While technology supplied educators with a lifeboat of sorts during the worst of the pandemic, it didn’t prevent them from being swamped. They were able to connect with students learning remotely, via collaborative platforms like Zoom. They could not, however, fully engage them. The remove was too great, the divide too pronounced.
The lesson? Technology should be part of every educator’s toolbox, but it’s not the entire thing. It’s just one more device, one more means to an end. But the value of a face-to-face connection cannot be understated.
I saw this for myself while serving as superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools. Like so many districts, we were left scrambling after the pandemic hit the U.S. in the early days of March 2020, but in time we had a plan and a direction. To enable remote learning, we set out that summer to supply a laptop to every student who was without one, as was the case, sadly, with upwards of 65 percent of those enrolled.
We also trained our teachers for remote instruction, though there were many challenges, not the least of which was that our students were allowed by our school board to turn off their web cameras during class, the thinking being that it might reveal home or family circumstances that should remain private.
Unfortunately, this also availed to some students the opportunity to disengage, an opportunity that would not be available in an in-person setting.
Going forward, then, it is essential that a balance be struck between the personal and the technological. Tech certainly has its place; that’s evident by the fact that the global educational technology market, valued at $25.8 billion in 2021, is expected to mushroom to $67.1 billion by 2027. It is incumbent upon educators to know how, when and where to use tech in order to maximize its impact.
As Brian Fish, an English teacher at Rancho Verde High School in California, told Ed Tech Magazine in December 2021, “Nothing can replace a teacher. However, technology can expand teaching.”
That piece went on to cite an Absolute Software survey showing that between January and May 2020 – i.e., when the pandemic first hit the U.S. – the use of remote management apps rose by 87 percent, while the use of collaboration apps shot up by a staggering 141 percent.
A subsequent Ed Tech piece pointed to research by LearnPlatform showing that U.S. school districts of more than 1,000 students accessed, on average, 1,449 online tech products each month during the 2020-21 school year. That resulted in burnout, and this assertion by Ed Tech:
Educators and IT administrators in K-12 need to integrate technology in ways that are meaningful and intentional, and all users are looking for technology that makes their lives easier. No longer dazzled by shiny, new ed tech, educators are seeking tools and learning models that are as impactful as they are sustainable. These technologies are trending because of how they improve the educational experience for students, teachers and IT leaders.
In the future, there should be a focus on AI-backed technology like digital voice assistants, which enhance communications and individualized learning while aiding teachers’ time management and classroom management. There should be a continuing emphasis on cloud-based technologies like Software as a Service (SaaS), which aided collaboration during the height of the pandemic, and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), which has become that much more essential as schools’ need to support more devices skyrockets.
Additionally, there needs to be increased attention to cybersecurity, given the heightened vulnerability resulting from so many educators and students being logged into various devices, so much of the time.
The advantages of continuing to incorporate tech into education are many. A survey of over 1,000 schools by the Institute of Education Sciences covering the COVID-interrupted 2019-20 school year indicated as much. Forty-one percent of the respondents believed tech enabled active learning, while 33 percent asserted that it enabled students to be more independent and 27 percent believed that it fostered critical thinking.
Beyond that, tech expands the career horizons not only of disabled students, but also those involved in STEM programs. The latter is particularly critical, given the fact that there are expected to be 11 percent more STEM-centered jobs by 2030 than there are today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the bottom line remains this: The human element matters. The personal touch matters. Machines, while obviously beneficial, can only do so much. Educators, fully cognizant of that fact, must always put their best foot forward, while making the best use of all the tools available to them.