technology in schools now is computer-adaptive learning (CAL), something often cited to be an effective learning tool for students. This method of learning uses a diagnostic test (assessment) to address what level of learning students are in, and sets the curriculum accordingly. Preliminary studies show that this can be effective for students’ learning of math and language if used in addition to regular classroom teaching — few studies have been done however, to compare CAL to classroom teaching as a total or partial replacement. One study based in China does consider the effect of CAL as a replacement for small and large group teaching programs. It assesses a program called “Squirrel AI Learning” and suggests that even when compared to students who learn the same content from expert-teachers, the learning gains from AI are greater over the course of the year, no matter what their level of learning or learning style was at the start of the study.

While schools aren’t moving towards a replacement of teachers, some of their duties can be replaced with EdTech. Some useful components of technology and E-learning involve tracking students’ progress and test scores, practicing hands on learning, and gamification which helps to keep students focused and engaged. The innovation of recording students’ homework and test scores automatically, tracking progress, and reporting it to teachers and parents is a huge help, because teachers are not able to be one-on-one with students as often as before. It also can help keep families in the loop. EdTech and computer-adaptive learning also support teachers in implementing individual learning paths for each student simultaneously — which just isn’t possible for in-person classes. This is especially useful for teachers during Covid as they have new issues that they need to focus on.

Late in 2019, the New York Times reported on machine-learning programs such as Bakpax and Acuitus. The machine-learning revolution has been a game changer for the E-learning movement — instead of assessing a student’s learning level by moving them along a pre-set decision tree, machine-learning uses large sets of (ever-growing) data to create a “smarter” algorithm that can profile a student’s learning level and set it on the right path. Additionally, simple acts like grading homework and providing the right answers and more practice in certain areas can be automated. But even more importantly, the algorithm can use the data to assess patterns in the class’s lack of knowledge, so teachers know where to focus. While these innovations hold a lot of potential, there are concerns around where this student data goes and how much privacy students and schools can expect. For now, student data is protected and encrypted to ensure students their right to privacy.

Virtual learning might be effective for students if implemented well, but concerns have been raised about Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities, as virtual support is just not effective for everyone. Students deserve education that works for them, they also deserve to be safe and not exposed to a deadly virus — this is a tricky situation to navigate but efforts are being made to ensure that parents are kept in the loop and that students with disabilities are not being deprived of their rights to quality support and education whether in-person or through digital means.

In addition to the quality and measured success of particular E-learning programs themselves for certain subsets of students, some propose that the effectiveness of E-learning might be tied into perspective on E-learning in the first place. If school administrators and families see E-learning as a temporary fix to a temporary pandemic, then efforts to master it will be scarce — instead administrators and leaders must prioritize making it work well for all students and be willing to innovate and make virtual learning a viable option and not just a band-aid until “normal” school starts again.

Virtual Learning must not seek to replace the 7-hour school day and classroom experience, studies show that it just isn’t feasible. What is feasible is school districts prioritizing spending time to assess their situation and resources, using existing data to inform their approach to virtual learning and/or hybrid learning, and choose E-learning methods that have proven results. Additionally, having a plan for every mode of learning is key, as Covid is likely not going anywhere for the rest of the school year.

Resistance Resources

International Society for Technology in Education — Check out ISTE’s site to find resources and background on uses of Tech in Education. Use their action tools to get in touch with your representatives about approving legislation and funding for teacher professional development or technology in the classroom, or share petitions and information via social media.

National Council for Online Education — This group of partners is a collaboration of organizations that advocate for well-planned, research-based, and effective online learning. Get connected with them and their partners to learn more and get involved.

 

Student Voice — This organization brings students and school communities together to fight for student rights under the Student Bill of Rights. Check out their site for resources to organize, learn, and connect with a local group to get involved in fighting to ensure that all students receive quality education in whatever appropriate, effective format during the Covid pandemic.

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