How must we rethink our scholarly research and debate surrounding learning technologies and the current breakneck speed of their evolution during crisis?
Zoom and similar platforms are a bridge for educators to limp across while they compensate for empty schools; in their current form, these platforms are stopgaps, at best. Surely, Covid-19 is an unplanned boon for the makers of digital meeting platforms, as they tirelessly market their services to overwhelmed education administrators desperate for guidance, but they do not, and will not, replace pedagogy and teacher engagement in K-12 education.
Mindful pedagogy must drive the technology implementation, and not the other way around. Teachers contort themselves to maximize the bells and whistles available on Zoom or Google Meet to feign digital teaching expertise, but these platforms were not designed for teaching minor children.
My belief is that application designers and entrepreneurs must align themselves with dynamic, creative teachers who experimented daily in their pre-Covid-19 classrooms to find the pedagogical alchemy to inspire and engage students who struggle with standardized classroom approaches. No matter how many buzz words teacher training curricula employ in their modules to suggest that there are only a handful of cutting-edge teaching methodologies which work best to illuminate the learning light bulb which basks quality teachers in their light, the truth is far more nuanced. Such claims to deciphering the secret sauce of good teaching may make good slide presentations for the leadership in public school districts charged with leaving no child behind, but impactful teaching is as much an art form as it is a professional skill set.
Learning and teaching are processes which must be allowed to be unstandardized. When we say one size fits all in education, we suggest that teachers can function as encoded robots, following the algorithm which a majority of school districts follow because someone deemed them essential and appropriate for all learning challenges. Just as each student learns according to her/his specific abilities, preferences and inclinations, each teaching moment in a classroom must adapt itself to the myriad of factors which converge into the context of that day, that classroom and the unique characteristics it presents.
Where does that leave us as learning technologists?
We have to begin again as educators and learning technologists in terms of our reliance upon what others have told us "works". Many pedagogies are tried and true, like reading and speaking incessantly with students if you want them to be literate, lifetime learners and critical thinkers. So to focus upon that fundamental truism of education, how can technology facilitate more reading engagement for our most underserved K-5 students? Can virtual reality help minimize the screen fatigue inherent in reading digital pages rather than paper ones?
Teachers learn what works through trial and error and consistent observation of their student's individual needs, progress and learning style, but how can technology mimic the creative artistry of a fabulous, impassioned teacher.
It cannot, and in the very near future, will not.
AI, when used in digital learning, could create more customized flexibility for curricular interventions and strategies which will supplement the current tool kit committed teachers already possess by learning what works for students and recalibrating accordingly, constantly. This is where computer learning enhances the efforts of a human teacher.
Let's continue to think about what the most flexible learning technologies accomplish, while remaining brutally honest about their limitations and drawbacks, as we delve deeper into our mental prototypes for innovative uses of existing and new learning technologies. We can make learning about digital hygiene, the necessity of online fact-checking and personal cybersecurity core elements of every student's basic curriculum, but right now we simply don't.
One thing is for certain, there is no single answer to the question of: what does successful deployment of learning technology options look like for the next few years?
The sooner educational leadership in public education admits its current level of cluelessness, the more receptive it can be to adopting, testing and fine-tuning teachers' use of learning technology tools, both those readily available and those still on the drawing board. Scholarly consensus is that K-12 pedagogy will not go back to its pre-Covid equilibrium.
The key insights for those designing these technological learning tools, however, will come from close collaboration with struggling teachers and students, not with administrations seeking a temporary fix that ticks the most urgent political boxes. We know standardized testing does not a genius detect, but rather tests how well students perform in that very narrow performance area. A carte blanche reliance on digital processes to remedy the educational deficits in our public schools risks another cycle of touting the latest, shiny panacea, without making the larger dialogue about what students need, and what are they lacking.