Edtech’s Pandemic-precipitated, Glorious, Silver-lining Moment in the Spotlight

Some contextualization of the current #remotelearning situation.

PERSPECTIVE | by Mark Gura

For those who follow Education, this has been a remarkable, beyond one’s wildest imaginings, week. 

Not only has the unthinkable happened, a sober-minded response to the Covid-19 Pandemic threat by closing a great percentage of our schools, but also the remarkable, dark-horse emergence of edtech as the ‘hero of the moment.’ 

Educational Technology (or, “edtech”), an ongoing interest in and appreciation for applying the power of emerging digital technologies to the needs of teaching and learning, is a movement whose acknowledgement has increased steadily, but often painfully slowly for over a quarter century. For me, someone who’s been involved in advocating for the field of education to properly understand and appropriately take advantage of the awesome advantages it offers, the events of the past week are startling, encouraging, and well—jaw dropping.

This is, after all, an area of serious educational innovation that at times has been maligned, very frequently (mis)understood, and to this day, often avoided by educators who really ought to know better.

But this week?

Well, it appears that from now on, that was edtech’s former history. Chronicling all of the developments of the past seven days would require a book, but let me tick off a few of the happening that have moved me greatly:

The Instant Conclusion to Go Online

By now, the cast of characters who have called for online, distance learning as the approach to providing essential continuity to the education of countless millions of students who would lose contact with their face to face teachers and momentum in the school year’s effort, runs the gamut from elementary school principals to the President of the United States. 

That this solution to the necessary, but unthinkably grim action taken, presented itself as  unilaterally right to so many so quickly—speaks volumes about the power and viability of online educational experiences. 

A Rising to the Occasion

An astounding Rising to the Occasion from both edtech resource providers and colleagues ready to pitch in and make it work—but how do we do this?

Across social media, by now, I’ve seen a seemingly endless stream of offers of colleague to colleague support—how to set up platforms for virtual classes; which digital content resources are available and how to use them; how to distribute, collect, and give feedback for assignments, and on and on. 

Similarly, the edtech provider sector has shown extraordinary civic generosity with a very visible outreach in offering free access to resources, many of which ordinarily require payment. 

Teachers Taking on the Challenge 

An unexpected wave of enthusiasm to take on the challenge of switching from face-to-face to online instruction expressed by teachers, some of them quite inexperienced, to jump into unfamiliar waters for the benefit of their students and I suspect, to take on something new and exciting. 

Some Careful Considerations

And, of course, in all of this there are some downside considerations to weigh. An under-current of concern about the equity issue, “What about those kids who don’t have computers and Wi-Fi at home?”

True, they can’t be served this way and their more fortunate peers can. This is an important factor to acknowledge, but no, it doesn’t invalidate turning to distance online instruction as the logical solution to opt for in such a crisis.

On the contrary, it gives us clarity about what’s truly essential in our peoples’ lives and brings us to elevating the status of connectedness to that of high priority.

And perhaps we’ve got it backward; perhaps, instead of ‘do kids home have Wi-Fi at home to support them with their learning, we should see the presence of young students in a household as reason to provide some sort of subsidy to ensure it’s there. But, yes, this is a deep conversation for another day. Not to mention another major issue deserving of deep conversation: student data privacy.

One More Thing

One more, and granted this is no time for “I-told-you-so’s”. Clearly, edtech was not developed as a disaster alleviation resource. The purpose of digital resources in our schools is to improve and expand teaching and learning. It turns out though, that in a very large way, the resources acquired to do that and the skills sets required to make that happen are the same as those in play now in switching to online instruction. More forward thinking schools and districts that have gotten themselves up to speed to take advantage of the deep benefits to learning that tech can provide have a much easier time in making the switch.

Furthermore, in view of subsidies like e-rate for getting schools online; of the emergence of low cost, connected devices; of the preponderance of free, open source instructional resources; and of the emergence of digital resources that are the equivalent, although in many ways superior in capability, of traditional, hard copy items…

In view of all this, one simply must wonder, “What is the most salient reason for schools to have resisted the Digital Shift if not lack of understanding and vision and the will to make an important change? It looks like Someday has shown up, pounding on the schoolhouse door, demanding to be let in—Today!

Have we just had an instant karma reality check for where schools are at, in terms of their technology adoption and integration into school culture? Whatever a particular school or district’s history, though, this is the moment to put that behind, and move forward. This crisis is proving to be an equalizing event that’s catapulting stragglers forward and getting the field on a more equal footing.

And A Final Thought

My final thought is a rosy one, I imagine that in the experience of a great many educators this week there’s been a mountain of pleasant “ah ha’s.”  Those who’ve been lingering on the sidelines—wondering, hesitating, and opting to remain in the Comfort Zone of traditional, hard-copy instruction—have likely been suddenly thrust into understanding that digital resources for education are developed with user friendliness and high relevance and alignment to non-negotiable needs of teaching and learning in mind.

By the time this particular crisis recedes and schools return to business as usual, all of this sudden death involvement with technology will have produced a good number of converts ready to build on a new relationship to edtech and move forward. Once you’ve seen the greener, other side of things, you really can’t go back to your former ways. In that sense, a reinvigorated relationship between Education and edtech may be the great silver lining of COVID-19.

Mark Gura is Editor-at-Large for EdTech Digest and author of The Edtech Advocate’s Guide to Leading Change in Schools (ISTE), and co-author of State of EdTech: The Minds Behind What’s Now and What’s Next. He taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. He spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, assisting over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system. In addition to his role at EdTech Digest, he is currently a professor at Touro College

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