The State of EdTech: What Happens Next?

Education, Technology, and Defining the Post-COVID “New Normal”

Beau Johnson
Oct 21, 2020 · 11 min read

The global impact of the Coronavirus is forcing almost every aspect of society to reexamine the orthodox and accepted operational mechanics of “business as usual.” The hesitancy and confusion in American schools is a living example of society fumbling to create a definite “new normal” while still coming to terms with the everyday consequences of losing the cultural structures of “business as usual.” There is no absolute “new normal” aside from the global reliance on technology.

Technology was used as a life raft during the initial wave of emergency pandemic closings in the Spring of 2020. Businesses and aspects of society with the fluency and funding have been able to adapt existing technology to video-conference their way into an approximation of life before COVID. In Education — especially K-12 schools — the combination of technology and classroom/learning dynamics has never been easy, but when forced together under pandemic pressures, the patchwork digital response has created a network of temporary supports that are straining under the current long term application. The emergency structures of the spring of 2020 have been thrust into the current academic year (2020–2021) and the results are creating disparities in the application of educational standards, recognition of learning styles, and the support of at-risk and special-needs populations. The continuing issues of access and privilege in education are more pronounced and obvious than ever before. Students are isolated and suffer from varying levels of trauma without access to familiar social interactions or behavioral health support. Teachers are dealing with the same issues in addition to the overwhelming wave of expectation, and presumed digital expertise that is being forced upon them. Beyond the truncated delivery of content, American education is failing to address the immediate and long-term effects of the technologically enhanced, ramshackle “new normal” but there is no better time to take the steps necessary to be proactive for defining the norms of the world that emerges from the pandemic chaos.

Schools are looking to technology for salvation, but the use of technology has led to a “seller’s market” of digital solutions with little insight or expertise in their practical application.

“…prominent experts have questioned reasons driving some individuals, organizations, and companies so eagerly towards providing guidance, pondering whether their motivation has been driven by market reasons. Others have noted the potential negative outcomes if educational technology quick fixes are implemented without balancing their consequences (Teräs et al, 2020).

The concept of digitally-enhanced learning also comes in a variety of proprietary flavors with no overall agreement on universal definitions of newly conventional terms like “blended learning,” “hybrid learning,” or even suddenly common place concepts like “asynchronous learning.” In the middle of this literal quagmire of intersecting and contradictory information sits the digital classroom that students need to actually use. The amount of research into the successes of “on-line” or “digital learning” mainly focuses on Higher Education. College campuses and graduate schools are far easier to examine given that these environments have been using Learning Management Systems for so long that they are mundane and expected aspects of Higher Education (Romero-Ivanova, 2020). These digital platforms are frameworks for administration, student assignment aggregation, and allow for multimedia resources to be shared by the instructors or other students. College campuses are also the pioneering spaces of various popular “on-line” learning formats that the K-12 realm is trying to mimic during the pandemic. The supposed success of collegiate on-line learning is what ed-tech companies are trying to sell to K-12 schools and schools are eager to buy. So eager are schools that they are “interpreting digital learning as self-evident” and as an “all-encompassing solution to the more profound problems of current mass education and institutionalized teaching and learning” (Teräs et al, 2020).

This lack of understanding as to the long term effects of distance learning on maturing students as well as the unforeseen impediments to the practical application of these hastily adopted technologies is what is creating new stressors for students and teachers as well as amplifying existing problems.

For Teachers, the transition to digital learning, as well as the back and forth of partial, or hybrid in-person learning caused by the politics surrounding the opening of schools creates a series of challenges that have an effect on the efficacy and depth of creating digital learning spaces. Leaving aside the fundamental infrastructure challenges facing schools, there are three major factors that K-12 classroom teachers are dealing with:

  1. Learning and applying the assortment of new technologies or digital tools.
  2. The instruction of students on the use of new technology and serving as technical support.
  3. The disconnect of social learning and student interaction that is the foundation of American schooling and education in general.

These issues are in addition to the standard lesson planning and teaching responsibilities, all of which are also affected by the adaptation to the digital plane. New digital responsibilities reflect skill sets beyond the expertise or practical knowledge of a great percentage of teachers and the presumption of their expertise leads to longer, more stressful work hours (McGuigan, 2020)(Dorn et al, 2020). The use of new, and often unfamiliar platforms has lead to a truncated, and over simplified instruction of content created by the limitations of the digital tools, the lack of infrastructure/support, and simply by the overwhelming numbers of teachers who consistently report that they “were not prepared to teach online” (Middleton, 2020). Teachers were not trained for the emergency procedures of the spring of 2020 shutdown and from an operational level were not adequately prepared over the summer for the 2020–2021 school year nor are they supported in the current “new normal.” This is a fundamental issue that “unquestionably impacted teaching ability which in turn impacted student learning since teaching leads to learning and learning can inform teaching” (Middleton, 2020).

