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  • Writer's pictureCarolina MIlanesi

Going Back To School Has A Brand New Meaning During Covid-19

As schools in the US have wrapped up the year with their students at home engaged in distance learning, the attention is now shifting to looking ahead and prepping for the next academic year. The situation with Covid-19 remains fluid, but with the rise in cases in many States, reopening has been put on pause, making it more and more likely for schools to have some degree of distance learning at least into the new calendar year. Even if schools are allowed to reopen with live classes, they will do so under a long list of limitations from imposing social distancing with six feet distance between desks to being in fixed groups with only one teacher. This new back to school reality will mean that technology will continue to play an essential role in how kids are taught and kept safe. A recent Microsoft study done across nearly 500 members of the Microsoft Education community, representing teachers and institutional leaders from around the world showed that 61 percent expect to begin the next school year in a hybrid learning environment—a mix of remote and in-person learning—and 87 percent said they plan to use technology more than before once in-classroom teaching resumes.

Schools across America have learned a lot from the distance learning experience during the last school term, but a lot more work has to be done as we go back and embrace blended learning more proactively. What we saw in the Spring was a temporary measure that left many students and parents to fend for themselves and we must now create an environment that is not a stop-gap but a real enabler. 

A few weeks ago, I sat down with PowerSchool CEO Hardeep Gulati to talk about their learnings and some of the concerns they heard from the school districts they work with. PowerSchool is a California-based company that provides K-12 schools and districts with application technology aimed at helping teachers teach, manage instructions, assess and grade as well as supporting the back office with HR needs, enrollment, attendants and state reporting.  PowerSchool is present in 80 countries reaching around 45 million students worldwide.

A lot of the attention in the press has been focused on distance learning and the impact it has had on children. Yet, as we turn to the new academic year, the complexities of not being physically on school grounds go beyond teaching. Schools and districts need help with hiring and onboarding remotely, enrolling students. Mr. Gulati is very clear about where the focus must be now: “They need help running schools and districts remotely, no matter what’s ahead.”

When I asked Mr. Gulati what he thought the most significant hurdle teachers are facing when implementing distance learning he had no doubt that he sees the lack of a holistic view of a child as being the biggest hurdle: “The equity gap is growing and we must fix this before more students fall further behind. Most teachers don’t have a holistic, interactive way to look at student data, making it difficult to provide the instruction each student needs – especially in these turbulent times.” 

I can only imagine how much harder it is for a teacher to form an opinion about a child’s readiness on a subject without being able to interact as much with them as they do in the classroom. This lack of interaction will increase the reliance on tests, which, as a parent, I have never been a fan of as they represent a snapshot of the student knowledge but certainly do not provide a broad sense of whether the student is learning. More importantly, tests fail to capture whether the student is connecting the dots across subjects and developing critical thinking. 

Staying Focused On The Whole Student

Distance learning also means that the level of engagement from students is very inconsistent, depending on multiple factors, from tech-savviness to connectivity to the overall home environment, as more and more children are impacted by family members dying. These inconsistencies, coupled with how ready the school was to deploy distance learning, are creating a learning gap that must be addressed. PowerSchool found that schools that were already using their Learning Management System saw a 95% student participation when distance learning compared to an average of all their users of 52%. 

2020 is the first year without federally mandated standardized testing in almost twenty years. I hope, as we continue to integrate technology into the classroom, that this pause will be a stimulus to look at other ways to assess students as well as monitor their progress so teachers can intervene before the student falls behind or gets bored if learning is not challenging enough. This becomes even more critical when teachers are faced with such a disparity of engagement and it is an area where the PowerSchool leadership believes data can provide a solution through their new analytics tools. The Unified Insights Student learning tool will allow teachers and schools to cross student information such as ethnicity, attendance, and health information with learning data. The combination of these data would be able to help identify learning gaps, increase engagement by addressing social and emotional as well as technical and learning challenges and providing teachers and educators with a complete picture of their students. 

I am all for providing educators with a full picture of the student. Still, there are always concerns when socio-economic and ethnic information come into the mix of data used to develop a predictive model and rightly so. We have seen time and time again how such information is used to develop biased predictive models that preclude access rather than foster it. I hope PowerSchool will provide educators not just with the data, but with guidelines on how to read it and use it. The potential for positive impact is enormous but so is the risk of misuse.

This article was first published on Forbes

Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.



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