Classroom Technology

Education Technology in 2020:
8 Takeaways From a Chaotic Year

By Mark Lieberman — December 17, 2020 7 min read
Image of a teacher filming her lesson using a mobile phone.

Digital technology was a lifeline for many educators this year, but it was also a source of frustration, bewilderment, and fatigue.

Videoconference platforms allowed teachers and students to stay in touch even when they couldn’t set foot in the same room, but they also presented a host of privacy, logistical, and learning challenges.

Learning management systems and online repositories of course materials supplied teachers with tools for collecting student work and disseminating activities, but they proved daunting to some educators who hadn’t used them before.

Wi-Fi hotspots and portable computers kept students and teachers connected from home, but the digital divide became more prominent than ever as longstanding inequities in technology access threatened to widen existing gaps in opportunity and achievement for students of color, students with disabilities, and students in other vulnerable and marginalized groups.

It was a dizzying, dramatic, devastating year that brought education technology to the forefront at an unprecedented scale and transformed the education landscape in ways that may only become clear with years of distance.

To help you make sense of the chaos and better understand how the past nine months will shape the use of technology in K-12 education for years to come, we turned back to the journalism Education Week reporters produced in 2020 and the related survey data from the EdWeek Research Center.

Teacher-student interaction was much different than ever before.

Due to COVID-19, millions of students have been learning from home since March or only attending school buildings part-time for a good portion of the current school year. Teachers have had to use videoconference platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, as well as lower-tech alternatives such as phone calls and emails, to keep in touch with their students. Many teachers prioritized ensuring that their students were doing well emotionally, and that they were able to access instruction even when they couldn’t go to school in person.

The nationwide closure of K-12 school buildings this spring, and the ongoing hybrid and remote learning in many districts this fall, has made keeping in touch with all students challenging. Last spring, in particular, schools struggled to reach significant portions of their student population. Those practices have improved, though, and recent EdWeek Research Center data shows the number of teachers interacting with all of their students every day has nearly doubled in recent weeks from the low points of the spring.

Key lessons have been learned about teacher-student interaction that will be relevant when students return to school buildings full time.

Some students have been in live virtual classes all day, while others are only interfacing with teachers for a short time each day.

Prior to the pandemic, few U.S. schools had robust experience teaching most or all of their students virtually. Online instruction can take many different forms, some of which more closely resemble typical in-person instruction than others. Many online learning experts have urged schools to find ways within their limited resources to minimize live instruction time for their students, and to instead encourage self-directed and project-based learning.

But those massive shifts in instruction aren’t easy to pull off amid a crisis situation, especially for younger students. Many teachers this fall have found themselves in dual teaching mode, with some students in person and others at home. Teachers have found that juggling act difficult, and some schools have rearranged teaching assignments so that virtual students and in-person students can be assigned to separate groups of teachers.

Opinions about remote learning differed depending on a person’s race, socioeconomic status, and geographic area.

Proponents of online learning have repeatedly cautioned education observers to avoid drawing neat conclusions about attitudes towards online learning based on how it looked for K-12 schools this year. Remote learning plans constructed during an unprecedented public health crisis will not look the same as efforts that are developed with years of deliberate planning and intensive training for teachers and other school staff.

Still, remote learning drew a wide range of passionate reactions this year, and a few notable trends emerged. Black and Latinx people, and people in districts where fewer than 30 percent of students are white, were more likely to support full-time remote learning in their districts than white people, and people in districts where more than 80 percent of students are white. The same is true for residents of urban areas, suburbs, and towns, who were more likely to support full-time remote instruction than residents in rural areas.

To begin to understand those trends, it’s worth noting that Black and Latinx people have suffered a disproportionate brunt of the pandemic’s tally of deaths and hospitalizations, and that rural areas continue to have major gaps in home internet access, which has been essential for students who can’t enter school buildings to access instruction.

Hybrid learning was the norm for a majority of school districts.

As the virus affected some areas of the country more severely than others at various points throughout the year, schools weighed the importance of keeping students and staff safe from COVID-19 exposure with the risks that extended building shutdowns would lead to social isolation and learning loss for students, particularly those in vulnerable groups like English language learners and students with disabilities.

Hybrid learning emerged as a somewhat more palatable alternative—smaller groups of students returning to school buildings for two or three days a week, with vulnerable students prioritized for in-person instruction, and remote learning continuing as a full-time option for those who didn’t feel comfortable with any in-person contact.

Classroom participation rules during videoconferencing sessions varied widely.

One key question that was rarely asked in classrooms prior to the pandemic: “Are we required to have our cameras on?”

While students and teachers have been apart, the question of what constitutes class participation from home has come up repeatedly. Some students are reluctant to turn on their cameras while on videoconference sessions because they’re uncomfortable showcasing their surroundings. Some schools are reluctant to require that cameras be turned on for those reasons, while others have said students need to have their cameras on to prevent them from entering videoconference sessions without actively participating.

The digital divide came to the surface in ways that can no longer be ignored.

Hundreds of school districts have been working for years to get one laptop or tablet in the hands of each of their students. For many districts, those efforts accelerated rapidly this year, as the urgency of ensuring every student had equal technology access increased considerably. In the process, schools and the public could no longer ignore or minimize a decades-old problem that lacks an easy solution: Millions of Americans aren’t adequately connected at home to participate in remote learning without headaches or hiccups. The persistence of that problem, despite significant progress to address it, will remain a formidable challenge in the new year and beyond.

High-quality remote learning is hard to do.

Learning from home is easier for some students and teachers than for others, but it’s clear from this year’s experiences that the U.S. education system has a lot of work to do before remote learning can be viewed as a viable option for most students. Teachers reported struggling to keep students engaged during videoconference sessions, dealing with technical snags that posed obstacles to consistent instruction, and slogging to keep up with an ever-growing mountain of phone calls and other interactions to ensure that students are staying on track.

Cybersecurity and privacy issues were more pressing than ever.

With more widespread use of technology, especially outside of school buildings and away from school networks, came more vulnerabilities to cyberattacks and potential for violating privacy rules and norms. The Federal Bureau of Investigation warned that K-12 schools were among the most common targets of hackers, and a wave of school districts have experienced disruptive cybersecurity threats in the last few months alone. The term “Zoombombing” entered the lexicon, referring to incidents in which hackers disrupted virtual classrooms and school board meetings with profanities, slurs, and obscene imagery. The actions necessary to keep students safe were markedly different this year, and the threats came from a diverse array of sources.

Ed-tech experts are predicting that the increasing use of technology in K-12 education fueled those cyberattacks more than ever during COVID-19, but is likely to continue to be a big problem for schools even after the pandemic.

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