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Lessons from Remote Learning, Part 2: Post-Pandemic Challenges

In the second of a two-part series, career school technologist Kipp Bentley considers challenges that lie ahead for ed tech, including the need to manage screen time, make change equitable and teach media literacy.

Last month I wrote an article about some of the important ways ed tech succeeded during the COVID-19 pandemic. These wins included schools’ one-to-one laptop programs, video-conferencing solutions, improved school communications with parents and teachers’ increased expertise in using a range of ed-tech tools and resources.

But even as ed tech grew unlike any time in its 30-plus-year history, there remain a number of significant challenges, both old and new, that need to be addressed for its continued evolution as a viable resource for educators, students and families — and further, for ed tech to take advantage of what’s been accomplished over this difficult time and leverage it for further educational advancements.

Internet Connectivity. This was challenge No. 1 for schools after they issued laptops to students for remote learning, and it remains so today. The pandemic shined a bright light on the need for nationwide broadband access for all families, and schools and their communities came together to find some ways to address the issue. Additionally, through various federal stimulus funds and state programs, money has been made available to help resolve the problem. But it’s going to be a long, hard slog to make broadband ubiquitous across the country, and for it to be seen as an essential utility like electricity and water.

Ongoing Funding. Billions in one-time funding have been allocated to schools to help cover their pandemic-created needs, with a hefty chunk earmarked for ed tech. But funding cliffs loom, and once the money is gone, schools will need to find the means to continue supporting the programs and resources they purchased, or else let them fall by the wayside. Some shortsighted people may contend that school-purchased student laptops are no longer essential, but what about digital equity? Will our have-not students again be relegated to second-class status? And what of the next extended school closures, be they for weather or fire calamities or health-related concerns?

Using Ed Tech in Transformative Ways. Though educators should be acknowledged for how they quickly met the moment and transitioned to remote learning, it’s important to recognize that much of what’s been accomplished won’t have any meaningful impact on student learning. Teachers becoming adept in using video-conferencing tools and learning management systems are great first steps, and likewise their adoption of some good digital instructional resources. But these are mostly automation tools that helped teachers continue their same methods of instruction as before.

Ed tech has the potential to help teachers engage students in new and transformative ways — like through collaboration tools, personalized learning opportunities and media-creation applications. The pandemic required teachers to advance their tech skills in significant ways, and schools figured out how to get a laptop into the hands of every student. So the time is ripe for school leaders to help teachers take their ed-tech proficiencies to the next level.

Screen Time. The pandemic pushed parents and educators to disregard their best intentions about the amount of time kids spent focused on screens — be they televisions, computers or phones. It was, after all, a global crisis, and desperate times called for desperate measures. But it wasn’t just the switch to remote learning that drove up kids’ daily screen time. Not being able to gather with friends, kids resorted to virtual means of communicating socially. And with so many of their non-school activities and entertainment options canceled, they tuned in to screen-based entertainment in a big way, with YouTube and social media sources being their preferred options.

Now, like dealing with the aftermath of a major storm, parents and educators are left to address the many issues created by our kids’ overdependence on screens, as well as their use (and misuse) of social media.

Data Privacy and Cybersecurity. With schools’ increased use of digital tools and applications, more sensitive student data is being stored and transferred between schools and vendors. And district data is also being hijacked and held ransom by bad actors. This has created serious concerns for school leaders, especially when it takes just one school employee falling for an email phishing scheme to bring on a prolonged shutdown of critical district systems. Likewise, with the expanded use of online instructional tools, many unsanctioned applications are being used in schools that gather student data from unwitting clients, and without parents’ consent.

Media Literacy. With kids getting so much of their information online, coupled with the toxic spread of lies and false narratives, the need to educate them on how to become savvy media consumers has never been greater. We’ve become a polarized country, and it’s only getting worse. So it’s imperative our kids have the skills to discern fact from fiction, and to make informed decisions based on truth.

The past two years have been exhausting for everyone involved in schools — educators, students and parents alike. And the repercussions of what this pandemic has wrought are still being uncovered. Ed tech has an important role to play as schools work to redefine themselves for the post-COVID era, and the possibilities for ed tech to improve teaching and learning remain open and promising. But with these advancements, we must also be aware of their downsides, and ensure the opportunities ed tech creates are shared by all.
Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.