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What Makes Effective and Equitable Online Education?

Drawing from ed-tech leaders’ insights, a Georgia State University report said ed-tech tools should be developed and viewed largely as a means to bolster traditional instructional methods rather than replacing them.

Middle-aged distance teacher having video conference call with pupil using webcam. Online education and e-learning concept. Home quarantine distance learning and working from home.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators in both K-12 and higher education are turning more and more toward digital learning platforms.

But when are those tools effective? And how can those educators make sure online learning is inclusive and accessible?

Noting the challenge, Kathryn McCarthy, an assistant professor at Georgia State University’s College of Education and Human Development, and Scott Crossley, a professor in the college’s Department of Learning Sciences, recently released a report outlining barriers to online education and ways to make online learning tools work for underserved student populations.

According to a GSU announcement, the research identified the need to develop online learning tools that enhance instruction rather than replace in-person learning altogether, as well as designing online learning lessons with diversity and representation in mind. The report also recommended reviewing AI algorithms to check for biases, in addition to efforts to close the digital divide for students with less access to devices and Internet access or digital know-how.

The report, recently published in Technology, Mind and Behavior, was the result of a series of discussions funded by the National Science Foundation between ed-tech leaders and educators during the pandemic, according to McCarthy.

“One of the things that came out of this is that we really need more intentional and long-term collaborations across all of those people — the tech builders, researchers and the actual users, teachers and students, largely because technologies need to be co-designed by the people using them. Having these conversations makes sure that these tools are reaching the most people and are effective,” she told Government Technology, adding that other similar discussions are taking place elsewhere between education stakeholders.

Noting the “inherent limitations” to fully remote, online learning modalities similar to when the first school and university closures took place in 2020, McCarthy said online education tools should be used largely to enhance instruction and as part of larger strategies to boost engagement and performance across underserved student groups, rather than as a complete replacement for traditional instruction.

She added that ed-tech developers and educators should find a balance between considering what’s most effective purely from a cognitive learning research standpoint and weighing whether a tool offers content that’s immersive and engaging to students to address challenges such as learning loss during COVID-19.

“A lot of designers are doing a much better job about that balance, in part from working with teachers and students and in part from working with researchers,” she said, noting that many ed-tech tools used just two years ago were less sophisticated.

“Many learning activities that we know work involve things like writing and critical thinking, and one of the cool things we talked about a lot is that there’s a lot of new AI and natural language processing technologies online now that make it possible to deliver more engaging, active and effective learning activities at scale and quickly.”

McCarthy noted that ed-tech tools using AI for a variety of functions such as grading and providing feedback should take extra care to mitigate biases and help to make content more inclusive and representative generally. She said the next step is to find ways to use tech to improve learning rather than focusing on how to make it less of a liability or adopting programs primarily designed for facilitating remote learning.

“Mitigating bias is important, but I think what came from our discussions was thinking about how technology can be used not only to do our best to get rid of those problems but to be agents of change and find ways to promote equity. It’s important to have representation [in tech development and content], and it’s important to think about students’ assets and finding ways of using technology to support them so you reach a variety of learners.”

“The next frontier for us is making sure we’re providing [ed-tech] professional development and transparency about the way the AI works to teachers and students, so there’s less hesitancy about using them,” she added.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.