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‘A Year of Tremendous Growth.’ How the Pandemic Forced Teachers to Master Technology

By Alyson Klein — April 20, 2021 6 min read
Fifth grade teacher April Whipp welcomes back her students virtually during the first day of school at Moss-Nuckols Elementary School on Aug.13, 2020 in Louisa County, Va.
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When Susan Fletcher began teaching 37 years ago at the school she had attended, she never envisioned that someday she would be instructing students on a computer, from her living room.

In fact, she said, she wouldn’t have imagined it even as late as Christmas of 2019. By that point, she was a veteran educator, but a technology newbie. She had heard the term “Google Classroom” in passing but had never seen the technology and had no idea what it was. Her classroom had just five computers, all “ancient dinosaurs,” Fletcher said.

That changed last March when school shut down for in-person instruction because of the pandemic. Fletcher and her colleagues at Aycock Elementary School in Henderson, N.C., were given two days of training on virtual instruction. “Then it was, get it up and running,” she said.

A year later, Fletcher can create a Google classroom, use Google forms, Google slides, and Google documents. She can develop interactive lessons using Nearpod. She starts each day by showing her students a “bitmoji” of herself (a tiny digital avatar), usually wearing or doing something that reflects what the class is studying or the time of year. (Her avatar rode a rocketship during a space unit, and recently popped out of an Easter egg).

Fletcher also set up a digital library for her 3rd graders, many of whom don’t have their own books at home. And her students, nearly all of whom are eligible for free or reduced lunch, now each have their own digital devices. That helped enable the school to be fully virtual for much of the 2020-21 school year. (The school district was planning to shift from the hybrid model it is currently using to mostly in-person instruction sometime this month.)

Her teaching, she said, has transformed for the better just in a year, even after decades in the profession. “We will never get back to what once was,” she said. “We can only move forward.”

We will never get back to what once was. We can only move forward.

But just what “moving forward” will look like across the country is an open question. Educators nationwide say they have mastered a slew of new technologies during the pandemic, which forced nearly every school to operate virtually for at least some period over the past year. It remains to be seen how many will—like Fletcher—use that new knowledge to reshape their practice once most students and teachers return to school buildings.

Nearly half of teachers—49 percent—said their ability to use technology had “improved a lot” during the 2020-21 school year, according to a survey of 386 teachers by the EdWeek Research Center in March. And another 39 percent said it “improved a little.” Just 13 percent said it remained the same or had gotten worse.

Bar chart showing whether teachers' ability to effectively use educational technology improved, gotten worse, or remained the same.

Even veterans are still learning new tricks

Educators’ attitudes about technology have also brightened. Nearly 60 percent of 855 teachers, principals, and district leaders surveyed said their opinion of educational technology has become more positive over the past year, while just 11 percent said it had become more negative.

What’s more, 74 percent of those 855 educators say they expect that teachers will be expected to integrate devices more deeply into their lessons going forward, due to the widespread purchases of Chromebooks, laptops, iPads, and other devices over the past year.

“If you can pull silver linings out of the pandemic, it’s the idea that technology competency has gone from the early adopters to everyone using it,” said Steve Buettner, the director of media and technology for the Edina, Minn., school district, near Minneapolis. In the past, “technology integration or proficiency was the cherry that you saw on top of the sundae. Now it is the glass that holds up the sundae.”

Even teachers who considered themselves tech-smart prior to the pandemic say they have picked up some new skills.

Todd Steckler, who teaches advanced math classes at the Academy of Health and Science Professions & STEM, a high school in La Joya, Texas, had done some virtual instruction before the pandemic. But after more than a year of online instruction, “I’m a lot more tech savvy now,” he said.

He’s able to save time using some online testing applications, such as Quizlet. Scoring is sometimes faster, but he likes that he gets a holistic analysis of how students as a whole performed on a particular test. “You’ll know quickly which items students are having a hard time with,” he said.

But there may still be a long way to go. Nearly half of teachers, principals, and district leaders—45 percent—said one of the three biggest technology-related challenges they had encountered was that educators struggle with how to use digital tools to teach effectively. The two other top problems: Parents not understanding technology well enough to help their children with online learning, and students not having the connectivity needed for online learning.

Bar chart showing which of the following education-related technology skills grew A LOT stronger for you or your teachers during the pandemic. Select all that apply.

And while some teachers, like Fletcher, say that they expect their instruction will change considerably because of their remote teaching experience and exposure to new technologies, others are less sure.

“My teaching style in the classroom won’t change. I’m a project-based teacher,” said Stephanie McEwen, who directs and teaches special education as well as history in the 200-student Falls City, Ore., district. She jokes that she is “the second worst tech person at our high school.”

Over the course of the pandemic, McEwen said she’s “grown as a teacher,” but doesn’t think that a heavy digital emphasis fits with what she describes as her “discovery-based” approach to teaching. She doesn’t think most of her students in special education are well-served by technology, especially online learning. She finds differentiating instruction tough to do digitally, especially when students are virtual, and she can’t read their social cues as well.

Educators are hoping online tools translate to classrooms

Other teachers say they are looking forward to figuring out how and when to use new tech tools to best effect, as opposed to just using them because it’s the only option.

Prior to the pandemic, Bruce Powers, a social-studies teacher at Gibbons Middle School in Westborough, Mass., described himself as “somewhat comfortable” with limited technology, including Google Classroom and his school’s online gradebook.

Now, he’s regularly incorporating programs such as iCivics, Kahoot, and EdPuzzle. “If you had told me that I would be as comfortable as I am now a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Powers said. “As far as teaching goes, I think it’s been a year of tremendous growth.”

But he says he sometimes feels like he is relying on technology to help a lesson along because there isn’t another good way to teach a concept virtually. His school is doing hybrid learning, but he’s hoping that once classes are all in person again, his approach will shift again.

“Those tools will be used more purposefully, more deliberately, and less desperately,” he said. “When things are less hectic, less frenzied, we will be able to put a little bit of the grace back into the daily lesson.”

Despite all of her new digital savvy, the thing Fletcher is looking forward to when face-to-face learning begins: reading “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” by Beverly Cleary to her students with everyone in the same room.

Read-alouds over Zoom just aren’t the same as when her class is in front of her, she said. “I’ve missed that the most.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2021 edition of Education Week as ‘A Year of Tremendous Growth’

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