Littered with overhyped claims, corporate corruption scandals, and abandoned pilot projects that teachers never quite embraced, the history of ed tech is a messy one. But in recent years, valuable classroom tools have been gaining traction with schools and teachers with both the access and willingness to implement them. When the pandemic struck our school system, suddenly every school went online — or at least hybrid. Technology wasn’t this extra strategy some schools or teachers used to improve learning, but the very channel and substance of education itself. Zoom boxes became the classroom walls. Google Docs replaced paper. Google Slides supplanted a marker-colored poster board for an oral presentation.
But for some teachers at highly effective schools, this was only the beginning. Last year, as part of a deep dive into the best practices of non-selective public high schools with outsized success with students of color and students from low-income families, we learned about how teachers and principals are incorporating technology in a way that they say will stay with them long after the pandemic ends.
Getting every kid to raise their hand
When the pandemic forced school to go online, Leslie Gonzalez, English teacher at Jimmy Carter Early College High School in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, started testing out new technology-based classroom tools. She soon found how technology could create new ways to help engage the struggling or shy students who once might have gone unnoticed in a traditional classroom.
“I have definitely discovered a lot of things that I plan to use in the near future,” she says. Her favorite new discovery is Jamboard, part of the Google Classroom suite, which allows students to be interactive while she’s teaching a lesson. “So if I have a question, then each [student] can go ahead and use a sticky note and write their answers, or write suggestions, or ask questions,” she explains. This, she says, has amounted to a big improvement over her old engagement strategies in the physical classroom, where she would pick on a single student to ask a question or come to the board. “[Before] I would only have one student answering. Now I can have all of them.”
Similarly, she sees how classroom tools like shared Google docs and jamboards facilitate the sharing of student work. Previously, she says, she might start a class with a “Do now” (a quick writing assignment) or journal prompt. “I usually ask, does anyone want to share theirs in class? There’s only one or two that usually want to share their journal out loud.” By using technology that allows for anonymous posting, she can engage all students. “I picture myself [continuing to use this new approach] as an expectation where everyone has to do it.”
Flicks that make kids Tik
Scott Frank, a history and psychology teacher at IDEA Frontier College Prep in Brownsville, TX, says that during the pandemic he and his colleagues have found new ways to convey core academic material asynchronously. By making their own social media videos, they have not only fostered content-specific student engagement, but created a bank of studying resources that students can use for years to come.
During the year of COVID learning, Frank leaned into his YouTube channel as a way of delivering key lectures for his world and U.S. history classes. A colleague, who teaches AP Biology, followed his lead but chose a more teen-friendly network. “So she’s like, ‘Well, they’re not going to go on your YouTube channel, Frank. They’re going to go on TikTok,’” he recalls. She creates short summaries of her biology lectures with TikTok videos and offers her students a grade bump if they watch them. Now the teacher is seeing her students return to the videos when they are reviewing material for the final and AP exams.
Busting up the old-school lecture
Thomas Aberli, principal of Atherton High School in Louisville, KY, says his teachers have adopted a new digital learning platform called NearPod, which he describes as “PowerPoint on steroids.” The classroom tool allows teachers to insert engagement questions, assignments, and quizzes directly into lectures or media, whether in the form of a slide presentation or a video. The tool has a rich collection of media and lesson plans to draw from or teachers can create and adapt their own.
“You can be presenting to a class, then the next slide is a way to have them do a quick quiz,” he explains, adding that the tool allows teachers to choose either collaborative or individual mode. In one instance, students can be on the same digital board: “they’re all interfacing together, drawing on the same marker board.” In the next moment, each student has their own board to work on an individual assignment.
Recently he observed a class on electricity using Nearpod where each student worked on their own slides to show how to connect a circuit board to achieve the proper voltage and current. This approach had the advantages of traditional individual projects, but with added benefits offered by technology. “The teacher could then go and look into each of the different students’ products, kind of like they would if they had their own marker board in a classroom. But it was much more dynamic because the teacher could also overlay a picture of a real circuit board.”
When never getting back to normal is a good thing
For some schools, the shift to technology-centered education has afforded more than new engagement and teaching strategies. It has created an alternative approach that is making many educators rethink their assumptions about “seat time” and five full days of in-school learning.
Jack Henson, principal of Texas Academy of Biomedical Sciences in Fort Worth, TX, says that the success of asynchronous learning for some of his students is making him reassess their traditional schedule.
“How necessary is it that they come five days a week? [This year] has made us think outside the box. Are we using the students’ time wisely or are we taxing them beyond what’s necessary to help them be successful?”
In particular, he sees value in changing the students’ schedules as they move through high school, with lowerclassmen on campus full-time and upperclassmen beginning to manage their own time as they move toward college. By enabling more remote and asynchronous learning for juniors and seniors, the school can empower more students to explore internships and community college classes.
These educators yearn to get back to the classroom and interact with their students face to face, but they don’t just talk about getting back to normal. Instead, their expansive vision for teaching is being shaped by the lessons they’ve learned from the most confining year ever.
This article is part of a series detailing innovations in education discovered during the COVID-19 pandemic by some of the nation’s highest-performing public high schools.