Reimagining Learning: The Greatest EdTech Experiment Ever Conducted

Almost subconsciously, I signed off many of our weekly edtech professionals check- in calls quoting Elroy Jetson being hoisted by his suspenders after a playdate at the end of his school day taught by a robot in his futuristic classroom. Beginning in early March, when the Covid-19 pandemic forced Jewish day schools and yeshivas to pivot quickly and launch online teaching and learning, a group of edtech professionals has gathered online for a weekly conversation, learning from each other, comparing experiences, crowdsourcing solutions and developing supportive colleagues and peers. The Prizmah EdTech Reshet has since become an online community discussing topics such as edtech tools, classroom technology setup, professional development for teachers, Zoom functionality, mobile device management and online assessment of student learning.

In a 2013 Smithsonian Magazine article, Matt Novak explored the future of education through the cartoon experience of Elroy Jetson and a comic strip from the 1950-60s by Arthur Radebaugh, “Closer Than We Think.” Both Radebaugh and The Jetsons portray a futuristic vision for education, and looking back over these last six months, we can imagine Elroy feeling very much at home in our pandemic learning environment.

The description of Radebaugh’s classroom puts it best: “Teaching would be by means of sound movies and mechanical tabulating machines. Pupils would record attendance and answer questions by pushing buttons.”

As entertaining as it is, the futuristic portrayal of education is different from our current reality in that it focuses most on the technology, and not on teaching and learning. Technology is only effective in a school when it supports and helps teachers and students achieve their educational goals.

The grand experiment that we are currently engaged in is providing a window into the question of an effective use of technology as an educational tool for schools and can potentially serve as an accelerant for educational technology throughout our field. According to a United Nations report, at its peak in mid-April, the coronavirus caused school closures in 190 countries, impacting 90% of students, or almost 1.6 billion people globally. At that same time, the download and use of education apps surged 90% compared to the fourth quarter in 2019.

Before the pandemic, Jewish schools varied widely in the extent of their incorporation of educational technology. Some schools intentionally limited the use of technology, some employed a 1:1 device policy, while others developed extensive technology-enabled, personalized learning. Despite prior differences, the coronavirus crisis has put everyone in the same position: Technology is the lynchpin of a school’s coronavirus response.

Technology has been essential for learning and has touched every aspect of school life. Schools celebrated and commemorated, gathered online for Jewish holidays and graduations, extracurriculars, co-curricular activities, student, parent and community meetings. Schools reached well beyond the walls of their buildings and campuses, hosting adult education, virtual tours for prospective parents, town hall meetings to update the community on their response to the crisis, share guidance from medical experts, and provide access to elected and religious officials, positioning schools differently, and in many cases, giving schools much greater exposure than they had before. The pandemic made it necessary, and a new relationship with technology made it possible.

An innate culture of innovation as well as, for many schools, previous investment in integrating technology into the educational environment contributed significantly to their initial success. Whether through 1:1 device programs, Google Classroom or edtech tools teachers were already using, many Jewish day schools already had some degree of technological aptitude. After the transition, synchronous learning was the initial default for many schools; teachers taught students through some online video interface like Zoom, Google Meet or Teams. The Brady Bunch or Hollywood Squares of classes kept teachers and students in contact with one another and provided continuity for teaching and learning that was an essential first step.

“Zoom fatigue” quickly kicked in, and many school leaders, parents, teachers and of course students realized that recreating the classroom environment online required more pivoting, revisiting curricula, exploration and adoption of additional edtech tools, resource investment and professional development. The weekly Reshet check-ins dove deep into these areas and many others. The professionals wove a peer- to-peer network and supported each other in the myriad decisions they were being asked to support, make and enable through technology.

The online learning models that schools continued to hone through the end of the school year were a testament to the commitment to educational excellence no matter the modality. Naturally, challenges remain. These include engaging students, creating classroom community and relationships with teachers, improving the ability to learn remotely, enhancing facility with and access to technology for teachers and students, differentiatiing lessons, assessing student learning, and caring for the social and emotional health of students and teachers.

