New Year, More Digital: Technology’s Role in Education for 2021

A technologist in the education space for more than 20 years takes a look back—and at what is just ahead.

GUEST COLUMN | by Martin McKay

The New Year is often considered a time for us to make predictions about what may happen throughout the course of the next 12 months. For example, last year, I had anticipated that we would see an increased use of learning analytics in education, as well as an interest in 3D printing in classrooms to help kids learn.

Although some of these predictions may have come true in 2020, the reality is that there were many more important things to focus on in education over the last year.

As a technologist in the education space for more than 20 years, I certainly did not anticipate the monumental shift that began this past March and has continued since. We saw entire school systems — both in K-12 and higher education — completely switch to a virtual learning model overnight as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, students, educators, and families had to learn how to adapt while also dealing with events occurring outside the classroom.

During this past year, we saw a surge in technology adoption to help facilitate remote teaching and learning among students and teachers. In fact, downloads of education apps rose by 130% in the U.S., considerably above the worldwide average of 90%. And, that trend has continued as schools resumed in the fall with a mix of in-person, hybrid, and fully remote learning models.

‘During this past year, we saw a surge in technology adoption to help facilitate remote teaching and learning among students and teachers.’

The increased adoption of edtech tools presents huge opportunities for effective teaching and learning — both inside and outside the classroom — as we continue to navigate the so-called “new normal” in education. As such, I believe we’ll see the following trends gain traction in education in 2021:

The Growing Importance of Learning Analytics

The COVID-19 disruption to education has highlighted the importance of learning analytics. As we know, the majority of students around the world lost a huge part of their 2019-2020 school year. This resulted in significant learning loss, most notably in math.

By measuring the impact of learning loss through analytics, we can help educators and administrators track how far off grade-level students are and create strategies to get them back on track. As such, I believe we’ll see more and more learning analytics applied to teaching in the coming year and beyond. 

An Increased Focus on Student Engagement

When COVID-19 abruptly brought students home, we began to notice a shift in student engagement. In the U.S., before the lockdown, approximately 29% of students reported that they were “not engaged.” By the beginning of May, over 80% of teachers said that student motivation was lower than it had been pre-lockdown.

Although I believe the lack of student motivation will continue over the next year, I see this as an opportunity for educators to create more engaging learning environments through the use of engagement tools and tactics, such as gamification or the use of “nudges” to encourage time on task.

For example, let’s look at the subject of writing. There are digital applications that students and teachers alike can use to analyze a piece of writing and attribute a number or set of metrics to it, such as how many words they’ve written in a day or what their best “writing burst” is over the course of a week.

Through these edtech tools, students, teachers and whole classes can track relevant metrics, reach milestones, and receive rewards – all with real-time feedback that further supports engagement.

What’s more, several classes within a school could use these metrics to compete against each other for the “Most Words Written in a Month” or “Longest Writing Burst in a Day.” This approach can help make the task of writing feel more like a game and less like a chore, while supporting measurable writing improvement.

Edtech tools that are designed to motivate students through nudges, games, real-time feedback, and rewards will find a greater role in the coming year as educators seek to re-engage students in their learning.

The Continued Use of Digital Tools Beyond COVID-19

There’s no question that COVID-19 has increased the use of technology in education. It has caused more and more teachers to adopt some kind of digital application or tool for instruction and assignments. We’re seeing this trend at Texthelp. We’ve experienced a 62% increase in demand for our products across literacy, writing, and math over the past year.

With educators juggling many different hats during the pandemic, they’ve realized edtech tools can help drive efficiencies and provide more time for teaching, in addition to providing effective ways to engage and teach students.

For example, some tools can make grading easier (i.e., digital homework assignments that are automatically graded and logged), or they can provide insightful analytics that help inform personalized instruction for each student. I believe this trend in adoption will continue beyond the current remote and hybrid learning environments, when teachers and students are able to safely return to the classroom.

In addition, from a collaboration perspective, I believe we’ll continue to see communications tools like Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams being used in classrooms. They not only allow students who are unable to attend school in person the ability to take part in learning, but they open up new opportunities for students and teachers to interact with their peers around the world.

A Transformation in How Math Is Taught and Practiced

The teaching and practice of mathematics has historically been a paper-based exercise. Due to COVID-19, there has been a significant digital shift. This shift has made us realize that there are a number of benefits to teaching and learning math digitally. One key benefit is accessibility for those who may not be able to use traditional instructional materials for the subject or who need certain accommodations. Digital math tools — especially those developed with the Universal Design for Learning guidelines — now make learning accessible for students of all abilities.

These tools also give students a choice in how they want to learn or demonstrate their learning in math. For instance, digital tools can help students listen to their math lessons, allowing them to respond either by typing, hand-writing, or dictating their responses. As the current school year moves forward and in years to come, we will continue to see the teaching and practice of math be transformed through the use of digital tools in order to help make it accessible for all students, regardless of their abilities or learning environment. 

The New Areas of Technology That Will Enter the Classroom

This past year, we’ve seen the massive adoption of edtech tools for collaboration, assignments, assessment, and teaching. There is no doubt that will continue in the coming year. However, what is needed most now are technologies that help educators better understand student well-being overall. I believe we will see adoption of this new type of technology into the classroom, relying on passive analytics gathered through technology that requires no teacher intervention.

I also think we’ll see an uptick in social and emotional technology that helps provide support to students. This is extremely important now on account of what students have gone through as a result of the pandemic, and that importance will only increase in the coming years.

Throughout 2021, there is no question that education will continue to persevere and adapt to the changing tides of the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors facing our society. Technology overall — whether it is a digital collaboration tool or a new math app — will take on a greater role than it previously had in order to help our students learn and assist our educators and families ensure learning progress.

Martin McKay is the founder and CEO of Texthelp, a leading education technology company focused on helping learners of all ages and abilities improve their reading, writing, and math skills. Martin has spent work life developing education technology. His current areas of R&D include learning analytics and the automated assessment of writing and oral reading fluency through products such as WriQ and Fluency Tutor. Martin currently serves in an advisory capacity on the Universal Design for Learning council, and has previously served on the Assistive Technology Industry Association Board as well as the NIMAS board for the USA Office of Special Education Programs. Follow @martinmckay

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