The pandemic forced dozens of educational technologies upon educators, often intensifying the logistical headaches and personal heartaches of remote learning. Teachers remain acutely aware of what is not working, yet I have not met one who plans to abandon all tech post-pandemic. Teachers today often discuss which tools have earned an enduring place in their practice, and which might be embraced were specific shortcomings addressed.
This moment is thrilling because of how vocal and precise educators have become about the shortcomings, enumerating desired features that are absent, or present but annoying. After decades of ed-tech hesitancy, most teachers have become power users, demanding more from their tools, and deft enough to switch when a better tool appears. The field is in rapid evolution: those ed-tech providers who listen to teachers are improving quickly; those who aren’t listening won’t survive.
The most urgent request from teachers is for ed-tech tools to start playing well together instead of having different logins, data stores, and interfaces. How will this coordination happen in an industry with thousands of participants, none of whom is big enough to serve as a center of gravity?
Let’s review four main problems educators used technology to solve this year, and then consider the increasingly urgent challenge of how to achieve integration among these technologies:
The pandemic exposed the digital divide in student homes. Schools responded by buying millions of devices and massive increases in connectivity. This work is unfinished, but digital teaching is now plausible.
2. Student Engagement
As soon as schools went digital, Zoom fatigue and isolation grew, so teachers embraced “engagement tools” such as Pear Deck, Seesaw, Nearpod, and Kahoot. Each maps to a familiar feature of classroom life—white boards, slide decks, quizzes—and each makes remote learning more engaging and social. These tools can be used with any curriculum because they don’t feature any prescribed content. As a result, they can’t generally track what was taught, what was learned, or how a course is progressing. It is hard for a school system to know how students are doing or if teachers have been provided with a coherent curriculum.
Schools provided teachers with technologies in which coherent curriculum can be structured and tracked, like Schoology and Canvas. This helped with coherence, but because these products are structured around the concept of a pre-defined “course,” they can lack the flexibility to respond to individual student needs.
To address individual student needs, and to take some load off teachers, more schools started using personalized learning programs when students were not engaged in live interaction with their teachers.
Now that all of these types of tools are in use, teacher attention (and ire) has turned to the challenge of juggling them all. It doesn’t work for students to receive instruction in one system, submit work in another, get feedback in another, receive personalized learning in another.
Whose job is it to solve this problem? Or as techies might put it: What platform can integrate diverse education applications into coherent systems?
The core curriculum (what used to be the textbook) could become the platform ed tech seeks. It is already the organizing principle of many classrooms, the place where teachers and students spend most of their time, the place where the scope and sequence of instruction is embodied. Now that the textbook is “hybrid,” integrating online and offline learning experiences, it might just be the form of educational software that can help many other types of educational software fly in formation.
Rather than anointing one core program to play this role, we would choose a few leading cores and agree to some common standards for interoperability. This would ensure that integration is not a hassle for the app providers and create enough momentum that the rest of the curriculum and ed-tech sector can participate by following these standards.
Here’s what the path might look like for educators, curriculum developers, and ed-tech providers:
> Integrate engagement tools. The engagement tools generally require teachers to author the content for each day’s lesson. The same apps could be substantially more impactful if embedded into a core curriculum, where they would benefit from coherence and structure and save teachers time crafting lessons from scratch.
> Incorporate coherence systems. The coherence systems require districts or teachers to populate them with content and determine what is worth analyzing and reporting. If curriculum were authored into these systems from the outset (as Chicago public schools is doing with its Curriculum Equity Initiative), then schools could focus on improving the content and the instruction, as well as the tools for analyzing and accelerating student progress.
> Tie personalization to curriculum. When personalized learning operates independent of the curriculum, it can trap struggling students in remediation, learning and practicing content that is many grade levels below their current grade. If personalized learning were aligned to core curriculum, it could be used to prepare students for grade level work. As math education expert Phil Daro puts it: “A student may be four years below grade level, but she may be only 15 minutes behind today’s lesson.” Personalized learning could deliver the right 15 minutes. Another way in which a curriculum can unlock the power of personalization is by enabling the whole class to do the same activity, while providing each student with the additional scaffolds or heightened challenges they need.
> Automate feedback and embed assessments. Analyzing student work across a range of tools integrated in a core curriculum will generate much more useful insight than when data is siloed in separate apps and abstracted from a scope and sequence. This could mean better feedback for students and schools, more nuanced measurement models, and reduced time spent on standardized tests.
> Sometimes, turn off the tech. For learning recovery to begin, students will need to return to hands-on work, reading unclickable texts, drawing without pixels, and talking face-to-face. They will need to remember the joys of learning from each other. To address the enormity of the educational crisis we face, we will need the power that software can provide. But it is also essential that students learn how to elude this power. It is increasingly urgent that young people know how to think and live outside the designs of technology. While many ed-tech apps live only in software, the core curriculum often provides teachers and students the option of a printed text. On occasion, let’s give today’s students an opportunity to discover the retro charm of paying sustained, linear attention to a book.
Finally, teachers must be central participants in developing the coming generation of ed tech. If listening to teachers lights the path to integration and coherence, the resulting systems will have pedagogical and cultural power that we are just beginning to understand. Teachers are the ones we should trust to shape this future.
A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2021 edition of Education Week as How Teachers and Curriculum Will Shape Ed Tech’s Future