By Stephanie Walden, Contributor
As schools around the world close their doors, many are encouraging students to open their e-books and internet browsers from the safety of home. Technology is the backbone of this new epoch of “EdTech,” allowing teachers and students to connect via live-streamed sessions, app-fueled experiences, and even virtual field trips.
But the learning curve for using such technology is real, and the process for making it equitable still very much evolving. Here are a handful of ways in which 21st century education is adapting in the wake of recent school closures—and a look at where there’s room for improvement.
Learning Goes Online
Author Daisy Christodoulou notes in Teachers vs Tech?: The Case for an Ed Tech Revolution that, despite decades of hopeful forecasts, education is one of the last frontiers for major technological disruption.
“People have been predicting that technology will transform education for over a century,” she writes. “And yet … compared to the change and disruption that technology has brought to practically every other part of our society, education is an outlier.”
To Christodoulou’s point, many K-12 schools simply weren’t prepared for the shift to distance learning they’ve had to make in a matter of days. This isn’t, however, due to a lack of available or sophisticated technology. In fact, a major pain point of the transition has been that the digital-resource rabbithole runs deep—it’s overwhelming to dig through all the options.
For teachers, there are comprehensive suites like Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams. There are collaboration and research platforms like Seesaw and NoodleTools. There’s the star of the hour, Zoom. There are countless webinars teaching teachers how to migrate in-person lessons to short, efficient videos. For parents-turned-impromptu-homeschoolers, there are virtual tutoring services, school-specific social media accounts, and thousands of online forums. (For parents and educators looking to beef up their digital content, the pop-up aggregator site Amazing Educational Resources is comprehensive.)
“You can actually dive in and see exhibitions through a 360 view, and then use resources we’ve developed to create lessons.”
—Dr. Angela Colbert, Knight Vice President of Education, Frost Science
It’s not just classrooms that are finding their way to the virtual sphere. Museums and other educational spaces have now moved online as well. One such venue is the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami, which launched the Frost Science@Home digital platform on March 23. The free hub offers do-it-yourself experiments and activities for families—like creating soap putty with items found around the house or visually demonstrating how germs and hand-washing work, for instance—as well as behind-the-scenes content and immersive explorations of the museum’s top attractions like the Great Barrier Reef exhibit.
Frost Science’s Knight Vice President of Education Dr. Angela Colbert notes that the digital attraction is a great option for virtual field trips. “You can actually dive in and see exhibitions through a 360 view, and then use resources we’ve developed to create lessons,” she says. “It’s a really nice experience for educators wanting to give something a little different to their students.”
Digital-First Platforms For the Win
For those already accustomed to teaching, tutoring, or taking classes online, the shift to distance learning has been much less of a disruption. The arena of standardized test preparation, for example, is perhaps one of the most established sectors of education technology—and the industry is thriving.
“There’s been a huge surge in traffic,” says Kris Boulton, director of education at Up Learn, a United Kingdom-based platform that assists students studying for A-level exams (subject-specific qualifications required for entrance to university in the U.K.). “I’ve been told this is true across the whole sector. Consumers are recognizing that online learning is both more viable and perhaps more important than they appreciated in the past.”
Boulton notes that the digital-first nature of Up Learn means the company hasn’t really had to change much about its user experience. “We’re really built for this from the ground up,” he says.
“One of the most effective things that an online platform can do to try to replicate the motivational power that’s lost when you’re no longer in a classroom is provide real-time feedback.”
—Kris Boulton, director of education, Up Learn
For users who have support from teachers, the platform is supplementary, Boulton explains. It enables educators to provide feedback in a relatively quick and easy way—something missing from a lot of the “round hole, square peg” approaches to using general collaboration or remote work tools for education purposes.
“With school, you’ve got a big motivational ecosystem,” says Boulton. “It’s comprised of things like social norms—the fact that everyone is showing up and, broadly speaking, paying attention and trying. One of the most effective things that an online platform can do to try to replicate the motivational power that’s lost when you’re no longer in a classroom is provide real-time feedback.”
Up Learn is driven by artificial intelligence (AI) and neuroscience. “Adaptive algorithms tailor the experience for each individual,” Boulton explains. So if two different students are completing programs in Up Learn, they’ll have completely different experiences based on their learning preferences and progress.
Anna Moss is another educator entrenched in the test-prep world. Her tutoring company, Mind the Test LLC, helps teens study for the SAT and ACT exams. Moss says that thanks to a slew of e-learning sites that have become popular in recent years, her ability to tutor students from near and far has only gotten more seamless—and she, too, has seen an uptick in interest. (Although the reality for high school students on when, exactly, they’ll take exams like the SAT remains up in the air.)
“I hope that now that teachers, students, and parents are becoming more comfortable with online learning, these resources continue to be used when learning migrates back to the classroom.”
—Anna Moss, founder and lead educator, Mind the Test LLC
Moss’s webinars have attendees joining remotely from Delaware to South Africa. “Because it’s free and virtual, I can reach students who would not normally be able to access high-quality test preparation instruction,” she says.
Ultimately, educators like Boulton and Moss are of the opinion that the current circumstances—though far from ideal for many—may be a catalyst that brings about a long-overdue paradigm shift for education.
“I hope that now that teachers, students, and parents are becoming more comfortable with online learning, these resources continue to be used when learning migrates back to the classroom,” says Moss.
The Digital Divide
Not everyone, however, has access to online learning in the first place. School closures have highlighted just how deep the digital divide—evident not only in the nation but all around the globe—runs.
It’s truly a tale of two education systems: In one, kids are equipped with tablets loaded with pre-programmed apps, and teachers provide assignments and interactive instruction via online portals. On the other end of the spectrum, parents in rural or low-income areas that lack consistent WiFi access are struggling to figure out how to provide lunch—let alone laptops—for their children in the face of serious concerns about job security.
Adam Mogilevsky, a Teach for America alum and the lead humanities teacher at Ryan Banks Academy, a private school that provides tuition-free, donation-based education to at-risk students in Chicago, has seen the digital divide affect students throughout his career in education—but now, the issue is perhaps more pronounced than ever.
“If we stay unified as a front in this educational movement, we can ensure that kids are getting what they need.”
—Adam Mogilevsky, lead humanities teacher, Ryan Banks Academy
To transition to a virtual model, Ryan Banks Academy is relying on donated laptops, which they’ll deliver to families along with instructional resources; ultimately, the plan is to teach online for around four hours each day. The organization is also sending donor money directly to parents to help them pay for internet and other essential, everyday expenses.
Beyond hardware and digital resources, Mogilevsky says that Ryan Banks Academy is putting services in place to help families process the emotional toll of the situation. Such measures include access to video calls with a school counselor during designated independent work time, as well as a Facebook group accessible to all parents.
Despite the trying circumstances for teachers in Mogilevsky’s position, he stresses the importance of collaboration among educators for the sake of the children.
“There’s so much instability at the moment—I feel as if the only consistency that kids could have is education,” he says. “If we stay unified as a front in this educational movement, we can ensure that kids are getting what they need.”