What the Shortcomings of EdTech Mean for Improving Distance Learning and Schools

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Despite all the promises of education technology in transforming how students learn, change has been, at best, incremental. Bold claims have been made in the past decade about personalized learning, automated assessments and massive open online courses (MOOCs). But as someone who has spent the past decade researching education technology, Justin Reich observes:

“An oddity of my career is that I am an education technologist who often writes about how education technology fails to deliver on its promises.”

Reich is executive director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab and co-founder of EdTechTeacher. His latest book, "Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education," helps readers understand the systems operating through ed tech over the last 60 years: how venture capital backed technologies fall short of disruption; why people prefer incremental changes in how we learn, rarely transforming pedagogy; that tech – even when it’s free – favors those who already have privilege. Students of all ages who are better off socioeconomically will do better with tech because they already have access to the people and tools that can help them. Plus, their basic needs are met – perhaps, someone else is responsible for household duties – so they have less distractions from learning and can better practice self-regulation skills. He jokingly sums up the learning outcomes of MOOCs with a simplified observation he calls Reich’s Law: 

“People who do stuff do more stuff, and people who do stuff do better than people who don’t do stuff.”

After a decade of researching ed tech, and many more years spent teaching with tech in schools, Reich concludes that ed tech works best as a supplement – not a replacement – to good teaching, despite proclamations otherwise. 

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But now that so many students are being taught online via distance learning during a pandemic, economic recession and protests for racial justice, what must schools do to keep all students learning? 

Nurture Relationships

Most teachers know relationships are key to learning. Many schools have spent the beginning of the school year on relationship-building activities. But during distance learning, it’s going to be even more important to stay connected as students struggle to show up for class. He said consider scheduling one-on-one meetings with students, even if it takes all semester to schedule 7-minute meetings with all 120 students. Reich also suggests finding safe ways to do socially distanced home visits during nice weather or other ways to gather. 

“Relationships are the foundations of learning,” he said. “How are you going to build meaningful relationships and new connections with your students? And then with that as our goal, we can then think backwards into how technology does or doesn't let us do that.” 

Students may also feel like they’re missing out on relationship-building with one another when they’re lacking in extracurricular activities. In research Reich conducted in the spring when schools were closed, he and Jal Mehta asked students how they would like to connect. Students recommended having activities on digital platforms when in-person options were unavailable, like e-sports clubs. Students can participate in virtual debate teams or publish the school newspaper online. If a school already has a student tech team, they could help teachers and other students during this time.  

Make Cameras Optional  

The ability to see a student’s face can help teachers know if their lessons are working and identify who needs extra attention. But being removed from the public spaces physical schools provided have changed the stakes. As a student, giving others a window into your home for the scrutiny of oneself and others can interfere with learning.  In "Failure to Disrupt," Reich – who has designed and conducted research on edX MOOC users – described the social identity threat among adult students in less developed countries who take online classes taught by predominantly white faculty at elite western universities. He wrote, “Social identity threat occurs when learners use cognitive resources attending to concerns about stereotypes or feelings of exclusion rather than to learning.” 

Applying that lens to preteens and teens peering into one another’s homes via Zoom can feel like “an adolescent nightmare,” according to Reich, especially during an age when “you're hypersensitive to how the world perceives you and you're newly discovering a kind of social order.” 

It’s the opposite of a school environment that’s designed to have everyone in the same public space where each person has to “sit in the same crappy desk, bolted to the floor, and there's nothing that you can do about that,” he said.

When peering into one another’s lives through students’ cameras, kids will inevitably compare rooms or the strength of one’s internet connectivity and that can be distracting. “Students don't come in to have every learning interaction be filtered through those things,” he said. 

Instead of forcing students to turn on their cameras, Reich said teachers can create multiple pathways for active participation, such as asking students to send private messages about the content, speaking without the camera on or writing summaries that demonstrate the student’s knowledge. 

Network Teachers  

Teachers learn best from other teachers, whether they are in the same school or part of a professional community online. In his book, Reich details the teacher communities built around the math platform Desmos and coding tool Scratch as excellent examples of teachers learning from one another. Teachers have also been sharing on Twitter and TikTok how they’re communicating with kindergarteners, especially when weak internet connections can make a “yes” or “no” answer difficult to decipher. 

Have Mostly the Same Pedagogy 

Every crisis creates opportunities, but because of the severity of the pandemic and the conservative nature of schools, the way teachers teach will not be that different from what they did in the classroom before the pandemic, according to Reich. However, this is not that big of a stretch from how tech has operated in education in previous decades – incrementally. Lectures are online and worksheets are digitized, and a pandemic may not be the best time to try out something new, like competency-based learning — which could be a helpful tool for asynchronous learning — if the school hasn’t already been using it. 

“The challenge for a lot of these good practices is that they're hard to spool up in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “It’s a good time to grow in directions that you had already planted some seeds.”

Others Need to Step In

Schools closing in the spring magnified the extraordinary role they play in society: schools feed families, provide physical and mental health care, create a secure place outside of the home, provide physical exercise and socialization, and offer kids caring relationships with adults. Schools were also scrambling last March to provide internet service and devices to students at home. Getting a high speed internet connection was a huge hurdle for families who couldn’t afford it or didn’t qualify for discounts because of missed payments in the past. Calls to action to make the internet a public good because of these inequities have largely faded away, but students are still struggling to get online and schools are still trying to help. But this is where others should step in. 

“Your superintendent cannot roll fiber optic cable up the hollow and wire these homes,” said Reich. “Somebody else has to do this. And we don't want to pile all these things on schools because if they do that, they are not doing the learning things that we really want them to do.” 

Reich hopes that social institutions improve lives for children and families in a more lasting way, but he knows that this is multi-generational work. 

COVID-19 Won’t Be the Last Disruption to Schools

During COVID-19, there have been unprecedented wildfires on the West Coast, flooding in the Midwest and hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. Some schools have emergency preparedness plans for disruptions, but with climate change and other potential events, schools will have to be more adept.  

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“The challenges that we're experiencing are not going to go away,” Reich said. “There are going to be more pandemics and there are going to be more disruptions because of climate change. We do have to get better as a society at building interrupted school systems.”