How technology-driven teaching strategies have changed during the pandemic

Two years of intermittent distance and hybrid learning have expanded schools to use some of the best known technology tools in K-12, opening the door to educational changes both small and big.

This is according to a review of more than two dozen surveys conducted on a nationally representative sample of teachers, principals, and district leaders by the EdWeek Research Center between March 2020 and January 2022. Areas of greatest growth include:

  • Using software to address literacy gaps among primary school students.
  • Expanded use of learning management systems, which even the most tech-savvy teachers turn to to perform at least basic classroom management tasks.
  • Complement the core curriculum with online mathematics education tools.

Interviews with the leaders behind some of the most popular educational technology tools in each of these categories highlight sudden changes in technology use.

“Go back two years, and we were expecting a bump,” Khan Academy founder Sal Khan said in an interview. “But it ended up being as big as our most aggressive assumptions.”

Trendlines are still changing, especially as schools promote their return to full-time in-person learning. But with more than $190 billion in federal relief money roaming through the nation’s public education system and counties everywhere looking to reverse the blanket “incomplete learning” millions of students have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, it will likely continue to Some products and educational changes.

Schools turn to software to address literacy gaps in early grades

As early as the summer of 2020, teachers were already turning to familiar technology tools to help students whose reading education was interrupted while school buildings in the country were closed due to COVID-19. 45 percent of those surveyed by EdWeek Research Center at the time said that the digital resources they had were “very effective” for remote English/Language Arts teaching, and 63 percent of teachers involved in early literacy education said they were using reading programs digital frequently.

That interest has pushed educational technology giant Renaissance Learning in two different directions, said Eric Swanson, vice president of product management, placement, and education. The company has seen a sharp decline in use of its popular Accelerated Reader software, which provides teachers with customized tests and recommendations for thousands of books, but has historically relied on students who could access printed materials in physical libraries. But use of myON, the company’s comprehensive digital library service, has skyrocketed.
“Student interaction with myON literally doubled from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020,” said Swanson. “It was both new customers who joined the service, and students who had already been able to use it more.”

In response to divergent trends, Renaissance Learning has taken several steps. First, the company has ramped up existing efforts to link Accelerated Reader and myON so that tests and recommendations of the former can be used with the digital texts of the latter. Similar integrations have followed with newly acquired products like Schoolzilla, which provides data dashboards, and Nearpod, which allows teachers to push digital resources into student devices. Renaissance developers also added new features to Accelerated Reader that allowed teachers and administrators to track when exams were taken at home versus at school.

Over time, Swanson said, schools have begun to return to Accelerated Reader, while the amount of time students spend on myON has decreased.

The landscape changed again, however, when Congress approved massive allocations to the federal ESSER Fund, which has provided money to schools as part of massive COVID-19 relief packages. The legislation established learning loss recovery as a priority for counties receiving money. As a result, 61 percent of survey respondents told EdWeek Research Center in April 2021 that they plan to use federal funds to address ELA learning loss among elementary students. Accelerated Reader was on standby to be part of COVID-19 Learning Recovery plans in many areas.

Swanson said tech companies now face the death penalty. Schools are evaluating tools in their technology ecosystems that are easier to use, have the clearest evidence of effectiveness and are most flexible in a variety of settings, from basic instruction in traditional classrooms to home practice to online teaching.

“Things will go a little slower as we go back to school and school districts review the resources they bought and get rid of some of the tools that were bought during the pandemic,” he said.

More teachers are using the basic functions of learning management systems

Just two months after COVID-19 closed physical schools in the country, 68 percent of survey respondents told EdWeek Research Center that they are now using online learning management systems to collect and return student work. By the summer of 2020, three-fifths of principals and district leaders said they had provided teacher training on how to do such essential tasks.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of this shift has been Google, which has seen the use of its Classroom LMS offering.

In the past year, which of the following technology-related skills were included in teacher professional development in your district or school?  Choose all that apply.  (Top)

In the past year, which of the following technology-related skills were included in teacher professional development in your district or school?  Choose all that apply.  (lower)

“With the onset of the pandemic, our user base quadrupled from 40 million to 150 million in just a few weeks,” said Akshat Sharma, Classroom’s lead product manager. “The realization is starting to sink in that we have the opportunity and the responsibility to meet the needs of millions of teachers.”

One of the biggest transformations during those early months of distance learning, Sharma said, is that Classroom has moved from a complementary tool to a central hub. The company has also noticed a significant increase in first-time users. And large numbers of people started accessing the platform via mobile phones instead of computers.

In response, Google engineers began working overtime to develop cleaner integration with the company’s video conferencing platform (Meet) and other commonly used third-party software tools. They’re also starting to add new features to make it easier for administrators to roll out Classroom apps at the school or district level. They have developed an ‘offline’ mode so that students who struggle to find a reliable WiFi signal on their mobile devices can access their assignments.

Results?

By the start of the 2021-22 school year, 48 percent of survey respondents told EdWeek Research Center that they had started using Google Classroom during the pandemic and planned to continue, the highest number of all products asked by name. Only 10 percent of respondents expected to stop using Classroom.

Sharma said Google would be ready if these educators continue to use the platform as a central hub, or if they return to using it as a supplemental resource.

“Honestly, I don’t think we’re going to decide that,” he said. “It’s really up to the teachers.”

Mathematics emerges as a focus of technology-based lessons and complementary support

Sal Khan is not surprised that many districts have turned to the nonprofit Khan Academy as part of their COVID-19 educational recovery plan.

During the pandemic’s early weeks, he said, the nonprofit group saw global usage increase from 30 million to more than 80 million “learning minutes” a day.

“Whether they’re in or out of the classroom, students can get as much practice and feedback on their level as possible,” said the founder of the popular nonprofit, which now has 70 million users in 190 countries.

The numbers plummeted to the ground as the country returned to full-time in-person learning. But it is clear that long-term changes are afoot. Last summer, 66 percent of principals and district managers for the EdWeek Research Center said they expect to increase their use of blended learning — a combination of face-to-face and digital education in the classroom. Thirty-six percent expected more intensive digital teaching offerings.

Based on what you see this school year, in which three areas do you think your district will have to make the most investment in the next school year (2022-23) to combat

Based on what you see this school year, in which three areas do you think your district will have to make the most investment in the next school year (2022-23) to combat

Khan and his organization adapt accordingly.

Khan Academy, for example, has expanded its “zones” offering, which aims to facilitate system-wide implementations by offering extensive training and better integration with student information systems and digital dashboards that can be used to track student growth. During the pandemic, Khan has also launched a peer-to-peer online education platform called Schoolhouse.world. Khan said the Long Beach Unified School District in California is already experimenting with the platform, even paying some of its high school students to work as teachers.

The challenge ahead of us is very steep. Researchers at the NWEA, makers of a standardized assessment given to millions of elementary and middle school students each year, found a significant drop in math performance compared to before the pandemic. The resulting gaps are highest in schools that serve the highest percentage of poor students.

But Khan has a plan for that, too. His group has also partnered with the NWEA to help ensure Khan Academy use is linked to interim assessments already in use by districts and that student progress is psychologically valid and linked to district comprehensive education plans.

“I think in 2022-23, we hope to go back to where we were in 2019, perhaps with more independent online student work,” he said. “This is a long game. We want to be here for generations.”

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