Since January, there has been mounting pressure on school administrators to reopen their schools to in-person instruction. One compelling factor is that nearly half of America’s students have not been receiving any in-school instruction and students are increasingly receiving failing grades and falling behind in curriculum content. In addition, there have been public reports warning that COVID-19 is having a “devastating impact” on children’s social and emotional development.
Moreover, the pressure has been coming from powerful quarters. In his inauguration speech, President Joe Biden proclaimed that “we can teach our children in safe schools” (this despite a striking uptick in COVID cases at the time) and more recently pledged to open most of the nation’s schools during his first 100 days as president. For its part, the Center for Disease Control published an inauguration day report emphasizing that the COVID spread seen in other high-density work areas “has not been reported in education settings in schools” and has generally championed the opening of schools. Even the president of the nation’s most powerful teachers’ union, Randi Weingarten, has pledged to get students back in classrooms. “We have to get this done,” she told the New York Times in February.
For their part, teachers appear completely exhausted from the demands of remote learning. For instance, a USA Today report highlighted several teachers who are struggling with the unpredictability and isolation of remote teaching. Emma Wohl, a middle school teacher in Washington state, is quoted as saying: “I spend all day staring at a screen and kind of generating enthusiasm into the void that Zoom is, and I end the day so tired, and so done, and so frustrated.”
With in-person instruction now imminent in many states, many school administrators are concerned that Zoom fatigue will morph into a broader rejection of technology. Teachers in hybrid schools have been complaining that planning a single lesson equates to planning two separate lessons — one for students at home, the other for students in the classroom. And whether teachers are teaching remotely or face-to-face, technology can go awry with lessons unfolding differently than the way a teacher imagined. Furthermore, equipment and software are often lacking in schools, forcing teachers to teach in inequitable environments where some students are equipped with the necessary technology, while others are not. Several school administrators have shared with me stories of teachers “gleefully preparing paper packets” in anticipation of the day where they can chuck technology to the side.
While a temporary abandonment of technology would not be terribly surprising after a year of forced online teaching, there are serious implications if such a movement becomes widespread and prolonged. For starters, one of our fundamental commitments as educators is to prepare students for the world in which they live: to be active, reflective, and productive citizens and workers. And a learning environment devoid of technology is strikingly at odds with the reality of today’s world. For better or worse, we live in a tech-laden economy and society and we rely on technology daily to accomplish a whole range of personal and professional tasks. (Indeed, it’s almost impossible to live in our digital world outside of the ecosystem created by Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft.) To ostensibly prepare students to thrive in our digital society by teaching them in classrooms devoid of technology is illogical — if not harmful.
Furthermore, it is impossible to ignore that our students will be working with technology for the rest of their professional lives. The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2025, machines will handle 52 percent of current work tasks, almost twice as many as now. The report points out that even tasks overwhelmingly performed by humans today — “communicating, interacting, coordinating, managing and advising — will begin to be taken on by machines.” In short, human workers will increasingly be working side-by-side with machines. Already, the ability to work effectively with technology is a requisite for job-seekers. Recently, Goodwill CEO Steve Preston asserted that “we are now in a situation where people urgently need digital skills to be able to compete for jobs. We have employers who are looking to upgrade the level of skills for all roles and the people who need jobs right now don’t have those skills.” Ignoring student development of technical competencies ultimately puts students at a deep professional disadvantage.
At the same time, schools must help hone skills that cannot be replaced easily by technology. Humans have a comparative advantage over computers in conducting tasks that require performing abstract, unstructured cognitive work not easily replaced by automation. Computers excel at logical tasks that follow rules and statistical models. Humans excel at solving new problems and communicating a particular understanding of information, often involving social and emotional awareness. Moreover, computers need prior knowledge and structure. Humans can innovate in entirely new environments. (Think Ice Age.)
Learning how to leverage technology for human success should be a fundamental goal of every education technology program. There are so many great examples of students who have used technology to tackle challenging problems and perform high-level cognitive work. For instance, there is a group of middle school students in Texas who designed an app that helps blind or visually challenged students during the school day. High school students in Texas built a prosthetic arm for a disabled girl so she can play the cello, while another group created a small home for a homeless vet. In Colorado, a high school student examined Shakira’s dance moves and then designed a novel approach to revolutionize spinal surgery, cutting both procedure and recovery time. An Ohio high school student is leveraging technology to combat homelessness in his Cleveland neighborhood and pre-teen students in Detroit, Michigan are designing and running their own tech businesses. (And who wouldn’t want to attend a Super Business Girl workshop?) Students rise to challenges, especially meaningful ones.
And students leverage technology to teach others. A 14-year old Illinois student created a video to explain the differences between the economic policies of Karl Marx and Adam Smith that has generated more than 338,000 views. Elementary and middle school students have created a series of screencasts at mathtrain.tv that help other students understand and solve math problems. A group of kindergarten students in coastal New Hampshire has held up clamshells on Skype to a first-grade class in Saskatchewan, so the land-locked Canadian students can better understand ocean life. Fifth-grade students in Chicago created videos and published articles debunking stereotypes of their South Shore neighborhood. And a group of high school students in Massachusetts leads a committee at their school to teach teachers new technologies.
We need to create a sense of urgency around leveraging technology in innovative ways. We know that our students’ job prospects are threatened because routine physical and cognitive workplace skills will continue to decline in demand because of automation. We have already seen a significant labor disruption in factories and offices and students who can only perform routine tasks are primed to be victims of automation or outsourcing.
Even more auspicious, Machine Learning is revolutionizing an automation process that was largely limited to the displacement of routine-manual and routine-cognitive jobs. In recent years, the algorithms that power computers have become so sophisticated that machines are increasingly less dependent upon human knowledge. As such, machines are increasingly excelling in non-routine cognitive tasks. As a result, there is a wide swath of well-paid, middle-class workers now under threat of at least partial displacement. President Joe Biden recently proclaimed that the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is upon us and that the blurring of digital and physical worlds of work “has the potential to further hollow out the middle class.”
In light of these changes, the World Economic Forum posits that “analytical thinking and innovation, active learning and learning strategies, and creativity, originality, and initiative” will be the top skills in demand for future jobs. What skills such as innovation, creativity, originality, and initiative have in common is that they are very difficult, if not impossible, for machines to attain.
More immediately, technology helps us reach every student because it goes beyond the limitations of pen and paper. Students — and all humans, for that matter — process information differently; some might learn best through active, kinesthetic movement, while others might be visual thinkers. And, of course, this does not even take into account students with documented learning disabilities that make traditional learning near impossible. Some experts have gone so far as to call school curriculum “print disabled” because it does not support the learning of people who struggle with decoding print. In other words, it is not the student who is disabled, but rather the print materials that are incapable of supporting diverse learning. Students will encounter a wide variety of media in their professional life and will have to decode what they see and hear. As a result, we should no longer settle for an ineffective, one-size-fits-all solution to the delivery and communication of content knowledge.
If school administrators are to help sustain education technology, they must first communicate a sense of urgency around the topic. Every school should be reflecting on its student learning goals within our societal and economic context. Our goal as educators should be to prepare students effectively for an ever-changing labor market and society where technology presents opportunities and challenges. We should be preparing students not just for college, or even job placement, but for years thereafter in a world in which tasks and responsibilities are constantly changing and new ones emerging.
The COVID era has shown that meaningful change is possible and demonstrated the need for creative problem-solvers, such as scientists developing vaccines, and entrepreneurs servicing clients remotely. These problem-solvers work closely with technology, but also bring their human creativity, originality, and initiative to the forefront.