Based on the assumption that teaching is of varying quality, sometimes within the same subject at the same school, the concept of standardization needs to be significantly re-examined in light of the new digital landscape. Public Schools, for better or for worse, run on the basis of standardized assessment. Standardized tests reflect the required Common Core concepts, but rely on the intrinsic standardization of the expected procedures of a classroom and the routines of a school day as experienced by the students (Cornelius-White, 2007). The move to digital learning, even a hybrid model, creates a confluence of factors that add constant new disruptions to the teaching/learning relationship. This new dynamic is defined by altered expectations, new modalities of content delivery, lack of scaffolding or special-needs support, and a fundamental redefinition of what it means to be a student. Teachers may be learning to use new tools but students, who have been brought up in a semi-predictable system of expectations, are being asked to re-learn how to learn without true guidance or support. Technology is not helping to create an equal playing field. Students are being left behind, especially students who are traditionally marginalized.

Schools and communities that were already on the negative end of the achievement gap will be most affected by school shutdowns, and the inconsistent or lack of quality digital instruction. The impact of COVID on schools serving low-income and at-risk communities (urban and rural) is substantial and will lead to sociocultural issues far beyond the projected 2–4 year drop in standardized test scores (Middleton, 2020),

COVID-19 closures will probably increase high-school drop-out rates (currently 6.5 percent for Hispanic, 5.5 percent for black , and 3.9 percent for white students, respectively). The virus is disrupting many of the supports that can help vulnerable kids stay in school: academic engagement and achievement, strong relationships with caring adults, and supportive home environments. (Dorn, et al, 2020).

The factors that indicate student success need to be reevaluated as the use of digital media remains pervasive. Moreover, evaluations of the shortcomings and projected long term issues with digital media as the delivery system for K-12 content reflect concern not just for academic and quantifiable “success” but also for the socio-emotional state of the American student.

Teachers and parents are right to worry about the effects of the coronavirus on the psyche and continued social development of K-12 students. Not only are students processing the breadth of a global pandemic, but also the fundamental shift of the routines and expectations of their daily lives. Quarantined learning adds immediate distractions and obstacles to engagement whether it be a physical (hardware, bandwidth), the quality of the digital learning content, or the emotional response to lack of genuine social interaction,

In a 2020 rapid review of research in response to COVID-19, [reflected] a myriad of ways that quarantine was associated with psychological stress. This included feelings of exhaustion, isolation, anxiety, and low motivation to complete work. Furthermore, they found that many of these symptoms tended to persist even after quarantine had ended, suggesting a lingering impact. Longer periods of quarantine were associated with extended periods of lingering distress. While they found that it was common for most (if not all) people in quarantine to report increased levels of distress, this tended to be particularly true for people with direct exposure to a virus or lack of resources to meet basic needs (Naff, et all, 2020).

The mental health and behavioral issues that are developing due to prolonged quarantine as well as inconsistent cultural norms (opening/reopening of schools, political tension around the concept of schooling) are long term and will not be solved simply by the return to established norms (Cornelius-White, 2007). Now that students and schools are relying on technology for all educational interaction, it is a perfect time to explore how the emerging successful union of technology and behavioral health practices can be paired with current trends in soft-skills education (mindfulness, empathy, self-awareness).

Teaching and learning are continuing, but in ways that attempt to replicate the institutional school experience rather than take advantage of the digital landscape and redefine the academic exchange and evaluation of information. The logistics and expertise needed for teachers and students to fully move into a more holistic digital learning experience are inaccessible to most education programs right now, and education tech companies are circling this moment of crisis. As the COVID world is so culturally dependent on technology, the natural inclination to look to tech for even more answers is natural. Moreover, by looking to technology as a savior there is significant danger in perpetuating profit-driven, short-term digital solutions rather than investment in research for more adaptable, long-term reflective technology. Technologization, the concept of trying to “fix education with technology”, tends to favor the ed tech companies rather than the schools using it (Labaree, 2008). This is the “Silicon Valley Narrative”’,which puts the “focus on the technological aspects of adoption rather than the human and learning” (Weller 2015). In order for on-line learning, in any capacity, to be more successful it needs to be able to incorporate the psychological needs of students, facilitate more socialization, and allow for more genuine interaction with the content and the instructor (Naff et al, 2020) (Kizilcec et al, 2020) (Dorn et al, 2020).There also cannot be a impediment to content simply because of the limits of the digital delivery method. Moreover, there needs to be a significant advance in the research on how technology can be more adaptable in the post-Covid classroom based on the pitfalls and successes of current digital applications,

…the time of crisis is not the best moment for making long-term political plans and/or investments in educational technologies. What is needed instead is critical analysis of these matters (Teräs et al, 2020).

