By Bridget Duff, director of vertical sales solutions, education, Cox Business.
As the end of second semester nears, a lot has changed in education. Hybrid learning is the norm: students and teachers alike have adjusted to online learning in some form. Yet some things haven’t changed.
According to a recent study by Connected Nation, K-12 schools continue facing a sizeable digital learning gap, with 67% of students (31.5 million) currently in schools lacking the recommended internet connectivity speed of 1 megabits per second per student.
As we look to the year ahead, it’s clear that hybrid and online learning won’t be taking a back seat. If anything, innovation and digital literacy will become more important to educating students for the future. So, how can districts prepare to power the year ahead and beyond? By starting at the source – their IT infrastructure.
The Grace Period is Over
Earlier this year, the digital divide was more apparent than ever. Schools scrambled to connect students and faculty that lacked internet and personal devices at home. Teachers rushed to take their curriculums online and create an engaging learning environment. Districts struggled to maintain student success as absenteeism grew. In short, everyone was working around the clock to pick up the slack – but the time has come for a long-term solution.
A recent study by University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development and non-profit EdTech Evidence Exchange found that 86% of educators believe technology needs in schools will increase over the next three years. It also found that a similar majority think students will require more individualized instruction to meet their needs.
As we move beyond COVID-19, we should embrace the myriad applications for hybrid learning that can benefit the classroom. Now that schools have experienced executing virtual learning, they will likely find it useful for other situations – like inclement weather days, student sick days or to supplement in-class learning for students that need additional instruction and practice. Not only will the need for a robust infrastructure not subside, it will very likely continue to increase.
Bridging the Gap Long-Term
For many schools, a barrier to innovation with ed tech is lack of resources. And though many were able to secure funding through the CARES Act earlier this year, continued access to the resources needed to keep every student connected will be critical.
So how can today’s schools secure the funding to bridge the connectivity gap?
- Developing a plan is key. While this uncertain environment seems difficult, today’s educators should prioritize taking our learnings from COVID-19 and building a robust technology plan ‒ best-case targeting five years out. The plan should include goals for broadband speeds and bandwidth and upgrading equipment, as one directly affects the other and vice versa. A long-term strategy can be critical to help a district secure the funding needed to pay for upgrades.
- Understand what grants and funding are continuously available. Though CARES Act funding will eventually run out, the U.S. Department of Education has many ongoing grant programs available to leverage education technology. There are also many non-profits dedicating resources to help schools address the digital gap in the wake of COVID-19.
- Get to know non-profits and their partners. For example, the NCTA announced a partnership earlier this year with non-profit EducationSuperHighway (ESH) to launch a “K-12 Bridge to Broadband” program. This plan will help streamline the process for service provider companies and school districts to identify unconnected, but serviceable, student households and offer sponsored service arrangements this year.
And if you’ve already secured CARES funding and are identifying the best ways to allocate the budget, a good place to start is evaluating your current connectivity speeds and bandwidth to determine how you stack up to State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA)’s standards. You’ll also want to take into account any new technologies that you’ve brought in due to COVID-19 or plan to implement in the future. Your provider should be willing to help you identify these needs and make a plan to drive success in the classroom for years to come.
What to Expect in 2021
Though we are beginning to see approved vaccines, COVID-19 and its effects will not subside overnight. Hybrid learning will continue to support students in a variety of ways post-pandemic, and today’s classrooms need to continue to evolve to best serve their students.
Here are a few trends that educators and district leaders should keep in mind as 2021 unfolds:
- Mobile tech is here to stay ‒ As digital natives, todays’ students expect classroom tech to be readily available, COVID-19 or not;
- Data-driven insights improve learning – Apps let teachers administer homework, quizzes, tests and whatnot. Through artificial intelligence and machine learning, automated technology allows teachers to monitor and evaluate the progress students are making;
- Professional development is key ‒ Teachers must remain passionate about what they do. Therefore, they must continue partaking in enrichment programs and seminars so they can become more familiar with and confident in new competencies and advanced technologies that can advance their love of learning;
- Students love gamification ‒ Gaming helps create a fun and positive learning environment and can make the most reticent student excited about his or her studies;
- Students love social media and streaming video ‒ Many institutions have gone all-in with social media because it enables students and educators alike to interact with each other easily. There’s nothing like a YouTube video to demonstrate how to complete a math problem or to make sense of a remote chemistry lab session.
As educator Cornelius Minor told Tech & Learning, let’s not aim to go back to “normal” in education next year. Let’s use what we experienced this year to address the disparities in education and continue to use technology to close the gap. And as the classroom experience continues to evolve in 2021, ensure that your connectivity is up to the challenge.