Educational Technology Is Important and COVID Proves It
With coronavirus closing schools, an educational software trainer says the need for effective classroom technology has never been more important.
When I was a classroom teacher, I was set up to fail. I didn’t know this when I arrived at my Los Angeles middle school ready to change the world. But once I realized how distinct each of my hundred students was, I saw the futility of my instructional efforts.
Some kids only spoke Spanish, Thai or Wolof. Most read below grade-level expectations. Several had severe learning disabilities. How could I possibly reach each student’s needs during a 90-minute period with 35 learners?
Alone, I couldn’t. With technology’s assistance, I could have. This is why the coronavirus might be the catalyst we need to improve learning outcomes. As this pandemic closes schools and pushes them to online learning, educators are poised to embrace the power of personalized instruction that only technology can provide.
The Benefits of Technology in Education
Despite the fact that we continue to rely on it, group teaching's efficacy is limited. You may remember being a bored student who had to sit through your teachers’ explanations of concepts you had already mastered. Or perhaps your classes went too fast, and as a result, there are still gaps in your knowledge today. Technology solves these problems. Adaptive products can adjust practice and teaching based on a student’s level. Machine learning can score and correct kids’ work to give them immediate feedback. Browser extensions can read texts aloud and translate them, while analytics can track performance and progress. These resources only help, however, if educators are willing and able to use them.
As problematic as coronavirus-caused school closures are, they’re offering a valuable reset moment for education. We’re being forced to reconsider how technology can support learning—and to give it a chance to do so.
After I stopped teaching, I became an educational software trainer, instructing teachers on using the new products that their districts purchased. I rarely got a warm welcome. When I first saw the adaptive test tool, which I would train teachers to use, I was shocked by its power. It would have saved me hundreds of hours and made my teaching time more meaningful. I couldn’t understand why so many of the educators I was teaching were disinterested in it.
Why Teachers Are Apprehensive About the Use of Technology in Education
I now know there are many good reasons that teachers resist new education technology. In some cases, they’re told they have to use something that they haven’t vetted or bought into. They’re also often overwhelmed with all the material they’re supposed to be cramming into each class. It might feel like there’s no time to master a new tool, even if it promises to save time in the long run. In addition, veteran teachers who have been in the classroom for decades may be uncomfortable with unfamiliar technology, and teachers of all ages have the very human instinct to resist change. They’re used to teaching a certain way and think, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The problem is, for many students, “it”—the way we expect kids to learn—isn’t working.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only about one-third of eighth-graders reach reading proficiency. The numbers aren’t much better in high school, and math performance is equally abysmal—NAEP reports that just 34 percent of eighth-graders reach proficiency in this subject. Literacy and mathematics, the foundations of education, are in need of a fresh approach.
It’s not that teachers aren’t doing a good job. My middle school colleagues worked harder than those I’ve encountered at investment banks and tech startups. But the bankers and executives have the tools they need to be successful. There are time and money to implement the best technology to support them. Teachers do great work, but their positive impacts are limited by the resources in place to bolster their efforts.
Teachers Are Just as Important to Education as Technology
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, educators have relied on educational technology tools to run their classrooms. When I was teaching, I used an online system to take attendance. This saved time and cut paperwork. But it probably didn’t impact learning. Research from the Brookings Institute confirms that adding technology doesn’t ensure learning or student growth. Digital programs have to meet the challenge before them. Just putting old-school worksheets into a shiny new online format cuts grading time but changes little else.
Educators are aware of the distinction between online worksheets and high-quality digital instructional tools. But they may not have felt an urgency to regularly implement the latter until schools began shutting down. At the ed-tech company where I currently work, teachers from closed schools around the globe are reaching out for help. They don’t want a digital stand-in for worksheets. They’re asking for a digital stand-in for themselves.
I recently heard a venture capitalist discussing the future of education. He presented a few possible scenarios, noting that he favored the one in which tech fully replaces teachers. This setup would leave students undersocialized and lonely, to say the least. After years in the classroom and building ed-tech, I see the power and limitations of on- and offline learning. Education’s ideal future embodies both.
The current distance-learning trend may mean that this future will be here soon. It’s about time. As President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed more than half a century ago, “If we can use our technology of electronics to defend freedom and keep peace, we can apply this great technology to open new horizons for young people.”