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How Distance Learning Proved These Four Edtech Myths Wrong

The Newsela Team
May 18, 2020

As we’ve all struggled with the tide of difficult news these past few months, finding a silver lining has never felt so important. Whether it’s a neighbor who offers impromptu cello concerts from her front porch, or the “car parades” staged by teachers hoping to inspire their students, we're turning our attention to the bright spots within challenging circumstances. 

When it comes to education and the news from schools around the country, the challenges of distance learning are certainly front and center. But while adapting to this new environment has highlighted many issues, there is good news we can recognize as well—especially when we look at what education technology has been able to achieve. Below, we explore four common myths about edtech that are being proved wrong by our current moment, and how we can build on these bright spots going forward.

Myth #1: It’s impossible to bridge the digital divide.

Before the global pandemic, progress toward bridging the digital divide seemed to have stalled, with the Pew Research Center reporting a fluctuating 65 percent to 73 percent of Americans having internet access at home between 2012 and 2019. For schools and teachers, this meant acknowledging that at least a quarter of the students were without broadband internet service at home—a statistic that seemed unlikely to change.

With the advent of school closures in March, however, the need for all students to access online resources and connect virtually with teachers became more urgent. Schools around the country rallied to get students the devices and connectivity they needed, from maps outlining public WiFi to partnerships with telecommunications companies to establish easy-to-access hotspots (even reports of school buses being repurposed as mobile hotspots!). The upside? The role schools can play in bridging the digital divide seems more promising than ever before.

Myth #2: Edtech doesn’t serve populations like English Language Learners and Special Education students well.

When edtech emerged on the scene, there was a mixed response from many teachers on the support provided for English Language Learner (ELL) and special education students. This skepticism wasn’t unfounded—many early iterations of the tools weren’t built with options for ELLs, or had resources geared toward the elementary grades rather than special education students. 

Since then, however, many tools and platforms have added robust ELL-friendly supports to their core products. This includes making content available at lower reading levels to scaffold content for students who are still developing English language skills, or the ability to switch between languages to scaffold. There’s certainly still work to be done, but distance learning has highlighted where support has grown and how schools can continue to push for it.

Myth #3: Tools are either for enrichment or remediation.

Before the pandemic, edtech was often viewed as existing on the sidelines of the classroom. Tools were perceived primarily as a supplement to core materials when needed, or as a resource for students who needed help catching up. 

With the sudden shift to distance learning, edtech tools and platforms transformed overnight from sidelined teammate to star player. And while no one would argue that distance learning should be the status quo, there’s a new appreciation for the role tools can play in supporting core learning anywhere and enabling schools to be more flexible. 

Myth #4: Differentiating is a teacher’s responsibility—and they can handle it on their own.

Differentiation—tailoring teaching and materials to meet each student’s needs—has long rested on the shoulders of teachers. But while many do a more than impressive job, the challenge of differentiating instruction continues to grow—especially now, with the curveball distance learning has thrown to teachers everywhere.

Meaningful differentiation is going to be more important than ever as the year continues, whether teaching remotely or assessing the potential “COVID slide” when we’re back at school. As edtech solutions have shown during this time, the burden doesn’t have to rest with teachers—there are tools that offer support for differentiating content across levels, helping to meet students wherever they’re at.

Looking ahead, the role of edtech in classrooms—whether virtual or in-person—will continue to evolve. Not all tools are created equal, and as schools assess their current and future resources they should look for platforms that can evolve with them. That might mean seeking out tools that can be used in both physical and virtual settings, or prioritizing easy-to-use resources that teachers already know. Schools should also consider how they can breathe new life into existing core materials, while ensuring that software and paper-based content is accessible to English Language Learners and students with disabilities. 

There will be many challenges to juggle this school year and next. But there are certainly bright spots as well—and pausing to recognize them helps us all move forward a little more easily. 

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