Reinvention in Recovery
The sudden shift to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic marked a turning point in many educators’ relationships with technology. Thousands of teachers were forced to learn new platforms and new ways of teaching. Polls from RAND Corp. and other researchers found that adopting new pedagogies in the midst of a pandemic and in the face of a huge digital divide was extremely stressful for educators, as it was for students and their families.
But many educators developed creative and effective strategies to reach and teach their students, using technology in a variety of new ways. Furthermore, numerous states made substantial progress in closing the digital divide, getting internet connectivity and devices to millions of households that had never had them before.
In the rush to return to normal, it might be tempting to return to the old ways of “doing school” instead of learning from the reinvention that the pandemic precipitated. We should continue to use technology to improve teaching and learning, equity, and engagement—and rethink the use of time to allow for blended learning modes for students, alongside additional collaboration and planning time for teachers.
As schools return to in-person learning more fully this fall, educators must ensure that all students continue to receive the devices and connectivity they needed during site closures and now need to complete their homework, use technology-based texts and learning materials, and explore knowledge in the world. The American Rescue Plan provides resources to schools to make this possible, as well as infrastructure support to improve broadband in communities.
Recognizing that new uses of technology are here to stay even as schools return to in-person learning, California’s State Board of Education recently partnered with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) to create new guidance for digital learning that includes research-based examples of ways to continue to use technology during classroom-based instruction.
Effective uses of technology should not be allowed to disappear, but they should instead act as a foundation for students to engage in research and inquiry with colleagues in their classrooms and around the world; to participate in simulations of scientific phenomena; to use open education resources; to develop products, tools, and papers; to represent their ideas in multimedia formats; and to develop confidence in their skills.
The new guidance offers advice about technology use and includes examples from classrooms and schools around the state. It identifies “power standards” for the Common Core requirements (English language arts and mathematics) in each grade. These are the big ideas that act as maypoles around which other, smaller standards can dance. They enable students to study core content more deeply, more coherently, and more effectively, using technology as a tool for inquiry and representation of ideas.
Building on Technology Advancements
Student-centered blended learning models that tap new uses of technology across home and school spaces can increase equity in learning. An interactive report from the Learning Policy Institute, “Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID-19 and Beyond,” offers research and real-world examples showing how.
With personalized and blended learning already implemented prior to 2020, districts such as California’s Lindsay Unified School District were able to transition seamlessly to distance learning during the pandemic. In a district where 91 percent of students come from low-income households and 41 percent are English learners, all students and their families can access filtered internet from their homes, free of charge, through a community Wi-Fi network.
With this infrastructure in place, school leaders created a performance-based learning system that leverages technology to deliver learner-centered, inquiry-based, differentiated approaches that offer a balance between online and in-person settings. Teachers use this technology to engage in formative feedback that informs daily instruction and student-directed learning.
Was this investment worth it? According to an internal study, student proficiency levels on state tests moved from the 33rd percentile to the 87th percentile among similar school districts in California. Students have maintained a 97 percent attendance rate for the past five years and a 94 percent graduation rate, and school climate measures have improved.
Research Supports Tech Strategies
According to the U.S. Department of Education, well-designed, technology-based instruction can be as effective as or more effective than in-classroom learning alone, if interactive tools that support student inquiry and agency are used to supplement teachers’ instruction. Students do better when they can go at their own pace, on their own time, when they have some choice over their learning strategies, and when materials encourage them to engage deeply and critically with course content.
For example, in one study, students who were allowed to watch and replay assigned videos in any order significantly outperformed those who had to watch videos in a predetermined order. Giving students control over when and how to use learning materials enhances their motivation and performance and provides an opportunity to explicitly teach time management and self-regulation.
High-quality blended learning also enables quicker teacher feedback and greater real-world relevancy. For example, eighth-grade students whose teachers integrated the use of the Pathways to Freedom Electronic Field Trips in teaching about the Underground Railroad outperformed those who had the same units without the online materials. Fifth-grade science students in Taiwan who used a web-based science lab that allowed them to conduct virtual experiments while teachers observed and corrected errors online outperformed in-person lab students. And elementary special education students in five urban schools using a web-based writing program outperformed those who had the same materials in hard copy in the classroom.
