How COVID-19 Is Shaping Tech Use. What That Means When Schools Reopen

—Illustration by Jori Bolton for Education Week

EdWeek Research Center surveys reveal good and bad trends

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It might not be a tectonic shift yet, but the changes taking place in the K-12 tech landscape as a result of the coronavirus school closures are real and meaningful, and good and bad.

That is what Education Week is learning as it surveys educators across the country about the impact school closures have had on their morale, student engagement, technology skills, and many other factors.

In nationally representative surveys of teachers and district leaders, the EdWeek Research Center found that teachers reported their ability to use technology was rising during the school closures, online instruction was taking hold in some form in most places, and 1-to-1 computing opportunities were expanding gradually.

But at the same time, huge tech-equity issues emerged, revealing challenges ahead whether school buildings reopen or not in the fall. Students living in poverty, for instance, are much more likely to have to share devices with family members to complete schoolwork than their wealthier peers. And although online instruction is taking hold, the wide range of approaches shows a potentially big divide in the quality of instruction.

And in looking ahead, the big elephant in the room is the economy. School budgets are expected to take a big hit this coming school year, and educational technology programs will likely suffer significant cuts, too.

Here are 10 key findings from the EdWeek Research Center surveys conducted this spring about how the coronavirus school closures have influenced the role and use of technology in K-12 education and what that might mean for the future:

1. Teachers see their ability to use educational technology improving.

The massive shift to remote learning was frustrating and demoralizing for many teachers, especially those who struggled with spotty internet access for themselves or their students, low online student engagement, and nightmarish technical problems. But the result of having to shift everything online is that many teachers report their skills in educational technology improving.

A whopping 87 percent of teachers who responded to the EdWeek Research Center survey said their ability to use educational technologies had improved during the school building closures. Only 3 percent said their ed-tech skills had worsened during that time.

Those findings echo many of the sentiments from teachers who Education Week reached out to directly via email and phone and who responded to an open-ended question in the survey. Though frustrated with remote learning in big ways—particularly the lack of in-person, face-to-face communication with students and colleagues—many teachers reported meaningful growth in figuring out how to use technology to improve teaching and learning. And some said they plan to continue using those newfound skills even when school buildings reopen.

“I think it’s made me a better teacher already,” said Amy Campbell, a special education teacher at Helen Baller Elementary School in Camas, Wash. “This has really pushed the innovation envelope. During the shutdown, my teaching partner and I have been able to make many materials–YouTube videos and resources–available on a newly created private class website. This is the first time I’ve created a way to ensure access, in one place, to a whole package of resources for students with disabilities to access outside of school.”

2. Educators’ opinions about technology are improving, but teachers hold more critical views than district leaders.

Fifty-eight percent of survey respondents said their opinion of ed tech has grown more positive as a result of the increased usage of technology during the coronavirus school building closures. As is often the case, administrators have a rosier outlook than teachers: Just 6 percent of district leaders said their experiences during the coronavirus closures have led to a more negative view of ed tech, compared with 21 percent of teachers.

IT help desks for school districts likely played a significant role in helping prevent those negative feelings from being much higher. Those IT help desk workers had to pivot from previously supporting district employees and staff to now becoming the first line of contact for just about every student and parent with a remote learning inquiry.

The calls and emails were flooding in around the clock, according to interviews with district technology officials. How do I log in? How do I use this app?

Daily call volume for the San Antonio schools’ IT help desk escalated from 75 before the pandemic to 600 during the building closures.

3. Online instruction evolved, but the approaches varied widely.

Fully 93 percent of teachers reported that they were doing at least some online instruction, with 50 percent of teachers saying they were teaching online-only. That figure goes up to 68 percent in districts with the fewest low-income students; in districts with the most low-income students, just 36 percent of teachers said they were teaching online-only.

The switch to online learning is being fueled in part by expanded access to digital devices. All told, 42 percent of educators who responded to the EdWeek Research Center survey said their students had more access to school-issued personal devices than they did prior to the pandemic—although 18 percent of these educators reported that such expanded access is temporary and will end when schools reopen.

But an Education Week review of states’ continuous learning directives and guidance shows wide variation in what was expected of remote instruction during the coronavirus pandemic.

“There are still a number of states where districts are being recommended, but not required, to develop plans. If you think about that with respect to on-the-ground implications, you could have pretty enormous variation,” said Sarah Reckhow, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University.

4. A new level of experience emerges for troubleshooting technology problems.

Nearly 9 out of every 10 teachers reported spending more time troubleshooting technology problems during COVID-19 than they did when they were in their physical classrooms. The downside of that finding is that, in many cases, teachers were devoting what would have been instructional time to tackling technology challenges, whether struggling to get up to speed learning the intricacies of a learning management system or fixing access problems on Zoom calls.

The upside is that now you have a teacher corps full of educators who are much better technology troubleshooters than they were before school buildings were closed. They might not need to call the IT help desk quite as much as they used to. And that means their problems will possibly get fixed faster. “I have become so much better with technology! It was ‘sink or swim,’ and I have persevered and am so much more knowledgeable with using technology,” said an elementary teacher from North Carolina who responded to the EdWeek Research Center survey.

5. 1-to-1 computing environments expand, very gradually.

In February, prior to the coronavirus school closures, the EdWeek Research Center surveyed teachers on the availability of a digital learning device for every student. At the time, about 57 percent said each student in their schools had a device. That percentage increased slightly, to 59 percent, when teachers were surveyed again in May.

