A few weeks ago, I had a request to remove Zoom from our student devices, and block students from reinstalling it. “We’re never going back to that,” the teacher explained. Apparently the fifth graders are using the chat function in Zoom to talk to one another, which she wants to stop.
By “that,” she meant remote schooling. At the start of the pandemic, we leaned heavily on technology to continue instruction. Students took their devices home. They had Zoom and Google Classroom and lots of apps and strategies and work-arounds to try to continue learning. Those first three months were tough, but we did the best that we could.
There has also been a push from some teachers to discontinue the take-home 1:1 program. As it turns out, ubiquitous access to technology isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. They would prefer that we keep the devices in carts in the classrooms, so students can use them when they’re in class. We don’t want to use technology to extend learning beyond the classroom. The tech creates too many problems for that to be practical, especially in elementary school.
That stings a little. I’ve spent the last 20 years working to provide anytime / anywhere access to technology for all learners. I walked the path from unthinkable to impractical right through to possible and then difficult and finally expected and commonplace. It took a long time. It was a lot of work. Along the way, I never wavered from the contention that technology is a catalyst for pedagogical change. If we don’t use technology to do the things we can’t do without it, it’s a waste of time and money. Use technology to personalize instruction. Use technology to foster collaboration. Give students tools to demonstrate their learning in unique, engaging ways. Help them be creative, innovative problem solvers.
But, as it turned out, we didn’t do that. When we finally threw ourselves off the cliff into the waters of digital learning, we used it as a lifeline. Technology’s role during the pandemic was to replicate classroom instruction. We scrambled to find ways to make online learning look just like classroom learning. I suggested, then, that maybe we should think about teaching differently. The pandemic gave us the perfect excuse to try new things. When there are no expectations for success, there are no consequences for failure. On more than one occasion, I observed that doing anything is better than doing nothing. Time could be a variable. Differentiation and personalization were possible in ways that were impractical when we were in school. We should rethink the relative scarcity and abundance of online and face to face instruction.
At the time, I was justifiably criticized for being tone deaf. We’re in a crisis. We just need to get through this. Don’t expect teachers to completely change public education while they’re trying to navigate a global pandemic. So I eased back. And we used technology as a substitution for classroom instruction. It worked about as well as a meatless hot dog. Sure, it has protein. And if I put it on a bun with enough mustard and relish, I can probably choke it down. But as soon as there’s a real hot dog available, I’m going right back to that.
And now, two years later, that’s where we are. Take the devices away. We don’t need them anymore. They’re not really worth the trouble.
I’d argue that the field of educational technology is much cloudier than it was two years ago. Everyone’s more familiar with the tools. Everyone can conceptualize how hybrid learning can work. And everyone knows they want nothing to do with it. The trauma of the pandemic is hopelessly intertwined with video conferencing and online assignments and screencasting and learning management systems. There’s no recovering from that.
I’ve thought a lot about what edtech looks like after the pandemic. And in my school district, we’re there. This year, we haven’t had more than 3.6% of our students out of school on any given day for COVID-related reasons. The average has been about 0.6%. We don’t report COVID cases every day anymore. It’s not a standard agenda item in every meeting I’m in. We’re about as close to back to normal as we’re going to get.
So what’s next? Our teachers appear to be more comfortable and less enthusiastic about the technology than they were two years ago. Some of our parents are pining for the days when their kids didn’t have devices in their hands all the time. Our school leaders are trying to respond to a still-recovering school community, and want to give them the support they need.
So it looks like we’ll be starting to take small steps away from edtech. We’ll be actively working to reduce ubiquitous access to technology for students. That’s a very new world for me. It’s going to take a lot of patience and reflection for me to learn to navigate and support this. I never imagined that the future of education would be less digital.