We're embracing tech during lockdown – but can it replace the classroom?

Families are using technology to keep things ‘normal’ during the pandemic but questions remain about what remote learning can teach us.

Social distancing measures and the subsequent shift to remote working, socializing and school led to questions about the technology available to us, namely Zoom, which was labelled a “privacy disaster”. Yet amid the challenges of implementing technology into our home lives, families are having to embrace technology to keep things “normal”, and finding increasingly creative ways to stay organized and educated online along the way.

“People who never expected – nor ever wanted – to use digital technology to communicate or work now must, and so they are learning how,” explains Sean Michael Morris, director of the Digital Pedagogy Lab at the University of Colorado Denver. “We could look at this integration of technologies into family life in a positive light, in that the use of these technologies at home necessitates a new level of digital literacy for everyone, but there’s an equally important downside to the movement of work-related technologies into home life, too. Technology is useful, but it is not a substitute for the classroom.”

Where the gaps between classroom learning and homeschooling are most apparent a wave of apps aimed at supporting remote learning have risen to prominence. Seesaw, which allows students to build a digital portfolio of work to share with parents or teachers, has seen a tenfold increase in usage since US schools began to shut down in March.

“There are two types of technologies that have been particularly powerful during this time,” explains Seesaw Co-Founder Adrian Graham. “The first is live video calling such as Zoom. The second is technology that supports activities that enable personalized attention for students, even in the midst of so many of our routines being disrupted. Often kids are ‘parked’ in front of technology as a passive solitary experience, but I hope people start to see the immense learning potential that technology has to enable kids to express their thinking and then receive feedback from people who care about them.”

Although technology that is specifically catered to remote learning such as Seesaw has seen significant interest, there has also been widespread repurposing of traditionally workplace-based technologies. The meteoric popularity of Zoom is one example, but Trello, a work management tool for organizing projects, also saw a 73% increase in sign-ups in March compared to last year. The company credits a substantial portion of this to its decision to provide free access to its premium package to educators in order to help combat the challenges of school closures.

“It’s important to remember that parents are now serving as the only direct touchpoint that teachers have with younger students. Trello is being used as the central hub to share assignments, attach proof of work and leave comments and questions,” says Michael Pryor, founder and head of Trello at Atlassian. “We’ve heard from teachers that they started using Trello because they found themselves thrown into this situation, but they plan to keep it up in the long run.”

Trello is already beginning to plan for a more multipurpose future, currently working on perfecting a new template gallery for teachers and parents, and adding integrations to enable users to customize lesson plans and workflow. For parents and teachers now communicating with their students digitally the rethinking of existing technology for use in an education setting is important, but questions remain about what remote learning can teach us about schooling more broadly.

“If any time is the best time to reinvent ‘school’ for the better, this time certainly has given us the impetus and rationale and taken away any excuses built on a narrative that ‘this is how it has to be because this is the way we’ve always done it’,” says Sarojani S Mohammed, Founder of research group Ed Research Works. “I think that there’s an opportunity here to collectively see and experience how personalized learning and true learner-centered instruction can be accomplished. Parents should consider technology to be a tool for interactive learning, for socializing and for social-emotional health and wellbeing at this time. 2020 is illustrating to us what the true non-negotiables are in our conventional education systems, what our critical goals are for learners and alternatively where we do, in fact, have room to innovate.”

The pivot to remote learning has surfaced inequalities that, though already present, were not highlighted by classroom-based education Michael Morris

Yet in addition to forcing educators and parents to consider how technology can better support education, the sudden shift to remote learning has also exposed profound problems. The expectation on parents to provide adequate time and technology to educate their children lays bare vast economic divides, and many families may be concerned by the impact of remote schooling on their child’s educational development as well as their ability to focus on their own work.

“If there are any technologies that will remain useful once we go back to the classroom, I think they will be those which helped us stay in touch with one another, and those that could best provide equitable access to the most marginalized,” says Morris. “Too many students are without internet at home, or adequate enough broadband to be able to participate in school. Too many families can’t afford computers or mobile devices. The pivot to remote learning has surfaced inequalities that, though already present, were not highlighted by classroom-based education. I think the best technological innovation or change that should come next would come as a result of looking carefully at issues of equity and either redesigning existing technologies, or revisiting the whole endeavor.”

For many, the future of technology in education does not rely solely on creating new, exciting and innovative tools, but in thinking about how technology can make digital learning safe, accessible and equal for all. The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated how important technology can be in times of change and uncertainty. The next test for educators and technology companies will be utilizing and shaping digital tools to make the opportunities that they offer equally available to all, inside as well as outside the classroom.

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