Jan 29 2021

Untethered Broadband, Enhanced Professional Development and Other Major Ed Tech Trends for 2021

As schools emerge from the disruptions caused by the pandemic, they’re prioritizing connectivity, training and student engagement.

The coronavirus pandemic upended education in 2020, sending more students home to learn virtually and bringing new concepts such as hybrid learning to the mainstream.

Experts say to expect more of the same this year and beyond as schools mull how to safely return students to the classroom and maximize technology — both in person and online.

In its most recent Driving K-12 Innovation report, published in January, the Consortium for School Networking identifies hurdles in education and forecasts technology that could help remove those barriers, says CEO Keith Krueger.

“Given what’s been happening with remote learning, there are a number of trends that our experts think are particularly important,” he says of the roughly 100 global experts consulted for the report.

The top three tech enablers to expect moving forward, CoSN finds, are

  • Digital collaboration environments that allow multiuser, virtual communications, whether across the room or across the globe
  • Untethered broadband and connectivity that enable mobility and learning anytime, anywhere
  • Blended learning tools used to strategically integrate online and in-person activities to enhance student learning

Krueger says even after the pandemic ends and students return to some level of in-person instruction, online learning will continue in some form.

“Everything changed with COVID,” he says. “So many more students and teachers now understand what virtual learning can do.”

Renewed Focus on Untethered Broadband Connectivity Challenges

COVID also changed the way schools view broadband. The past decade has been focused on shoring up broadband and Wi-Fi access at schools. Yet, at-school connectivity didn’t help low-income students in unconnected or rural areas without broadband access during this period of remote instruction.

Michael Hansen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy, says connectivity issues and the digital divide affected students’ ability to access remote learning. For example, if students did have a device in the home, it may not have been available when the student needed it because a parent or sibling was using it, he says.

Hansen says connectivity will be a key focus for schools moving forward.

“What we’re realizing since March is you need untethered broadband where students are, and students right now are largely at home,” Krueger says.

Educators’ Personal Capacity for Education Technology Expands

Similarly, Joseph South, chief learning officer at the International Society for Technology in Education, says the pandemic helped shape the future of educational technology.

“Education became remote by necessity,” he says. “So, they’ve had to adopt practices to use their synchronous time for more effective activities than just lecturing, and find ways to provide direct instruction outside of live interaction time via digital resources that they either create or curate so their live time can be more focused on discussion and problem-solving.”

Educators were forced to try new models and new tools, and this increased their personal capacity to use educational technology well and showed them what is possible, South says. The pandemic helped more teachers familiarize themselves with video, audio and slide share tools.

LEARN: Helpful tips and tricks educators can use in Google Classroom.

In 2021, South says to expect an increase in the number of and reliance upon educational technology coaches and library media specialists to support educators. The relationship between professional development and technology will not be separate moving forward, he says.

“I also see an increase in the professionalization of the ed tech coach role,” South says. “More training and experience in both pedagogy and technology will be required to hold this title.”

Moving forward, teachers and students also will engage more in video creation. Educators already are adopting applications like Seesaw, Loom and Flipgrid to create and edit video for instruction, peer-to-peer feedback and student work as a substitute for written assignments.

“This is a trend that has gone completely mainstream during the pandemic as the technology gets more user friendly and inexpensive, and teachers love it,” he says.

Digital Citizenship and Online Testing Strategy Shifts Become Priorities

South also predicts teachers will focus more on digital citizenship. Without the controlled environment of a face-to-face classroom, students must take responsibility for their online behavior and need help developing the skills and disposition to do so, he says.

“Digital citizenship will become a core competency for both teachers and students,” South says.

WATCH: See how school districts are evolving their digital citizenship initiatives.

This will be especially true even after the pandemic is “over,” as the possibility of staggered schedules and closed schools in the event of an outbreak or surge will require districts to be “remote ready,” Hansen says, to ensure instructional time is not lost.

Lower tier priorities in the coming year, he says, will be a potential shift to online standardized testing as school districts await word on whether the federal government will waive testing requirements.

“I fully expect that COVID is going to be a pivot point in how we look at standardized testing,” he says, adding that schools likely will adopt more frequent, low-stakes testing during the year as a replacement for traditional end-of-year testing. “In my view, this is a move that needs to happen, and COVID is a catalyst to make it happen — a way we are going to see technology replace a very common, ordinary school practice.”

School Districts Ahead of the Pack

While many of these trends are expected to be mainstream, South points to some pioneers whose innovative approaches may eventually be accepted more broadly.

He points to Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia, where artificial intelligence is integrated throughout K–12 curriculum and school feeder patterns.

“The need for students to both understand how AI works in their chosen field and be cognizant of the ethical issues it raises will become more essential for them, whatever future profession they aspire to,” South says.

Adaptive curriculum also holds great promise, he says. Most educators faced big challenges getting their curriculum online this year, and that was all they could do. But a better solution is curriculum and assessments that adapt based on a student’s performance.

This approach, he says, engages students, helps set effective learning targets, measures mastery in real time and saves teachers time. A challenge with adaptive courseware, though, is that it’s often not as customizable by individual teachers because the design is necessarily more complicated.

South also says some innovators are using gamification to effectively improve engagement.

“Using the principles of game design to help motivate and engage students has expanded during COVID-19 and will continue to grow in 2021,” he says.

Now that more educators are using digital tools and digital platforms, he expects to see an increase of interest in integrating gaming components into virtual platforms.

“Teaching will not look the same going forward, even when students are back in face-to-face classrooms,” South says. “There will be a greater reliance on digital learning resources and platforms, as well as more individualization and differentiation to ensure we’re reaching all students.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Closing the connectivity gap with expanded, optimized networks.

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