Technology—and particularly innovative advances of the last decade—are the only way schools will “reopen” for the coming school year.
But while technology might be the solution, it is not the answer. I wish it were. I’m a big believer in the power of technology to solve problems and make the world a better place. But I stop short of giving it magical powers—particularly the power to make everything OK.
Everything is not OK in the COVID-19 era and it won’t be OK for a long time. We are still in the heart of a deadly pandemic, one killing thousands a day while disrupting every aspect of life—including education.
Technology can go a long way toward providing the instruction our kids need to maintain their intellectual development and to become vital citizens. Online classes, livestream and videotaped lessons, e-textbooks, gamified learning tools, collaboration software, online curriculum and resources and teleconferencing can take the place of many of the traditional aspects of attending a brick-and-mortar school.
But technology can’t go all the way to reopening education for all. When considering the role of tech in enabling education in the midst of a pandemic, it’s best to keep four things in mind.
First, whatever K–12 school looks like in 2020–21, it’s going to look very little like it did at the beginning of the 2019–20 year. Despite the urging of the Trump Administration and even the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all schools open full-time, a significant number of school districts announced they would not open school buildings to start the year.
In California, Governor Gavin Newsom imposed rules that meant schools in 30-plus counties—home to 35.5 million residents—would not be allowed to open classrooms. Other districts have adopted hybrid models—inviting some students back while others learn from home or bringing in shifts of students for instruction on different days of the week and deploying remote learning on other days.
Never mind preliminary evidence that children younger than 10 are less likely than adults to contract the virus, spread the virus, become severely ill from, or die from the virus. Traditional schools are also filled with teachers, staff members and plenty of students who are 10 and older. And finally, even the encouraging study about children and the virus didn’t conclude that there is no transmission from younger kids.
That said, remote learning is bound to be a big part of how kids learn in the coming school year.
Second, the heavy reliance on digital learning means that poor children, including a disproportionate number of children of color, will be victims of a widening achievement gap. The digital divide is real—both when you look at who has the necessary hardware and software to learn and when you look at who has a strong at-home support system in terms of technology know-how.
A survey of 2,000 students by nonprofit Youth Truth found that 23 percent of African American students had limited or no access to a computer. For Latino students, the number was 20 percent. In comparison, 15 percent of Asian students and 7 percent of white students said they had limited or no access to computers.
In the tech capital of Silicon Valley, the numbers are also dire, according to the Mercury News of San Jose, CA. In San Jose, 95,000 residents don’t have broadband access, including 47 percent of Black families and 36 percent of Latino families, the San Jose Digital Inclusion Fund reported, citing a City of San Jose and Stanford University study. Furthermore, 14,000 of 36,000 students in San Jose do not have sufficient digital resources for education purposes, the San Jose Mayor’s Office reports.
Various efforts are underway to see to it that students have the technology they need to learn remotely. But again, it’s a patchwork approach, being carried out by well-meaning and underfunded governments and nonprofits. And frankly, history gives us no reason for optimism.
When did you first hear of the digital divide and efforts to bridge it? I first recall writing about the tech gap between the haves and the have-nots when Bill Clinton was president. And it turns out, the divide is deeper than just who has the hardware and software and who doesn’t. It also includes who has the know-how and mentors to put the hardware and software to use to foster online learning, as the Connected Learning Alliance convincingly demonstrated seven years ago. So, since the Clinton presidency (1992–2000) and even in the past seven years—how far have we gotten?
The point has been made many times that the pandemic is serving as an accelerator in many ways. Telehealth is taking off. E-commerce is growing at a pace that has propelled digital commerce ahead by a few, if not several, years. Unfortunately, it appears it is also accelerating the achievement gap, or certainly reversing progress that has been made.
Third, educational efforts this year are going to be a patchwork and are likely to vary widely in terms of quality, efficiency, and effectiveness. The US pandemic response has lacked a centralized strategy since the beginning, whether it’s testing, distribution of personal protective equipment, or requirements for social distancing and face covers.
Education, by design, is fragmented with local school districts responsible for their budgets and many key decisions. In 2011, there were more than 13,000 public school districts in the United States, the most recent figure available from the National Center for Education Statistics.
The guidance on the pandemic from state and federal officials have been confusing and contradictory.
"It is critically important for our public health to open schools this fall," CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said in a statement announcing revised guidance from the government, according to CNN. "School closures have disrupted normal ways of life for children and parents, and they have had negative health consequences on our youth. CDC is prepared to work with K–12 schools to safely reopen while protecting the most vulnerable."
Despite the plea for schools to open, the CDC’s new guidelines do say that schools should consider closing if COVID-19 continues to spread through the community in which the school is located. You’d be forgiven for thinking the CDC is saying schools should open, unless they should shut down.
