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What the coronavirus is revealing to parents about edtech

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the American education landscape drastically. As the editor of the SmartBrief on EdTech and a work-from-home mom of five school-aged children, I am seeing my career and domestic worlds collide in new and unexpected ways. Working and parenting during COVID-19 is ushering in new perspectives.

I’m a strong proponent of technology in education and using screens, robotics and other gadgets in classrooms appropriately, but coronavirus and its forced remote learning component have peeled back a new layer of what I do for a living. 

Conversations with other parents like me have sounded more like discussions with colleagues as we debate the merits of individual learning paths, screentime, personalized learning tools and the effects of it all on our children and their education.

The school closures and sudden shift to remote learning have been eye-opening experiences for parents -- myself included -- and edtech companies should be taking note. Long-standing policies of consulting real educators when creating edtech platforms should come under the microscope, as these companies seriously consider working alongside parents in bigger ways than they ever have before. Parents are more invested than ever in what their children are learning out of pure necessity. So, how can edtech providers make the most of this moment in time to improve their own offerings? 

Here are some of the biggest revelations parents have discovered during the coronavirus pandemic about the current state of edtech delivery systems and online learning for K-12 students: 

Not all online learning is designed for home

Three of my five children use the same online learning platform for reading and math lessons. Required “time spent” ranging from 30 to 45 minutes per week based on age on these platforms is part of the weekly, from-home curriculum and the kids are supposed to meet that length of time between three or four sittings to maximize comprehension. During the first two weeks of at-home instruction, my second grader easily finished her reading lessons in one sitting. I received an email from her teacher scolding me because she should have done the work in three separate sittings. It did not matter that she was capable of finishing it in one sitting. The required best practice was three -- putting the burden on me of reminding her to do the work not once, not twice, but three times.

Further complicating matters is that there is no way to log in to the platform and see how much “time spent” of the required 30 to 45 minutes per week has been completed, or how much time is left to fill up. Our teachers encouraged us to set a timer at home to track the time spent, which is a solution, but it has proven difficult to implement when I have so many children logging in at different times. In an email to a teacher of my sixth grade daughter, I quipped “Maybe the next edition of this platform will include a metric on minutes spent in the software to more easily track it.” The teacher wrote back “this platform was not designed to use at home.” 

That gave me pause. It was an online learning platform, accessible from anywhere, but it wasn’t designed for use at home. It was created for customized learning IN the classroom but it was the best our district could offer when school closures happened quickly and indefinitely. The platform was not designed for REMOTE learning.

I had assumed my kids could log in and complete the assignments pretty autonomously but after sitting through a few sessions with each, I realized that the input of an educator (in this case, me) was crucial to effectively using the platform. Cloud-based learning does not automatically mean “designed for home learning” and I think that is just fine. But it is certainly something districts should consider when making future edtech purchases -- and an angle that smart edtech companies are already chasing down. 

Customized learning is still not custom enough

Personalized learning solves the time-tested dilemma of how to assign remedial and accelerated work within a single classroom setting. Foundationally, customized learning through edtech platforms allows teachers flexibility in what they assign and to whom. On a higher level, teachers who want to assign items based on learning styles, interests and even cultural references can do so within many edtech delivery systems. Flipped classroom models -- where students watch videos first and learn about the concepts more in-depth in class second -- are made possible with customized learning tracks. All of this is impressive but it’s still not enough. Custom learning has the potential to go so much further for our K-12 students and it is not quite there yet.

In my own home, I see this evidenced in five children who range in age, learning style and learning sophistication. One child goes right down the list of assigned work each week, checking things off and feeling accomplished. Another child enjoyed virtual schooling for the first week and now is completely bored, having mastered the “checklist” routine almost immediately. Another child excels at answering basic fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice questions but melts down when asked to provide a short answer or a paragraph on an item. And, oh yeah, I have two more children in the K-12 age range too. They are all given essentially the same learning platforms and expectations.

Even if skill levels are reached by the majority of students through customized learning, their individual interests are still not always met. Customized learning, as a whole, does not offer enough options to accommodate what sparks the joy in one student over another. Personalized learning paths are often templated to the point that any deviation results in lower scores, forcing students to answer robotically instead of organically. For personalized learning to truly reach a personal level, edtech platforms must continue to add more choices that seamlessly teach more children in customized ways.

Inequity is rampant in remote learning

Even as I’m writing this piece, I am questioning my tone. Am I truly complaining because my child is sitting comfortably in the next room improving her reading comprehension through a story about the rainforests, as opposed to a story about outer space which I know she prefers? If it seems I’m grasping at straws perhaps it is because I believe so strongly in the benefits of edtech and the power it has to further equalize learning among American students. I know edtech can do more -- and this is especially true in cases of inequity among K-12 students. School districts, both public and private, have done a great job in trying to get devices to students who need them. School parking lots and local libraries have set up Wi-Fi hotspots so that students and families can sit in the safety of their vehicles and get work done. Getting devices into students’ hands is just one piece of the inequity issue, however.

The human resource of having a parent physically home and available to help with schoolwork is not equal among students. Living in an environment that is conducive to learning is not equal among students. Access to food and health care is not equal among students. Having the devices on hand to deliver the content is a moot point if a child has not had an adequate meal in days. A teacher I know confided in me that she went through so many hoops to secure a low-income student a device at home, only to have that student still not logging in or completing assignments. She was frustrated but knew that the device was just the tip of the iceberg as to why this student was struggling with from-home studies. 

Even in my own home where meals are prepared regularly and space is carved out in the dining room for five children to learn in a somewhat organized fashion, we only have three available devices for learning. We missed the cutoff to pick up extra devices from the school -- and frankly, we felt that we should not infringe on other families who may need them more. We discussed buying at least one more device, perhaps two, but quickly decided that it was the worst time to spend several hundred dollars on the devices even if, in theory, we could afford them.

Edtech platforms are certainly not required to improve inequities. Developing systems for content delivery is their main purpose -- and it’s an important one. In light of the rampant inequities we’ve seen during COVID-19, however, edtech companies should all be asking how they can do more to serve their students. What non-tech resources can they provide? How can they improve the lives of their end users? How can edtech platforms ensure that the device and tech supporting it is received in the right environment and with the best conditions for that student to learn? The edtech companies that show accountability to equalize learning -- and not only through the tech itself -- will outlast their competitors and improve the lives of more students. 

What parents are learning about edtech will influence how these platforms are perceived, and even funded, in a post coronavirus world. It’s valuable for edtech companies to take a hard look at how they operate currently, what flaws the coronavirus pandemic has revealed and where they want to go from here -- for the benefit of their own bottom lines and the K-12 student communities that they serve. 
 

Katie Parsons is the editor of the SmartBrief on EdTech. Follow her on TwitterInstagram and LinkedIn or contact her at katie.parsons@futurenet.com.

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