Globally, schools have been closing their doors to stop the spread of COVID-19. Some have shifted classes online, putting education technology to the ultimate test.

A few ed tech tools have emerged as game changers which may affect the future of remote learning and school ecosystems. Specifically, putting ed tech to the test under pressure to “shelter in place” has led to two big shifts. Learning management systems (i.e., platforms, apps) have taken on new importance and video conferencing has been cast part hero, part headache.

“Education Week” estimated that some 124,000 public and private K-12 schools in the U.S. have been shuttered due the outbreak, impacting 55 Million students (and their families). Education consultancy firm Entangled Solutions also found that 3,000 institutions and 22 Million students are impacted at the college and university levels.

UNESCO put the total number of impacted learners at 1.5 Billion, citing school closures in nearly all 195 countries worldwide.

Ed Tech & Remote Learning

Colleges have responded swiftly, though 10 years ago shifting thousands of students online would have been unthinkable. As new tools and platforms have come to life in recent years, the challenge has been deciding which to use—with institutions and instructors weighing:

  • System capabilities
  • Productivity/engagement
  • -&- Video conferencing options

The Canvas and Blackboard learning management systems have been in wide use, allowing teachers to: Manage coursework online, upload syllabi, distribute materials and post grades. Productivity bundles like Google G Suite and Microsoft Office have also been in use, though options range from Apache OpenOffice to iWork.

Video conferencing, however, has posed new challenges: How can educators possibly teach that way? Picture a screen divided into 40 or more thumbnail-sized squares, each revealing student reactions in real time. The game changer of the month for March 2020 was Zoom, with many universities recommending its use.

In a letter dated April 1, 2020, Zoom Founder & CEO Eric Yuan said that, in addition to professionals, 90,000 schools in 20 nations had begun using the platform. In December 2019, the site averaged 10 Million total daily visits. That number, said Yuan, ballooned to 200 Million in March of this year—with Zoom shares surging 50 percent while others plummeted.

Options in Ed Tech

Zoom’s rise came with setbacks including concerns about privacy and security. Disturbingly, hackers began “Zoombombing” classes with racist or pornographic material. Those hiccups can be avoided if instructors set robust passwords and resist sharing them publicly.

In his letter, Yuan promised solutions: “We did not design the product with the foresight that, in a matter of weeks, every person in the world would suddenly be working, studying and socializing from home.” He then shared links to resources for educators and others.

Many in ed tech have helped those at the K-12 and higher levels transition to online learning. The “Technological Horizons in Education Journal” recently compiled a list of those making paid services free, lifting limits on free versions or adding premium features. A sampling:

  • Video conferencing – Cisco began offering free personal Webex accounts (meeting limit: 100 participants). At Webex.com, click on “Pricing.”
  • Education materials – Among other content, com is offering free premium licenses to “Actively Learn” for grades 4 thru 12.
  • Creative tools – Some colleges and universities already offer Adobe Creative Suite apps (Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.) free to students. Contact campus IT for details.
  • Online tools – Arizona State University opened up Teacher Toolkit programs like “Ask a Biologist” for grades K thru 12. Visit AskABiologist.ASU.edu (see footer for other links).

One immediate concern with remote learning is the digital divide, which has resulted in a struggle to assist students who lack devices and internet access. Work has begun to bridge that divide.

Closing the Digital Divide

In mid-March, the FCC asked communication service (i.e., broadband, phone) providers to adopt its “Keep Americans Connected” pledge during the COVID-19 pandemic. Upwards of 100 telecoms signed on to waive late fees, open Wi-Fi hotspots and not terminate service for residential or small business customers.

Schools have taken up a similar cause. University of Washington, based in Seattle, was among the first institutes of higher learning to cancel in-person classes and launched its Spring quarter online. To ensure access for all students, UW broadened its computer-lending program, bought new laptops, refurbished others and made sure machines were virus-free prior to delivery.

Yet, what about experiential learning?

Distance classes may never suit some majors (i.e., music, dance) or subjects requiring lab time. Nor can they replace resources like libraries and student unions. In addition to the public tragedy unfolding around them, students have seen their educations interrupted or put on hold. Human touches can make a difference, though.

Fordham University professor Mark Naison, 73, teaches music history. “USA Today” lauded his recent revival of the Notorious PhD persona he adopted years ago to promote community service. In 2011, the “N.Y. Daily News” previewed Naison’s “Not in the Bronx” performance in opposition to gentrification. His latest videos include raps on social distancing and hand washing.

Meanwhile, ESPN noted that a University of Tennessee-Knoxville class which was forced online got quite the Zoombomb of its own. Mid-lecture, communications professor John W. Haas, PhD, was interrupted by a former student: retired NFL quarterback and UTK alum Peyton Manning.

Encouragement like that can go a long way toward bridging the isolation gap.

 

 Chase that Digital Unicorn!

Like what you just read? Follow these select source links:

Education Week. “Coronavirus and School Closures” (Map dated April 2, 2020). EdWeek.org. https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/map-coronavirus-and-school-closures.html

Entangled Solutions. “COVID-19: Higher Education Resource Center” (updated daily). Entangled.Solutions.com.

COVID-19: Higher Education Resource Center

FCC. “Chairman Pai Launches the Keep Americans Connected Plea” (March 13, 2020). FCC.gov. https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/DOC-363033A1.pdf

Technological Horizons in Education. “Updated: Free Resources for Schools During COVID-19 Outbreak” (April 2, 2020). THEJournal.com. https://thejournal.com/Articles/2020/03/13/Free-Resources-Ed-Tech-Companies-Step-Up-During-Coronavirus-Outbreak.aspx

UNESCO. “COVID-19 Educational Disruption and Response.” UNESCO.org. https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse