Blended future: 6 insights for post-COVID ed-tech transformation

Adaptive learning tools can close COVID learning gaps as most students return to in-person instruction
By: | June 24, 2021
Superintendents and their teams can leverage the strides made during online learning over the last year to further personalize learning and more deeply involve and engage parents.Superintendents and their teams can leverage the strides made during online learning over the last year to further personalize learning and more deeply involve and engage parents.
Shawn Smith, McGraw Hill

Shawn Smith, McGraw Hill

The massive, COVID-driven shift online has given educators a golden opportunity to merge ed-tech with in-person connections to create next-generation blended learning environments, says one thought leader.

One key to making this transformation and reshaping classrooms will be supporting teachers in the use of innovative digital tools, says Shawn Smith, McGraw Hill’s chief innovation officer.

Superintendents and their teams can leverage the strides made during online learning over the last year to further personalize learning and more deeply involve and engage parents, Smith says.

Below, Smith answers six questions detailing how administrators can achieve this goal and also close COVID learning gaps as many students return to in-person instruction.

“Over the past 14 months the educational system, which is traditionally slow to change, was forced to rapidly revolutionize,” Smith says. “While it is now becoming safe to resume in-person learning, we have an opportunity to reshape the classroom of the future, building on what we have learned over the past year.”

1. What lessons from 2020-21 will help educators use ed-tech to reshape classrooms?

Just as school in the time of COVID-19 taught us that learning can happen at home, it also taught us that learning doesn’t have to happen from roughly 8 am to 4 pm, Monday through Friday. Some industry experts believe that providing teachers more flexibility in their jobs could help boost teacher retention, through remote work, collaboration with peers, and flexible professional development.

Many parents enjoyed the convenience of remote parent-teacher conferences, which eliminated the burden of a commute or scheduling challenges. For students, there will never be a one-size-fits-all approach to scheduling that suits every learner’s need—but many school leaders have made the connection between flexible timelines and competency-based instruction, where the emphasis is on what the student knows about the content, not when, where, or how long it took them to complete the work.

2. What type of ed-tech will most be effective in driving this transformation and why?

While COVID-19 forced students and teachers online, the reality is that the digital classroom has been a decade in the making. McGraw Hill’s adaptive learning tools, such as ALEKS, help teachers zero in on exactly the areas where a student needs help.

These digitally personalized tools have long been great at helping teachers to precisely target the exact, granular topic a student needs help on, thereby helping teachers make the most of their valuable one-on-one time with students. But in the COVID era, when individual teacher-student contact has never been more scarce or more precious, we really saw these tools put to the test like never before, and we saw the real value they can add. As we move into the post-COVID classroom, that’s a technology we’re going to see more of, not less.

3. How can ed-tech personalize learning and better engage parents?

To support both academic and social-emotional learning, many districts are reflecting on the role that students’ families and local communities played during the pandemic. Parents were given increased proximity to their children’s learning journeys and served as close partners with educators in making remote learning work.

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This rapid and unexpected shift in roles certainly made clear the need for a strong connection between home and school, and I expect that we will see district leaders creatively engaging families and leveraging COVID-19-era methods long after the pandemic has passed. In a similar vein, COVID-19 may have also elevated the role that students’ local communities play in learning, and the value of district-community partnerships, such as those that expand access to internet connectivity.

4. What are the best ways to implement blended learning to take advantage of the best of in-person and the best of online learning?

In the K-12 space, we’ve been pursuing the same goal for what seems like decades: personalization at scale. The barriers are no longer primarily technological. Broadband wireless access is nearly ubiquitous. There is ample funding available to bring devices and connectivity into the homes of the disadvantaged.

It is the routines of the teaching practice that are now beginning to change that hold the most promise. On grade level, whole-class instruction can now be augmented more easily by above- and below-grade-level digital content to help ensure that students are learning faster and more deeply than ever before.

It is our job to ensure that the data our solutions generate be easily accessed and understood by the teacher and the student (and the parent) to improve engagement and commitment to the learning process with a perpetual, near real-time feedback loop. It’s the information content generated by our subject-matter content that will help make this reality.

5. How can ed-tech narrow the learning gap created by COVID this summer and fall? What is the “right way” to utilize ed-tech?

Adaptive learning technologies that identify student learning gaps and respond with instruction tailored to individual needs will be particularly effective tools this summer and beyond. At McGraw Hill, we developed our new personalized learning solution, Rise, in alignment with NWEA’s COVID-19 Slide research.

Rise leverages adaptive technology to identify gaps and create a unique learning sequence and pace for each student. Rise is curated from proven content and is uniquely designed to ensure that students aren’t revisiting lessons they’ve covered in other programs. Teacher assignments can focus on filling individualized students’ gaps while also reinforcing mastery with students who are performing at grade level.

6. What question/s didn’t I ask that are important for superintendents and their teams in charting the path forward?

Adaptive technologies may also aid educators in promoting equity—Rise also has a component of offline access, to accommodate students with limited connectivity. Students can download their Rise assignments while connected, making learning available offline. Once their mobile devices are connected again, assignments and progress save across all devices and their scores sync back to the teacher.

With time, I believe that education technology will give teachers additional time to focus on social and emotional gaps and build those critical relationships with students that can truly only be fostered by the intuition and compassion of a skilled educator.

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