This article was first published as part of a global conversation on the future of teaching.
The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a well-documented spotlight on inadequate systems and infrastructure in education. Across the U.S., for example, student engagement has plummeted (Herold and Yettick Kurtz, 2020) as schools and districts navigate the transition to remote learning. Students who lack reliable internet access or necessary devices are all but unable to learn (Herold, 2020). Even for those who do have access, a persistent digital use divide (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.) means that many students are using technology simply to replicate pen-and-paper models of education (e.g., digital worksheets or online multiple-choice tests). A growing body of evidence suggests that the students who already used technology before the pandemic (Molner, 2020) are continuing to do so – while their peers continue to fall further behind.
But while COVID-19 has, in many ways, highlighted and exacerbated these issues, it didn’t create them. The pandemic is illuminating the impact of challenges that have existed for years, and that have contributed to widening achievement gaps despite the efforts of educators and policymakers. Today, we face an unsolicited and unprecedented pressure-test of the American education system. And ironically enough, that might be a good thing. The way the crisis has shed light on weaknesses in our system may be the very forcing function that education in the U.S. has sorely needed.
As much as COVID-19 has taught us a lot about our shortcomings, it has also shown us the types of paths that can lead us to a better place. States like Utah, which have invested in helping educators use technology more effectively (Soo Song, 2020), have had an easier time transitioning to a new and unexpected model. And similar bellwether examples have emerged at the local level. In Los Angeles, the second-largest public school system in the United States, district leaders began developing resources to support learning with technology long before schools closed in March. Because they had already developed an extensive range of professional learning offerings and had trained educational technology coaches as well as a clear set of standards for effective digital learning, the district was able to quickly provide their teachers with the supports they needed to transition to online learning.
Unfortunately, relatively few states have made similar investments in making sure their educators know how to use technology effectively – even though those investments may be the single greatest factor for ensuring equity and continuity of learning during COVID-19. Instead, most of the state technology investments have historically gone towards hardware and software.
Over the past five years, the country has spent over five billion dollars on Wi-Fi connectivity alone for K-12 schools. School districts collectively spend an additional 13 billion per year on hundreds of educational technology tools and products. These investments in infrastructure -driven in part by states as they adopted online assessments – are, of course, critical to the effectiveness of any technology-enabled learning. But many states have not made similar investments in preparing educators on the effective use of this technology for purposes beyond delivering online testing.
Currently, education leaders have an opportunity, and responsibility, to address professional learning gaps around the effective use of technology. As we head back to school this autumn in a hybrid format, we cannot afford to be as haphazard with our teacher supports as we were this spring. And even after we have returned to the classroom, the skills of using technology to enhance collaboration or bring virtual experts into the classroom are here to stay. This isn’t about training educators on how to use a specific tool, like Zoom or Google Docs – it’s about providing a foundational understanding of research-based practices for using technology as a tool for transforming teaching and learning.
Here are three tips to help education leaders invest in digital learning capacity-building.
Ground it in research. Evidence suggests that the way technology is used in schools has a direct impact on how well students learn the digital skills that are required for success in today’s economy (Olszewski and Crompton, 2020). Fortunately, there is already a robust research base for the most effective strategies to build and scale best practices in technology use. The International Society for Technology in Education’s (ISTE) standards for students, educators and leaders, which lay out the critical elements needed for effective use of technology for learning, provide one such blueprint that can help state leaders plan for effective educator training and capacity-building.
Set goals and measure them. Good technology-focused professional development depends, in no small part, on recognising and incentivising teachers who learn to use technology effectively. Consider the case of Wyoming, which used federal funds levied under the ‘Every Student Succeeds Act’ (ESSA) to enroll 100 educators in ISTE’s certification program. The state now allows that certification to count toward teachers’ professional learning credits, ensuring that educators who participate in the training are recognised for their work. In the words of state superintendent Jillian Balow, ‘Educator capacity has implications for equity. When properly trained, educators can empower students through technology to have agency in their learning.’
Put your money where your mouth is. The set-aside funding under the CARES Act (and future relief packages) creates a unique opportunity for states to fund these types of capacity-building programs. In a letter to Congress earlier this month, we were proud to join a diverse cross-section of organizations in calling for at least 2.13 billion dollars in support of professional learning.
In April, the author Arundhati Roy (2020) wrote that like pandemics of the past, this one will ‘[force] humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.’ This point resonates especially strongly in the education community. For too long, we have disproportionately invested in tech infrastructure over the technology skills of our teachers. In the months and years to come, will we continue to ignore the needs of our teachers? Or can we invest in ensuring that America’s educators are ready to thrive in an increasingly digital world of the future?