Due to the rapid transition to online and blended instruction in response to COVID-19, schools and districts have faced unprecedented challenges that continue into the new year. At the same time, there is also a growing recognition that technology is an essential tool not only for the continuity of learning in the short-term, but also an accelerator to effective learning practice through and beyond the pandemic.
A bipartisan coalition that includes former U.S. Secretaries of Education recently called for a reimagined education system, led by educators with deep knowledge of how technology enables them to rethink instructional time and pedagogy, foster collaboration and connections, authentically assess individual needs and ultimately empower students to have agency in their learning.
Meeting the challenges identified by educators must involve a comprehensive approach to digital readiness that is led by states. This approach needs to build on the actions taken in response to the pandemic to rethink what effective learning accelerated by technology looks like.
What states can do
ISTE and ExcelinEd offer the following best practices for state leaders as they establish and implement an ambitious vision for the future of learning that aims to empower students and educators with technology.
1. Set a shared vision for the future of learning enabled through technology, and provide guidance to districts on how to meet the digital literacy needs of stakeholders.
COVID-19 provides a unique moment for state leaders to collaborate with — and generate buy-in among — stakeholders by developing a vision and guiding framework for the effective, empowering learning practices enabled through technology. This effort is critical whether learning occurs in face-to-face, online or blended environments. It can be achieved in part through a deeper focus on comprehensively adopting and implementing a set of model digital literacy standards, such as those developed by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) — the latest generation of which is adopted in 22 states.
2. Leverage public funds, as well as community resources, to close the digital divide for both students AND educators.
Leaders must continue to mobilize resources, including public funds and community resources, to ensure immediate device and internet connectivity access for all students. For example, led by Governor Ned Lamont’s Everybody Learns Initiative, Connecticut was named the first state in the nation to ensure every PK-12 student in need has access to a learning device and a reliable, at-home internet connection (estimated at nearly 82,000 laptops and 44,000 at-home internet connections).
State policymakers must also ensure that educators, often left behind in digital divide conversations, have access to internet connectivity and devices outside of the classroom. Research suggests that up to 400,000 K–12 teachers — roughly 10 percent of all public school teachers — live in households without adequate access to internet connectivity, and 100,000 teachers lack adequate home computing devices.
3. Build the capacity of educators to lead and implement effective learning strategies enabled through technology.
States can prioritize opportunities found in federal and state funding (including new federal ESSER II funds) to expand professional development — such as online learning and data privacy skills training, ongoing coaching, and related resource sharing — thereby ensuring that educators can optimize their use of technology to empower students and build skills and competencies critical for postsecondary education and the workforce. Such capacity building efforts must also place equity at the forefront so that all districts have adequate resources to leverage and scale the professional development.
For example, to ensure that educators can use technology to support critical competencies, Virginia adopted new Digital Learning Integration Standards in 2020, adapted from the language of the ISTE Standards for Students. The department leverages existing resources to further reinforce the “5 C’s” during COVID-19. Virtual Virginia, originally designed as an online school platform, now hosts free access to online learning content, professional learning support for educators, support tools for counselors, and technology support for students. Additional high-quality, standards-aligned instructional resources are made widely accessible through the#GoOpenVAhub.
Furthermore, state-level strategic incentives (e.g. micro-credentials, relicensure credits, endorsements) are needed to ensure that educators are recognized for developing and applying their knowledge of effectively integrating technology into instruction.
4. Collaborate with educators to develop policies and structures to guide schools and districts equitably and sustainably toward the future of learning.
Educators should have a seat at the table during policy conversations, where they can give firsthand insights into successes with technology-enabled instruction that must continue to be supported, as well as challenges that remain to be addressed. This can mean granting educators a more significant role in education board meetings, requests for information processes or other state-level approaches to decision-making that either directly or indirectly involve schools, students and educators.
Furthermore, instructional support personnel play a critical role in coaching educators to see how different digital tools and resources can accelerate effective learning practices. Therefore, state policymakers can support funding critical instructional support staff, such as technology coaches and library media specialists, to ensure that educators at all levels of experience are prepared to design and lead effective learning strategies supported by technology. State policymakers can additionally rethink policies around traditional instructional time and assessments, which allows flexibility for educators in approaching those learning strategies.
Why does this work matter?
Challenges to learning brought upon by COVID-19 continue into 2021, and early data suggests dire implications for equity, as students from historically disadvantaged communities are beginning to fare worse compared to their peers. In addition, rapid increases in the use of digital tools and resources make it likely that our reliance on digital learning is likely to grow far beyond the pandemic.
Therefore, we are at a critical juncture to support all our educators with both access to digital devices and connectivity, as well as ongoing preparation on how to provide effective learning experiences that leverage technology. Otherwise, we risk missing out on a window of opportunity to equitably serve students and educators as we strive toward the future of learning.
ExcelinEd is working on resources to support states in effectively leveraging funding, resources and policy support for educator professional learning.
Ji Soo Song is a senior policy advisor at ISTE. He leads research, analysis and communication of federal, state and local policy issues related to digital learning standards, educator credentialing systems and professional development funding streams.
Divya Sridhar is policy director of digital equity at ExcelinEd and has more than 10 years of experience in edtech and health IT policy.
This blog post was originally published by ExcelinEd on Feb. 2, 2021.