Report: There’s no sign of slowing the K-12 digital transformation

A Project Tomorrow study shows that despite the quick shift to remote learning during COVID-19, educators, children and their parents have embraced technology like never before.

“In 2020, there will be many more educational videos, online class discussions, texting from teachers or other ways for students and teachers to communicate online. Everyone will have their own tablet or laptop. Everything will be online, and everyone will learn more.”

Julie Evans

Project Tomorrow CEO Julie Evans shared that quote this week at the virtual Speak Up Congressional Briefing. It was given by a Maryland sixth-grader during the same event five years ago, a bold prediction for the future that has proven prophetic.

Since then, COVID-19 has indeed forced a rapid shift to online learning. It also prompted Project Tomorrow to conduct its annual surveys before and during the pandemic this year, with a focus on the impact of technology. The results were eye-opening.

The surveys showed dramatic pivots in how students and teachers are communicating with each other, how teachers are embracing new technology and how parents now view remote instruction.

“Because of the fact that parents were now playing the role of a co-teacher or the support teacher at home during remote learning, they gained a much greater appreciation not only of the use of technology within their child’s learning life, but actually about the education process,” said Evans, a regular speaker at the Future of Education Technology Conference. “We think that’s a pretty dramatic change that can influence the way we think about schools, and in particular about school-to-home engagement and communication.”

Speaking of communication, parents, teachers and educators all said it has improved during the pandemic, with texting becoming the most utilized platform. Before the pandemic, only 25% of middle school students said they were communicating with teachers via text. Now, it’s more than 60%. Numbers also were similar at the high school level.

“We were surprised to see an increase in texting,” Evans said. “We did not see any difference in that data in 2016, ‘17, ‘18 or ‘19, or the beginning of this school year. But during the school closure, we saw a dramatic increase.”

Project Tomorrow offered up a raft of other data during a session called Digital Learning during the Pandemic: Emerging Evidence of an Education Transformation, which included insightful input from several student leaders. It noted in particular the way technology has affected parents, teachers and students differently. It’s something districts must consider as they look to the future.

“It’s not just about looking at some research and saying, well, that’s an interesting statistic, or that’s something I didn’t know,” Evans said. “It’s really more about how do we make it actionable, so that it impacts the policy conversation … and conversations that are happening in superintendent’s offices, school board office meetings and right in the classroom.”

Jose Luis Palaez/Getty Images

Where teachers stand

None of the groups has been more affected by the push to digital than teachers, and they have responded well, according to Project Tomorrow’s analysis.

In fact, they increased by 41% the use of online movies and simulations to help students with math and science concepts and also boosted offerings to students with “online curriculum, mobile apps for learning and could-based collaboration tools.”

More than that, they showed a desire for professional development around technology, with a 120% increase in wanting to learn how to teach an online class. They also expressed in interest in utilizing social media more to reach students and parents.

“Whereas many teachers had previously thought of technology exclusively as a tool for student engagement, we suddenly found with a sudden shift to digital learning technology, that it was the learning platform,” Evans said. “We also saw that as a result of the teacher’s increased experience using technology, it actually helped teachers become better informed about what constitutes quality in that digital content. We saw an elevated level of sophistication.”

Evans said teachers have been better able to discuss the benefits of technology and deliver more interactive content and lessons, too.

“Students felt that their teachers had a greater, more personalized understanding of what they needed to be successful,” Evans said.

How parents are coping

Project Tomorrow shared several points on how well parents are dealing with all the changes.

Parents now believe tech tools are not only providing more personalized learning but also offering greater transparency between themselves, the teachers and their children.

Project Tomorrow said that prior to the pandemic, only 55% of parents believed technology gave their children an edge in the classroom. Now, that number is 75%.

However, parents also learned that being involved in the implementation of technology was a lot more difficult than they previously thought.

What students are seeing

The four students on the SpeakUp panel shared their thoughts on both the transformation happening in their schools and the tools they believe will be helpful in growing education in the future. They talked about their likes, dislikes and those things they believe need to be embraced by school districts, including:

  • Embracing digital tools such as Nearpod, and Google’s Pear Deck and Jam Board to foster learning.
  • Listening to students and having teachers embrace all forms of social media, especially Instagram.
  • Allowing students to download assignments so they can work in a traditional style, with pencil and paper, and then uploading them … to save them from having to be in front of the screens all day.
  • Teaching students real-like skills, such as learning how to do taxes or car maintenance.
  • Letting students have different forums to discuss important social topics and facilitate civil disagreements (such as political discussions) in a classroom setting.
  • Providing more mental health resources, not only for students but for teachers, as well as continuing the dialogue on anxiety, depression, and topics regarding the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Closing the digital divide by providing better technology and more hot spots
  • Offering more training and resources for teachers on technology that is being implemented
  • Providing online tutors 24/7 to help students who have questions when working remotely
  • Getting more validation from teachers … having a call-to-students resource for more personalized plaudits
  • Creating a more comfortable, inviting environment when entering virtual spaces, such as teachers playing music that students choose to launch classes.
  • Making Fridays less formal, more of a club-style or open learning environment.

One of the student panelists also noted that schools should be a lot more receptive to their ideas when it comes to remote education.

“All of us are in charge of our learning now,” he said.

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at

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