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It’s Been a Year: EdTech Lessons of Distance Learning

On Friday March 13, 2020, students and teachers left the classroom for what many of us believed would be a short period of virtual learning. Now, just over a year later, the field of education has changed drastically.

It’s been a year.

The reality is that this past year has shined light on a lot of problems in our education system. This past year has brought us new problems. This past year has exacerbated existing ones. And this past year has prompted people outside the profession to take interest in (arguably) more ways than ever before.

Many teachers, like myself, are tired, stressed, overwhelmed, and overworked.

Many students are dealing with trauma, difficult family situations, the digital divide, learning loss – the list goes on.

And while I don’t claim to be an eternal optimist – and while this year has been devastating in more ways than I can count – I can say that we have learned.

I realize this narrative of the past year being “unprecedented” and forcing us to “grow” is cliché and overused. There are a number of terms I wish to never hear again – “new normal,” “now more than ever,” and “you’re muted” to name a few.

The reality still remains that this past year has highlighted issues and inequities. And at the same time, this past year has shown us that edtech has the potential to amplify learning in transformative and meaningful ways.

In today’s blog post, I am sharing my top edtech lessons of distance learning. More specifically, I am sharing the tools and the edtech-related tips that I hope we will continue to utilize even when we are all back in the classroom, in-person and without social distancing measures in place.

As I often note with posts like these, I realize that these tips might not resonate with you. This is not meant to be prescriptive. At the end of the day, you know your classroom, your students, and your teaching far better than I ever could. Take what you like about this post, take the tips that apply to you, and shape them to fit your needs.

1. Try out new tools…

I’m going to guess that 75% of you reading this post right now had not heard of Zoom until March 2020. Maybe that is another cliché of the past year – but it’s true.

We tried it out. We learned how to use it. We taught it to our students. We made it work. And there were some really powerful moments of authentic, active learning that occurred on Zoom.

While I do not plan to use Zoom regularly in future school years (maybe I will to bring experts or authors to speak to my class), there are other tools that we tried for the first time.

Maybe you tried out Seesaw for the first time. Maybe you played Kahoot! with your class to boost student engagement. Maybe it worked!

Maybe you used Google Classroom to distribute assignments for the first time… and you are now wondering why it took you so long to give it a try.

We gave these tools a try, and it is my hope that we continue to give edtech tools and apps a try in future school years. Sure, technology can be tricky, but we have shown that we can do it. Our students have shown that they can do it. And look at all the learning that these tools have helped us create.

2. But keep it simple

As we continue to try out new edtech tools and apps, I also recommend that we keep it simple.

It can be easy to get excited by the flashy new tools. I have a tendency to dive right in and try out new apps as soon as I discover them.

But there is a lot to be said for keeping things simple. I personally believe that it is a lot more effective to use one tech tool to its fullest potential, rather than ten different tools half-heartedly.

In practice, “keeping it simple” looks like using a learning management system (LMS) to distribute and grade assignments. “Keeping it simple” also means streamlining use of tech tools so that students have clear expectations and understand why they might be using a specific tool.

You can keep it simple by ensuring that you are using tech to amplify learning, rather than just using tech for tech’s sake.

For concrete strategies on how to “keep it simple” with edtech, you can check out Episode 13 of the EdTech Classroom Podcast.

3. Use edtech to make learning interactive

Interactive learning is, in many ways, synonymous with hands-on, authentic, real-world learning. Learning by doing.

As teachers, we likely agree that students learn best by doing. This is not a new concept.

Educators have known for quite some time that students learn best through experience. John Dewey published Experience and Education in 1938, coincidentally amid the polio outbreak in the United States (PLEASE NOTE: I am not aware of any connection of Dewey’s work to the remote learning of the 1930s, but am mentioning the timeline here since this post, after all, is about edtech during a pandemic).

More than 80 years later, we are still discussing strategies to engage our students in active learning experiences.

Edtech, in particular, lends itself to interactive learning. There are so many interactive edtech tools and apps out there.

From game-based learning, like Kahoot!, Blooket, and Socrative… to other interactive presentation tools like Pear Deck, Nearpod, and EdPuzzle

More and more teachers have begun using edtech tools and apps that allow students to create and interact, rather than strictly consume.

My hope is that teachers continue to use and incorporate edtech to make learning interactive.

4. Create boundaries… using tech

This goes without saying, but teachers have been pulled in so many directions this past year. So many of us already work beyond contract hours during a typical school year, and during this past year of distance and hybrid learning, we have been stretched even more thin.

Teaching from home has blurred the boundary of work and home. When your home becomes your workplace, it can become easy to let work and teaching take over, if you do not have clear boundaries in place.

To be completely honest, I struggle with setting boundaries professionally. If I receive an email late at night and I read it, I will likely respond. If I am asked to do something on an unreasonably tight turn around, I’ll almost always say yes.

I know I am not alone in this. Though I do not want to generalize, I know that most teachers go above and beyond to support and do as much as possible for their students.

Here are some strategies using technology that can help with boundary setting:

  1. Turn off email notifications on your phone
  2. Avoid checking email after contract hours
  3. Set a vacation message during breaks and even weekends
  4. Use a task manager or to-do list app like Google Keep to stay organized
Google Keep Tutorial Video

5. Check-in and check-in often

Teachers are known for making students feel valued and loved. Every year, so many teachers are incredible in their ability to connect with students.

Even more than years prior, this past year has prompted us to regularly check-in with students and prioritize their needs. Relationship-building has been a top priority.

And while at times it has been really difficult to connect with certain students – particularly students who do not make it to class – it seems to me that there have been opportunities to connect 1:1 and more closely with students than before. This perhaps stems from the fact that we have regularly entered each other’s homes via a computer screen.

And this past year, teachers have successfully connected and built relationships with students using technology.

Existing tools like Google Forms have been used in new ways, allowing teachers to survey students and inquire how they can provide students with more support. And new tools like WellCheq have emerged, allowing teachers to monitor and support student wellbeing.

I hope that we continue to leverage tech tools to check-in and support students.

Some honorable mentions and learnings submitted by my podcast listeners:

  • Sweatpants are real clothes.
  • Family is everything.
  • The value of time, for we never know when things will change.

Thank you!

It’s been a year, teacher friends. What would you add to this list? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you.

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