The return to school this fall saw continued online learning for some schools and a return to in-person teaching for many. As we move through the opening weeks of our school year, even as schools are attending to current challenges, they are considering more long-lasting impacts on education. Will the great edtech experiment change how Jewish day schools use technology to achieve our educational goals? Will the technology that became an essential resource during our Covid-19 response be integrated into how we educate for years to come? Can the Jewish day school experience with educational technology through the pandemic accelerate adoption of new methods and models for teaching?

To answer these questions and design the future of educational technology in a post-pandemic world, leaders of Jewish day schools will need to reimagine the role of technology in their schools. Any conversation will be more thoughtful and informed given what we’ve learned from our forced experiment, and school leaders will need to take into account any and all of the above challenges schools have faced. At the core of these conversations, though, are two key issues that can serve as the foundation for what we can imagine for the future:

An articulated vision for educational technology that aligns with school values and educational goals;

Dedication of resources to support the successful integration of educational technology.

Technology is not a goal in and of itself; it is a means to achieving an educational goal. Many schools can clearly articulate their goals. For example, they may seek to educate students for future success, teach students to convey their ideas, foster intellectual curiosity and empathy, differentiate instruction, empower and assess student learning. A vision for educational technology should articulate how technology is in service of goals like these. School leaders are often negotiating external and internal pressures in schools to rapidly adopt technological solutions without articulating what the solution is for. The pressures to move to 1:1 devices, use Smart Boards, flip classrooms, use online curricula and instruction create scenarios where schools have building materials but no plan. Beginning with the technology solution before articulating educational goals and how they align with school values will result in an environment where educational technology is not widely adopted, is not serving an educational goal, and feels more like a shiny toy rather than a powerful tool for learning.

Throughout their coronavirus response, schools have invested significantly in educational technology. To prepare for the fall 2020 academic year, a Prizmah pulse survey reported that schools spent on average $36,367 and as much as $200,000 on educational technology. Clearly, there is a monetary investment that is necessary for educational technology, and that price tag can be significant. That has always been coupled with a concern for smart investment. Will the hardware or software become obsolete? Will faculty and students adopt the tools? But the financial cost and budget implications are only one dimension of the resource question.

When considering the role educational technology will play in classrooms, we must also weigh the other resources that need to be dedicated for successful integration. Any new technology leads to both an investment in and additional burden on the faculty. How much more can we ask of our teachers in service of the educational excellence to which they are the most committed? Any new tool or resource demands hands-on training, ongoing support and experimentation to encourage adoption throughout a school faculty. The student experience is also essential to address. Without an intentional and focused vision for educational technology, students may be forced to use and learn a whole litany of tools, facing a learning curve just to remember which app to use for which class. In addition, we must ensure that we do not compromise on the social- emotional learning of students when developing our visions for educational technology.

Finally, our weekly check-in has led me to deeply appreciate another essential resource: educational technology professionals. Their tireless efforts have contributed significantly to the expanding value proposition of Jewish day schools. Their roles have evolved

during the pandemic, and much of what schools have been able to accomplish in classrooms—online or in person, through community engagement, with digital health screening, in outdoor learning spaces, and in every aspect of school that is being made possible through technology—rests on their shoulders. What many of them have been convinced about for some time, that educational technology promotes good pedagogy and should play a central role in education, has clearly reached its moment. How can we invest in their role in framing these essential conversations and promote their leadership in our schools?

From the early days of Covid, administrators, teachers and edtech professionals have continued to learn and iterate, investing in technology and ongoing professional development to promote educational excellence. Now is the time for us to consider the future.

How will we accelerate the adoption and integration of educational technology into our schools?

Marc Wolf
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning, School Policies and Procedures
Published: Fall 2020