Boston College High School recently invested over $1 million in ed tech. The school is just one of many pouring funds into a digital learning market experiencing exponential growth.
The global ed tech market experienced notable growth before the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching $18.66 billion USD in 2019, according to the research firm Metaari. That growth is expected to continue after the public health crisis.
The total online education market is now projected to reach up to $350 billion by 2025 as institutions scramble to equip students with devices and Internet access for video conferencing and virtual learning platforms like Canvas. While much of this growth is coming from public schools and state universities, private institutions have adjusted to remote learning as well.
Over the past nine months, Boston College High School administrators have invested more than $1.3 million in ed tech, much of which they say will enhance in-person learning beyond the pandemic.
The private Catholic boys’ school has upgraded nearly 80 of its classrooms with Zoom Room technology, including cameras and microphones for students on campus and at home, and invested in third-party applications such as Google Workspace and Turnitin.
According to Chief Information Officer Jennifer McLarnon, these upgrades have improved synchronous learning since students resumed their courses under a hybrid model in September.
Before the pandemic, much of the school’s coursework was distributed digitally using iPads through its 1:1 program, according to BC High's website. Students unable to afford a device can get one through the school's loaner program.
"We have spent a great deal of time laying the foundation for digital transformation," she noted. "We've also created and nurtured a resource of valuable partnerships with parents, community members and vendor partners from which to draw support and expertise."
Funding ed tech is one thing, but utilizing it effectively is another challenge entirely. Like many public and private schools, BC High is now using Canvas as its learning management system along with other tools new to many students and staff. McLarnon said training for both students and teachers has been essential to effective implementation of new hardware, applications and network configurations.
“It was also necessary to learn from setbacks and to adapt as quickly as possible,” McLarnon said. “We were also limited by the time we had to deploy new technology, classroom upgrades, and we were limited in terms of time we could train teachers. … There was an increased sense of urgency."
McLarnon said instructors have since leveraged Canvas and other classroom apps in ways that were "almost unimaginable" for a student body of about 1,400. That, she said, took some adjusting.
“Early on in the pandemic last spring, we tried to be available at all hours of the day and evening to accommodate the various schedules and demands of our faculty, staff and students,” she said. “We needed to be available to support them, in order to support teaching and learning and to earn their trust.”
McLarnon said closing the digital divide and using ed-tech tools effectively will require flexibility and "measured risks," noting that BC High had an advantage over some public schools that are bound by red tape. The need to rapidly adopt new learning models in light of school closures, she said, could encourage policymakers and educators to assess which tools and organizational structures are more restrictive than helpful.
"Perhaps we will implement change that will give more control back to public-school principals, local towns and cut the bureaucracy and red tape that stymies progress," she said.
To officials like McLarnon and others at BC High, there's no doubt the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation. In the coming years, McLarnon said, students in both private and public institutions may see blended learning, cross-school registration consortiums and a move to digital, 3D and augmented-reality science labs.
However, several global education policy analysts say ed tech alone will not improve learning. According to the American Psychological Association, 15 to 20 percent of students needed some sort of mental health support before the pandemic. With many students isolated from friends, educators and in-person resources available in schools, this percentage could grow in the months and years ahead.
BC High Principal Adam Lewis said the COVID-19 pandemic created a sense of dislocation and disconnection for many students and educators, and their ability to stay connected has been crucial. Access to school resources is also particularly important to the 50 percent of students attending the school on merit- and need-based programs.
"The whole concept of 'relationship' has shifted," he said. "We have had to fight, now more than ever, for our relationships with each other, and particularly with our students."
Because of this, McLarnon hopes ed tech will make learning more immersive rather than replace in-person instruction. She said the public health crisis has highlighted students' need for human connection and face-to-face guidance.
“Yes, virtual learning ... is another great tool for our ed tech toolkit,” McLarnon said. “But it’s no substitute for human connection and the learning and formation that happens in schools.”
Never miss a story with the daily Govtech Today Newsletter.