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Here's one positive of the pandemic: Teachers are more technology literate

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Among the all-time epic opposites — Jekyll and Hyde, Beauty and the Beast, Abbott and Costello — the 21st century has added another whose chiaroscuro nature needs just one word: technology.

Tech’s Hyde side has gotten the most attention this autumn, thanks to that controversy-spewing volcano, Facebook. I was among the millions inconvenienced by its global meltdown Oct. 4, the result of a configuration snafu. That glitch was quickly fixed; more lasting will be the PR damage from a whistleblower’s internal documents dump on the Wall Street Journal. The paper’s resulting exposé revealed Facebook executives as all too aware of their various platforms’ potential to poison teens’ mental health and public discourse. The stock market spanked Facebook; critics demanded a “Big Tobacco moment” of regulation for Big Tech.

Yet at the same time — and against all expectations — it took the great scourge of our era, COVID-19, to show us the benign, Jekyll face of technological advancement. While Facebook’s belly-flops dominated the news cycle, technology is quietly remaking schooling for the better, according to teachers.

Last year, the virus forced educators into a crash course in remote instruction, then into another on so-called hybrid teaching: how to effectively educate kids when half of them Zoom in while the other half gazes at you from their seats 10 feet away. Those pedagogical acrobatics were daunting. But in a recent, representative poll of more than 1,000 teachers, half said that they’ve gained confidence in adopting technology to better engage students, with nearly six out of 10 more confident about trying new engagement ideas generally.

Only a minority of respondents said they’ve gone back this school year to pre-pandemic pedagogy. The older the grade, the bolder the teachers. Sixty-one percent of preschool teachers partly or completely changed their approach; for kindergarten-through-fifth, it was 75%; sixth-through-eighth, 79%, and ninth-through-12th, 82%.

Overall, three-quarters of respondents said they would mix old and new strategies in their teaching this year, with a fraction of that group saying they’ll change everything in their approach.

Khan Academy, the nonprofit developer of online educational tools that commissioned the poll, welcomed the findings: “They’re an opportunity to put the learnings of the pandemic to good use. Teachers can reflect on the tools and tactics that engage students and help them learn new skills. Education leaders can talk to teachers in their local areas and ask which tools worked — and which didn’t. Parents, who in many cases were sitting alongside their students during learning disruptions, may have insights too. Once these tools and practices are identified, education leaders and teachers can begin the work of integrating them into classrooms.”

While Facebook’s belly-flops dominated the news cycle, technology is quietly remaking schooling for the better, according to teachers.

A company devoted to educational technology would be expected to call the poll “heartening.” But research confirms the potential benefits of tech-enhanced tactics like flipped learning, which uses pre-class, online lectures as homework, then devotes class time to discussions, presentations and group activities.

A meta-survey of 300 studies concluded that flipped learning can be more effective than old-school lecturing. While those studies involved higher education, other research suggests positive results from applying the technique in high school.

Not everything is hunky-dory with tech in the classroom. Our son flourished while studying remotely; he games with kids from other countries and is comfortable absorbing and sharing information online. But his outcome was hardly universal among remote students. Even worse, tech-bereft regions saw their kids cheated out of their education. Topping governments’ COVID-induced to-do list are keeping in-person learning if humanly possible and building universal broadband.

Indeed, talk that technology can’t solve every problem was the marinade of September’s Code Conference in California, an ur-gathering for techies. Their humbling might inspire schadenfreude in we humanities majors who’ve had our noses rubbed in relentless STEM triumphalism. (I’ve cited before the joke about the engineering major who asks, “how does it work?,” the accounting major who asks, “how much does it cost?,” and the philosophy major who asks, “you want fries with that?”)

But the revenge of the anti-nerds shouldn’t obscure the unalloyed good of teachers’ newfound confidence with technology. From blackboard and chalk to those film strips beloved of my grade school teachers in the 1960s and '70s to Zoom, teachers should always experiment with new tools to better walk the diverse pathways to learning in student brains.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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