But that slight increase is likely to rise noticeably by this summer, because in late April, many districts were still waiting on deliveries of digital devices purchased during COVID-19. A huge spike in demand for digital devices and disruptions in the supply chain from China were slowing deliveries from tech giants such as Dell, HP, Apple, and Lenovo, according to “The Impact of COVID-19 on the K-12 Education Mobile PC Market,” an analysis from market research firm Futuresource Consulting.

Plus, many districts might not feature 1-to-1 computing environments in their schools just yet, but the proliferation of devices will be significantly higher than it was before the pandemic. The 55,000-student Boston public schools, for instance, purchased 20,000 new laptops in March to try to make sure that all students in the district had access to learning during the school building closures. The competition to get those laptops was intense.

“Everybody is fighting for them,” Mark Racine, the district’s chief technology officer, said at the time. “We had some districts reach out to us and say, ‘Can we buy some off of you?’ ”

6. Educators see greater access to 1-to-1 computing improving teaching and learning.

Seventy-three percent of district leaders and teachers responded in the EdWeek Research Center survey that they believed when school buildings reopen, greater access to 1-to-1 computing will make high-quality teaching easier. Just 4 percent said they thought it would make teaching more difficult.

But the problem is that without sound professional development to show educators how to integrate mobile learning devices into instruction, the mere presence of those devices in classrooms is unlikely to improve teaching and learning and could actually hurt it, research shows. That is why schools will be hard-pressed to put together PD programs over the summer to ensure that educators make good use of the availability of more digital learning devices.

For instance, long before the coronavirus forced schools into throwing together remote learning strategies, Miami-Dade County district officials were steadily ramping up the use of technology over the past six years as part of a “Digital Convergence” initiative. It has included the acquisition of more than 200,000 new devices and continual professional development focused on e-learning. Officials of the Florida district say it allowed them to hit the ground running during the current crisis.

7. Big tech-equity issues persist for students and could get worse.

The shift to remote learning has revealed a digital divide in American society and education that is much worse than many people realized. Those equity problems showed up in the survey research in many ways.

One of the more practical equity pictures the survey data showed was how much more difficult it is for students from families living in poverty to have access to digital devices to do schoolwork at home than their wealthier peers.

District leaders and teachers from school systems where more than 75 percent of students quality for free or reduced-price lunches reported that more than half (59 percent) of their students had to share digital devices with parents, siblings, and other family members and/or friends in order to complete their schoolwork during the school building shutdowns. That figure is more than double the percentage for district leaders and teachers from school systems with 25 percent or less of their students living in poverty.

Home access to high-speed wireless internet services is also a big challenge for students living in poverty.

“It’s not the time to be timid,” said Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a long-time proponent of more aggressive federal efforts to eliminate disparities in access to high-speed internet, in a statement. “We have the authority right now to extend the reach of broadband and close the ‘homework gap’ so we connect millions of children who desperately need to get online for school.”

8. Some teachers lack high-speed internet connections, too.

More than a quarter of U.S. homes don’t have broadband internet service, according to a Pew Research Center report from last year. District leaders, especially those who serve a high percentage of students from low-income families, have said technology access is a major challenge during these extended school shutdowns.

But it’s not just students without access to the internet—it’s also their teachers.

While only 4 percent of teachers don’t have high-speed wireless access at home, according to the EdWeek Research Center, it’s particularly a problem in rural areas, where broadband internet service is spotty, expensive, or nonexistent.

“Educators are now assumed to have devices and internet access and unlimited data to do their job, and [in some cases], they don’t,” said Cheryl Bost, the president of the Maryland State Education Association.

9. The rise of virtual events is upon us. But will that stick for the long haul?

Live, in-person ed-tech events were very popular in the K-12 world. Tens of thousands of educators traveled to cities all over the country to attend conferences sponsored by ASU+GSV, SXSWedu, and ISTE. The events have touted the value of live presentations packed with attendees, face-to-face meetings, social gatherings, and opportunities to sample new ed-tech products.

But COVID-19 prompted the cancellation of all three of those big live events, which were supposed to take place in San Diego; Austin, Texas; and Anaheim, Calif.; this spring and summer.

Now, educators are turning their attention to virtual events. The EdWeek Research Center survey found that 94 percent of teachers and district leaders said in April they had attended a virtual event since school buildings closed in March, which could include webinars, virtual conferences, online summits, virtual happy hours, and other online gatherings.

How that willingness to engage in online events will shape the live, in-person ed-tech events of the future is likely to be unclear until the coronavirus is in the rearview mirror.

10. The school budget picture looks bleak. Ed-tech programs, like everything else, are expected to take a hit.

Fiscal analysts are forecasting that the recession associated with the coronavirus pandemic will be deeper and longer-lasting than the last, with severe implications for America’s public schools.

The $13.5 billion that Congress recently provided to school districts will not be able to make up for the anticipated losses.

Without another federal bailout, several states will have to cut anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent from their budgets when their legislatures reconvene this month and next, according to fiscal analysts.

Cuts will fall on most school districts to some degree, but those whose budgets are built largely on property- tax revenues will suffer less.

Just last month, district leaders were already planning spending reductions for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey. It found that 17 percent are planning significant budget reductions this school year, and 40 percent are preparing for minor reductions.

“What’s so stunning about this recession is that poor districts are going to bear the brunt of these cuts because they rely so heavily on state aid and they don’t have the capacity to raise their property taxes,” said David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a law firm and advocacy organization that has sued states for having inequitable funding systems.

Vol. 39, Issue 34, Pages 3-7

Published in Print: June 3, 2020, as COVID-19 Is Shaping Tech Use. What That Means for Schools
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