Fourth, technology can go a long way to enabling meaningful education for students this year, but it can’t go all the way. To do that, we need humans. No doubt most of us understood that on some level, before the world, including schools, shutdown in March. But we know it much better now.
“I think what parents realized was that the promise of online learning requires a lot more intervention than they thought,” says Muhammed Chaudhry, who led the Silicon Valley Education Foundation for 16 years. “Parents are realizing the value of teachers. Parents need to take control of their child's education if you don’t want to experience learning loss.”
It’s not what parents want to hear after spending the last three months of the 2019–20 school year acting as homeschool teacher, while working a job (if they were lucky) and carrying on other family responsibilities under unprecedented conditions.
And let’s face it: Last spring’s online learning experiment in districts across the country does not inspire confidence. The rapid spread of the global pandemic created an abrupt end to in-school learning, which resulted in a school year that ended in semi-chaos. Teachers raced to roundup supplies to send home with kids to keep the learning going. They scrambled to learn new tech skills and revise lesson plans. They worked on scheduling and coordinating remote class time.
Parents had little time to prepare for their enhanced roles at home, which at least fostered some empathy for teachers—an empathy that is far from boundless.
“I forgave them for the spring,” Martin Rauchwerk, whose son attends high school in San Jose, told the city’s Mercury News. “But I’m not going to forgive them for the fall.”
So where does all this leave us—and where does it leave the role of technology in education?
Unfortunately, I have not heard or read anything that gives me much hope for the fall semester, or even the upcoming school year. And maybe that’s where we should start.
This school year is not going to be normal—not anything close. We should resign ourselves to the reality that students are not likely to get the education they need. The goal should be to stem or minimize the learning loss that K–12 students are almost certainly going to suffer. And we should think about doing that largely through online instruction for the foreseeable future.
Even schools planning in-school instruction and hybrid methods, should develop robust online programs. Unfortunately, there is no assurance that in-school plans won’t be interrupted by a COVID-19 outbreak.
Moreover, online instruction gives students and teachers the best way to deliver and receive education without getting sick. In fact, in key ways kids learn better by digital means, according to the World Economic Forum. That doesn’t, of course, ease the concerns of health experts who point out some students receive nutrition and mental health counseling through their schools. For them, remote learning comes with serious disadvantages.
For those students who rely on attending a brick-and-mortar school to stay physically or mentally healthy, Shardha Jogee, a University of Texas astronomy professor, has an innovative idea that makes a lot of sense. Writing in the New York Times, Jogee suggested school districts provide SCOLs, or safe centers for online learning.
SCOLs would be located in school buildings or in large venues, such as arenas, convention centers, theaters, and other buildings sitting unused due to the pandemic. Students would attend a SCOL to use a safe study space and laptop provided there. SCOLs could be staffed by college and graduate students who could provide guidance and help to supplement the online lectures given by the district’s professional teachers. Presumably, the college and graduate students would be less likely than older teachers to become extremely ill if infected with the coronavirus.
SCOLs would also be the place where students could go for subsidized or free meals and for counseling services among other things. In short, SCOLs could provide the human energy and guidance that Chaudhry talks about, the guidance students need to make online learning a success.
“Technology is going to play a big role,” Chaudhry says. “But again, it’s not a matter of, ‘Here is a tool. Go use it and you will learn.’ You have to have a package.”
That package includes human help and additional materials that make learning come alive. Chaudhry uses the example of an online lecture that teaches a student how an electric car or another sophisticated piece of technology works.
“You can give a lecture,” he says, considering a student’s perspective, “but you need to give me something at home, like a small motherboard that I can play with.”
No doubt, educating our children during the many months it will take to develop and distribute a reliable vaccine will require wide use of technology, but it will take innovation in other areas, too.
Chaudhry rattled off a number of ed tech companies, including some he works with or advises, including Horizon Education, Noon Academy, Wall Family Enterprises and its brands like Demco and Hatch. There are a long list of other companies and products that could play a role, including Zoom, Teams, Hangouts, Facebook, Schoology, Chromebooks, CK-12, Khan Academy, the Exposure Notification System, and many others.
“Do I need an institution anymore?” Chaudhry asks. “Or can I make my own classroom?”
He sees a world where a master teacher uses live video lectures to teach a hundred students in different locations at a time. The students break into smaller groups with other subject experts for more intense discussions. Teaching assistants use technology to monitor students’ progress and understanding, seeing where different individuals are struggling and excelling.
Why not have an Amazon-like system, or Amazon itself deliver lessons, supplemental tools and materials—or even lessons themselves?
This is no time to be timid with ideas or to fail to act for fear of failure.
Again, these innovative tools and ideas won’t assemble themselves into an answer to our pandemic education problem. Some of the challenges we face are age-old and only amplified by the spread of COVID-19.
But they do provide smart people with good hearts the building blocks they need to provide the best possible education for the greatest number of students in a time of unprecedented obstacles.