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With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, education institutions faced unprecedented challenges and operational uncertainty as the world entered lockdown. Quickly realizing that the shutdown, initially forecasted for a few weeks, would be much longer than anticipated, many institutions adapted innovative technological solutions to continue reaching students. Here are three examples of various technologies that education institutions utilized to continue operating successfully:
1. Project management software
At the beginning of the pandemic, many education institutions began using Lark, a Singapore-based project management software and collaboration suite. Touted as a one-stop-shop for teachers and students, Lark offers unlimited video conferencing, auto-translation capabilities, smart calendar scheduling and real time co-editing of project work. Not only does this give students access to educational resources, but it also reduces lengthy processes for educators. Dr. Amjad, a professor at the University of Jordan explained that Lark revolutionized his teaching during the pandemic. Lark gave him the ability “to reach out to [his] students more efficiently and effectively through chat groups, video meetings, voting and also document sharing.”
Other school boards and higher learning institutions used Google Suite to reach students. Chicago Public Schools had supplied over 300,000 students with Chromebooks in late 2019 and utilized the tool over the course of the pandemic. Google Suite includes collaborative tools such as Google Drive, Google Meet and Google Spreadsheets, features which allow students and teachers to collaborate on projects simultaneously. Ronald Carroll, the manager of instructional technology in the Chicago Public School District, emphasized that Chromebooks helped “create a more open and collaborative workspace for teachers and students.”
2. Educational broadcasts
As schools in California closed in early 2020, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) formed a partnership with local PBS stations to provide educational programming on three over-the-air broadcasts. These broadcasts covered 700 square miles in the Greater Los Angeles area and provided over 700,000 students with accessible education. The programs targeted students from pre-kindergarten to grade 12 and operated at various times in the day and night.
Fifty percent of students from the Los Angeles Unified School District lacked access to a personalized computer or tablet, and 25% of families lacked internet access at home. By providing broadcasts over-the-air, the LAUSD was able to combat this digital divide and successfully provided accessible education to all students.
3. Pre-recorded video and audio learning
ComIT, a non-profit charitable organization I created in 2016 that offers micro-courses in tech training, also transitioned to online learning at the onset of the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, our three-month courses, which provide free tech training to vulnerable adult students, were offered in-person.
ComIT experienced similar challenges as the LAUSD, as many students lacked a reliable internet connection or had insufficient bandwidth to watch a real-time or recorded video. Many lived in remote locations or on Canadian Indigenous reserves, where strong internet connections are often unavailable. To combat this digital divide, ComIT started recording every class and then distributed the recording to all students. Students were able to call into the lecture with their phones and then watch the recorded version afterwards, once they were in a location with better connectivity. We also started providing content and asynchronous ways of communicating with the instructors, teacher assistants and other classmates.
The social dilemma
While these revolutionary technologies have successfully been used over the past two years to connect individuals, many users have experienced social isolation from a lack of in-person connection. This social isolation, which has caused a number of mental health challenges, has resulted in many institutions returning full time to in-person learning. Innovative tech features can be used to bridge this social gap, but must be used correctly in order to be effective.
As the world slowly eases out of the Covid-19 pandemic, the future of online learning and the tech that made online learning possible, is uncertain. Many education institutions have returned to in-person classes to optimize learning, whereas others have embraced a hybrid model. For example, professors of the University of Jordan claimed their students found it easier to communicate on Lark and continued to use the software even after returning to in-person learning. The University strongly supports that “traditional offline learning and e-learning can go hand by hand.”
ComIT has also continued using a blend of in-person and online learning. We believe that the in-person aspect is useful for building relationships, especially for those in need of additional mentorship. We believe that remote learning enables possibilities for people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to education, but that the right tools must be utilized to make the most of the online learning experience.
For students who do have access to appropriate technology and strong internet connections, research suggests that online learning has a higher retention rate and takes less time than traditional, in-person learning. According to some recent studies, students retain 25 to 60% of material learned online, compared with only 8 to 10% in the classroom.
Regardless of what the future may hold, the technological adaptations that took place over the past two years have been nothing short of monumental and have proven that various types of education institutions are able to adapt and explore creative solutions to continue learning.