Over the past decade, technology has become a bigger part of in-person learning. Hybrid classrooms that combined traditional learning with online and digital activities are more commonplace, and software developers created an array of edtech solutions that teachers could leverage to help all of their students grasp concepts and find inspiration to achieve.
So, how prepared were schools when learning had to shift during the pandemic from hybrid to 100 percent virtual? Deepinder Uppal, VP Innovation and Technology Public Sector at Information Builders (ibi), takes a look back at the challenges of 2020 and how schools and their solution provider partners can prepare for greater agility in the future.
How prepared were schools for distance learning when the pandemic began?
Uppal: To provide the proper context, we need an understanding of what “prepared” would have looked like. To answer this, we can turn to a 2019 report by the American Educator Panel detailing the infrastructure preparations institutions of education had made prior to the start of the pandemic. Namely, they researched whether schools had undertaken the following five practices:
- providing devices (e.g., laptops, tablets) to, at a minimum, those students who need them
- training teachers on delivering online instruction
- using a learning management system
- providing fully online or blended learning courses
- establishing plans to deliver instruction during a prolonged school closure
Though it wasn’t uncommon for institutions to have at least one of these preparation indicators, only 7 percent reported having all five satisfied.
Public information was lacking as well; in 2016, only 38 states had a publicly available school health emergency plan (Uscher-Pines et al., 2018). In 2017, RAND researchers asked school and health officials how their schools could be prepared to continue teaching during prolonged building closures. Their responses, or lack thereof, was telling. More telling was the lack of sufficient online infrastructure, including learning management systems (LMSs) integrated with institutional resources and legacy enrollment management systems, which would make it difficult for institutions to service mass amounts of students for prolonged periods.
What challenges did schools face with the shift back to in-person learning?
Uppal: As reopening deadlines inched closer, many academic administrators were tasked with the creation of reopening plans that would meet safety guidelines. As I mentioned, only a minority of U.S. educational institutions were prepared for a crisis on the level of a global pandemic. As schools struggled to provide a safe way to open, concerns started to emerge on the ability to provide equitable online instruction to all students, as was the major limitation on the amounts or types of distance learning material that they could provide.
The situation isn’t much better now. Many teachers have yet to be trained how to be more adept with online learning — and the use of complex legacy systems only compounds the issues they all face. This situation was further compounded by the fact that millions of students nationwide still lack devices and Internet access.
Were there any common gaps that schools discovered with the Edtech solutions they use?
Uppal: Yes. Foremost was the lack of the five indicators listed above. However, equally common was the lack of using modern technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), which can provide adaptive learning methodologies, LMS analytics that can help teachers better prepare for students who need additional instruction and of course, an integrated environment in which to leverage all the above.
Were schools using cloud solutions – or did they have to migrate their applications and data to the cloud to change to a distance learning model?
Uppal: The lack of actual physical infrastructure, cloud or otherwise, was noted as a major factor in the lack of emergency preparedness in a 2020 study initiated by Gov. Kemp (R-Georgia). This lack of infrastructure and the inability for educational institutions to migrate their key systems to a more resilient environment led to Kemp’s announcement of an $80 million emergency pandemic funding bill for Georgia school programs. Kemp’s bill is just one of many funding increases we are seeing throughout the edtech vertical. As many schools began the 2020–2021 school year with partially or fully remote instruction, these modernization efforts allowed institutions to expand remote learning models and allows them to exploit advanced technologies.
Have schools or organizations collaborated to list best practices for distancing learning that software developers can refer to?
Uppal: In a sense. There are core course curriculum models that have been updated to include online components and best practices. A good example of that is the Common Education Data Standards Data Model. The CEDS Data Model includes a hierarchical schema of non-technical domains and entities with each CEDS element in context and a fully normalized logical model. I would highly recommend developers look at these updated schemas for application development within the edtech space. Hanover Research and the RAND Corporation have both examined models of online distance education. Specifically, they have both laid out common analytic requirements and best practices for online software learning, faculty perceptions of online courses and teaching best practices. Those resources are invaluable in designing use case driven educational software for online learning and assessment.
What are the most important best practices and tips that schools should follow when deploying Edtech for distance learning?
Uppal: The Department of Education has come up with a few guidelines, as has the Hanover and Rand reports I cited above. Two tips to keep in mind are:
- Course Communication: Two-way technology-based communication is now an essential feature of distance education delivery. Additionally, courses should incorporate opportunities for synchronous (real-time) communications. To this end, it’s also good to keep in mind that email, internet chat, and internet videoconferencing are the most cost-effective modes of communication.
- Instructional Presence: There has been a recent re-emergence of videoconferencing in distance education implementation due to the development of inexpensive voice over internet protocol (VOIP). Education professionals and software developers alike should also know that social networking sites are seen as potential areas for future development due to their multi-faceted capabilities and community orientation.
What advice can you offer software developers working in the Edtech space?
Uppal: The principles of course design are key in a remote world. This includes providing multiple opportunities for delivery and access, course content control, methodologies for student interaction to include enhancements through symbolic characteristics or visual cues. Use case driven software solutions are also key — specifically use cases defined by faculty and administrators.