The mindset of on-line learning and the tools used to create digital learning environments needs to shift away from an immediate-use scenario and give credence to “a new paradigm” in which “the question of ‘what works?’ would be replaced with ‘what works, for whom, right here?’ (Naff et al, 2020).”

The only thing certain about the American education system is that the future is uncertain. The immediate effects of the coronavirus will continue to wreak havoc on the established educational norms of the past 100 years. The “New Normal” will continue to vacillate and shift in response to social requirements. The traditional stability of the American school day will continue to be usurped by Zoom meetings. This reality has changed the paradigm of learning and things are never going back to the previous modus operandi. After decades of failed attempts, technology is now ubiquitous in the classroom the way researchers and designers have envisioned. While Zoom may be replaced by some other, newer piece of technology, the forgone conclusion of Google Classroom becoming an educational standard is now set in stone. The continuing issue will be, how teachers and schools can more successfully integrate technology seamlessly into a holistic learning equation (Fisher & Frey, 2020)(Cornelius-White, 2007). While distance learning will never fade away, once in-person instruction becomes safe and the predominant method of instruction, the cobbled together assortment of links, on-line resources, and various apps strung together by the Google Classroom interface will no longer be tenable — nor should they be. Successful technology of the next generation of education must address the following:

  • Seamless integration by teachers and in student use.
  • Equity of accessibility regardless of infrastructure
  • Adaptable and iterative design reflective of changing tech and learning needs
  • Focus on long term learning use rather than ed tech profit
  • Radical improvement of design reflecting social, behavioral, and mental health needs of students.
  • Reduction of the Achievement Gap

In order for the technology to be successful, there needs to be a change in the way society approaches technology in the classroom (Fisher & Frey, 2020) .

  • Schools/Districts need to put a more significant emphasis on improved digital infrastructure so that technology can function and be integrated seamlessly.
  • Teacher education needs to focus on the use and adaptation of technology and digital resources so that content is never truncated or minimized.
  • Redefinition of learning standards and assessment that reflect the changing classroom.
  • Consistent research into the proactive utilization of technology in K-12 classrooms rather than reactive and evaluative research after the fact.
  • Application of technology for the behavioral and mental health of students and teachers.

The reality is that students have always been and will always be more literate in technology than educational institutions. However, the discrepancy between school and non-educational spheres needs to be diminished in recognition of the importance of the multi-modal literacies that students possess. Progress has been made over the past decade to include more digital literacy into education, but the COVID crisis has proven how limited those inroads are and exactly where the impediments to integration lie. Successful integration of new technology cannot happen now. There is enough upheaval in schools without further shaking the slight foundation of normalcy that the education community is clinging to. Rather, research and design needs to happen now so that the current digital fluency, no matter the reason behind it, is not lost and can be part of defining the “new normal” of the post-Covid world.

References

Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-centered teacher-student relationships are effective: A meta-analysis. Review of educational research, 77(1), 113–143

Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2020). COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. McKinsey & Company.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2020). 4 Steps for Powerful Distance Learning Experiences. Retrieved from https://smartbrief.com/original/2020/07/4-steps-powerful-distance-learning-experiences

Kizilcec, R. F., Reich, J., Yeomans, M., Dann, C., Brunskill, E., Lopez, G., … & Tingley, D. (2020). Scaling up behavioral science interventions in online education. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(26), 14900–14905.

Labaree, D. F. (2008). The winning ways of a losing strategy: Educationalizing social problems in the United States. Educational Theory, 58(4), 447–460.

McGuigan, M. (2020). Transitioning to Online Learning. Retrieved from https://www.csd.org/stories/transitioning-to-online-learning/)

Middleton, K. V. (2020). The Longer‐Term Impact of COVID‐19 on K–12 Student Learning and Assessment. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice.

Naff, D. B., Williams, S., Furman, J., & Lee, M. (2020). Supporting Student Mental Health During and After COVID-19.

Romero-Ivanova, C., Shaughnessy, M., Otto, L., Taylor, E., & Watson, E. (2020). Digital Practices & Applications in a COVID-19 Culture. Higher Education Studies, 10(3), 80–87.

Teräs, M., Suoranta, J., Teräs et al, H., & Curcher, M. (2020). Post-Covid-19 education and education technology ‘solutionism’: A seller’s market. Postdigital Science and Education, 1–16.

Weller, M. (2015). MOOCs and the Silicon Valley narrative. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2015(1), 1–7.

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