Two years of intermittent remote and hybrid learning led schools to expand their use of some of the best-known technology tools in K-12, opening the door for instructional changes both small and large.
That’s according to a review of more than two dozen surveys administered to a nationally representative sample of teachers, principals, and district leaders by the EdWeek Research Center between March 2020 and January 2022. The biggest growth areas include:
- Using software programs to address literacy gaps among elementary school students.
- Expanding the use of learning management systems, which even the most tech-phobic teachers now turn to for at least basic classroom management tasks.
- Supplementing core curriculum with online math instructional tools.
Interviews with the leaders behind some of the most popular ed-tech tools in each of those categories illuminate the surprising changes in technology usage.
“Go back two years, and we were expecting a bump,” Khan Academy founder Sal Khan said in an interview. “But it ended up being as large as our most aggressive assumption.”
The trend lines are still shifting, especially as schools solidify their return to full-time, in-person learning. But with more than $190 billion of federal relief funds coursing through the nation’s public education system and districts everywhere looking to reverse the extensive “unfinished learning” experienced by millions of students during the COVID-19 pandemic, some products and instructional changes are likely to stick.
Schools turn to software to address literacy gaps in the early grades
As early as summer 2020, educators were already turning to familiar technology tools to help students whose reading instruction was interrupted while the nation’s school buildings were shuttered due to COVID-19. Forty-five percent of those surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center at the time said that digital resources they already had in place were “very effective” for teaching English/language arts remotely, and 63 percent of educators involved in early literacy instruction said they were using digital reading programs more frequently.
That interest pulled ed-tech giant Renaissance Learning in two different directions, said Eric Swanson, vice president of product management, placement, and instruction. The company saw steep drops in usage of its popular Accelerated Reader program, which provides teachers with quizzes and personalized recommendations for thousands of books, but historically relied on students having access to print materials in physical libraries. But usage of myON, the company’s extensive digital library service, soared.
“Student engagement with myON literally doubled from fall of 2019 to fall of 2020,” Swanson said. “It was both new customers coming on board, and students who already had access using it even more.”
In response to the divergent trends, Renaissance Learning took several steps. First, the company intensified existing efforts to link Accelerated Reader and myON so that the former’s quizzes and recommendations could be used with the latter’s digital texts. Similar integrations followed with newly acquired products such as Schoolzilla, which provides data dashboards, and Nearpod, which allows teachers to push out digital resources to students’ devices. Renaissance developers also added new features to Accelerated Reader that allowed teachers and administrators to track when quizzes were taken at home versus in school.
Over time, Swanson said, schools began returning to Accelerated Reader, while the amount of time students spent on myON dipped back down.
The landscape shifted again, however, when Congress approved massive allocations to the federal ESSER fund, which provided money for schools as part of massive COVID-19 relief packages. The legislation stipulated learning-loss recovery as a priority for districts receiving the money. As a result, 61 percent of survey respondents told the EdWeek Research Center in April 2021 that they planned to use the federal funds to address ELA learning loss among elementary students. Accelerated Reader was poised to be part of many districts’ COVID-19 learning recovery plans.
Now, Swanson said, ed-tech companies are facing a cull. Schools are evaluating which tools in their technology ecosystems are easiest to use, have the clearest evidence of effectiveness, and are most flexible in a variety of settings, from core instruction in traditional classrooms to at-home practice to online tutoring.
“Things are going to regress a little bit as we go back to school and districts review the resources they’ve bought and eliminate some of the tools that were purchased during the pandemic,” he said.
More teachers are using the basic functions of learning management systems
Just two months after COVID-19 shut down the nation’s physical schools, 68 percent of survey respondents were telling the EdWeek Research Center that they were now using online learning management systems to collect and return student work. By the summer of 2020, three-fifths of principals and district leaders said they had provided teachers training on how to do such basic tasks.
Among the biggest beneficiaries of that shift was Google, which saw usage of its Classroom LMS offering take off.
“As the pandemic set in, our user base quadrupled from 40 million to 150 million in a few weeks,” said Akshat Sharma, the lead product manager for Classroom. “The realization started sinking in that we had an opportunity and a responsibility to solve the needs of millions of teachers.”
One of the biggest shifts during those early months of all-remote learning, Sharma said, was that Classroom went from a supplementary tool to a central hub. The company also noticed a big surge in first-time users. And huge numbers of people began accessing the platform via mobile phones instead of computers.
In response, Google engineers began working overtime to develop a cleaner integration with the company’s videoconferencing platform (Meet) and other commonly used third-party software tools. They also began adding new features to make it easier for administrators to roll out school- or district-wide Classroom implementations. And they developed an “offline” mode so that students struggling to find a reliable WiFi signal on their mobile devices could still access their assignments.
By the start of the 2021-22 school year, 48 percent of survey respondents told the EdWeek Research Center they started using Google Classroom during the pandemic and planned to continue on, the highest such figure among all the products asked about by name. Just 10 percent of respondents anticipated stopping their use of Classroom.
Sharma said Google will be prepared if those educators continue to use the platform as a central hub, or if they revert back to using it as a supplemental resource.
“To be honest, I don’t think we get to decide that,” he said. “It’s really up to teachers.”
Math emerges as a focus of tech-based tutoring and supplemental support
Sal Khan isn’t surprised that many districts have turned to the nonprofit Khan Academy as part of their COVID-19 learning recovery plan.
During the first weeks of the pandemic, he said, the nonprofit group saw global usage surge from 30 million to more than 80 million “learning minutes” per day.
“Whether they’re inside or outside of the classroom, students can get as much practice and feedback as they need at their level,” said the founder of the popular nonprofit, which now counts 137 million users across 190 countries.
The numbers fell back to earth as the country returned to full-time, in-person learning. But it’s clear that long-term changes are afoot. Last summer, 66 percent of principals and district administrators told the EdWeek Research Center they anticipated increasing their use of blended learning—a combination of face-to-face and digital instruction in classrooms. Thirty-six percent anticipated more-intensive digital tutoring offerings.
Khan and his organization are adjusting accordingly.
Khan Academy, for example, has expanded its “Districts” offering, aimed at easing systemwide implementations by offering extensive training, better integration with student information systems, and digital dashboards that can be used to track student growth. During the pandemic, Khan also launched an online peer-to-peer tutoring platform called Schoolhouse.world. The Long Beach Unified School District in California is already piloting the platform, Khan said, even paying some of its own high school students to serve as tutors.
The challenge ahead is steep. Researchers with NWEA, makers of a benchmark assessment given to millions of elementary and middle school students each year, have found big drops in math performance compared to pre-pandemic. The resulting gaps are highest in the schools serving the highest percentage of poor students.
But Khan has a plan for that, too. His group has also partnered with NWEA to help ensure that use of Khan Academy is connected to the interim assessments that districts are already using and that student progress is psychometrically valid and tied to districts’ overall instructional plans.
“I think in 2022-23, we’re going to, hopefully, get back to where we were in 2019, with probably more online independent student work,” he said. “This is a long game. We want to be here for generations.”
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