None of these practices is meant to supplant or subvert strong relationships between students and teachers, which are the essential ingredient for all learning. Instead, they use interactive technologies in concert with teachers to help students explore and create.
One review of literature noted that computer-based drill and rote-learning programs—favored in high-poverty schools to teach basic skills—are ineffective, especially when compared to authentic uses of technology to engage in research, inquiry, and demonstration of knowledge in wealthier schools. After a difficult year in which higher-poverty schools were less likely to be in person, we must prioritize the kinds of innovative practices that accelerate rather than remediate.
Tech and Training
Teachers should not be expected to learn effective uses of technology on their own. The pandemic has highlighted the dire need for better ways to develop and share expertise across the teaching profession. Innovative teacher and leader preparation programs such as those that are part of the EdPrepLab network are sharing practices with each other through affiliation groups, online learning cafes, webinars, and a practice-based website.
Educators already in the field also need the ability to learn from one another so that innovative practices developed in one school can be established in others. During pandemic site closures, Long Beach Unified School District in California allowed students and teachers from across the district to tune in to lessons offered by expert teachers. As many as 2,000 students and dozens of educators watched these lessons, which became part of demonstration classes used for teacher and student learning. The district has continued the practice by recording video of lessons taught online and in person and making them available to teachers throughout the district.
Many districts seeking to share innovation and expertise among classrooms are turning to microcredentialing. Microcredentials allow teachers to demonstrate competency in blended learning, performance-based assessment, social-emotional learning, trauma-informed practice, teacher peer mentoring, and more, earning recognition in their areas of expertise. This provides an avenue for teachers to explore the areas of professional development that they value.
Microcredentialing also provides a means for school leaders to identify mentors and professional development leaders so that they can more quickly tap the expertise of colleagues as a resource for teacher-to-teacher learning. Teachers can develop and demonstrate these areas of expertise at any juncture in their career. To support schools and districts, some states are developing systems of microcredentialing for both pre- and in-service educators. Digital Promise, an independent organization authorized by Congress, offers a range of microcredentials for teachers and school leaders, including a number that focus on securing digital access for students and working effectively with blended learning.
Creating Time for Collaboration
To support new forms of teaching and take advantage of innovations that occurred during the pandemic, we should also use this moment to secure more collaboration time for teachers in schools. U.S. educators have traditionally had less time to collaborate with each other than their counterparts in other countries.
International TALIS surveys found that U.S. middle school teachers teach more students, on average, and are responsible for about 40 percent more teaching time per week than their international peers. The U.S. ranks first in the world for teachers’ instructional hours per week and year, and near the bottom for planning and collaboration time, creating an environment that makes it difficult for teachers to share best practices and learn from one another.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that U.S. teachers have been less likely than the “average” teacher to report that they observe other teachers’ classes and provide feedback, teach as a team, or take part in collaborative professional learning. Yet collaboration time is ranked by teachers as among the most important factors in their learning and decision to remain in the classroom, and research finds that those who work in collegial, collaborative work settings grow more rapidly in effectiveness. TALIS data also shows that the more opportunities teachers have to collaborate, the more likely they are to try and use new technologies and teaching practices that deepen students’ learning.
While a minority of schools had previously redesigned time management to support teacher collaboration, the pandemic brought widespread structural changes that could benefit teacher collaboration in the years to come. In many districts, schools changed schedules overnight to accommodate distance learning, organizing more “teaming” and collaboration time among teachers than ever before.
According to RAND’s 2021 American School District Panel survey, 7 out of 10 districts altered their schedules. Many districts freed up a full day each week for teacher learning and collaborative planning during distance or hybrid learning. Securing collaboration time for U.S. teachers—the eight additional hours, on average, that their international colleagues experience each week—should become a goal for the “new normal.”
Positives to Practice
Though the past school year was traumatic, it produced positive innovations in technology, training, and time management that should endure. Strengthening blended learning will require not only new professional development opportunities, but also sufficient collaborative planning time for educators to learn and innovate together.
Purposeful use of evidence-based technology, reimagined teacher roles, and adequate time for collaboration will help educators reinvent schools in ways that boost staff retention and student outcomes. If we embrace the practices that have worked over the past year, we can better engage the students who were so underserved by the old normal.
Linda Darling-Hammond is president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University. She is also president of California’s State Board of Education.
Adam Edgerton is a senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute.