At every turn in the pandemic, technology helped us stay safe while maintaining the connections we depended on. That’s been true in medicine. It’s been true for families separated by social distancing. And it’s certainly been true when it comes to education technology.
When physical classrooms across the country were first shuttered in 2020, it wasn’t clear how, or if, students would continue getting the support they needed. But, as always, teachers stepped up. They adapted to new technologies to help their students navigate this moment. They worked heroically to improve existing systems and develop new techniques to keep students engaged. They demonstrated incredible resilience, and so did their students.
Of course, despite all these efforts, we also know that many students struggled to remain engaged and enthusiastic about learning — and we worry that the academic, health and emotional consequences could be long-lasting. All the more reason, then, for us to continue looking for ways to serve students better.
There is much we can do to build on what we’ve learned over the past nearly three years, to help students and teachers reforge their sense of connection, and to address the aspects of education that weren’t working even before the pandemic.
We can start by rethinking the tools, technical and otherwise, that teachers are equipped with. And instead of simply trying to replicate current classrooms online, we need to integrate the latest learning science research into every new tool — and make sure it’s accessible, easy to use and engaging to students no matter where they are. There has been some recent notable progress in this area — but we can, and must, make it the norm.
Putting research to work for education technology
Right now, some critical research about learning and development rarely makes it to our classrooms. Teachers are not always invited to participate in constructing the very tools intended to serve their needs. Often, those tools aren’t designed to be responsive to the unique and specific contexts of individual classrooms.
Imagine if this were true in other fields. What if medical researchers discovered a new breakthrough that would save tens of thousands of lives — but instead of being put into practice, that research just sat on the shelf? What if a surgical tool were developed by engineers with the latest research on haptics and artificial intelligence, but without meaningful input from the surgeons who would actually wield it?
That’s exactly what often happens with learning science and research, which leaves what we know about how students develop and learn out of the classroom. And this dynamic existed long before the pandemic.
For instance, many schools continue to use the “three cueing” theory of reading comprehension (which suggests that readers primarily guess words to make meaning) even though it was debunked by cognitive scientists more than 20 years ago. Now, millions of young readers continue to struggle because we failed to integrate research into education technology when it mattered most.
There are countless examples like this. And it needs to change now.
Tools created for teachers, with teachers
One of the key ways to drive this shift is through education technology — though, to be clear, it is not a silver bullet. There’s no replacement for dedicated teachers. But if advanced research can become central to developing better tools that respond to teachers’ holistic needs, we can build an education system that serves students and teachers better throughout this pandemic and beyond.
We’ve seen examples of how this approach can lead to significantly better outcomes. Even before the pandemic, research showed that most teachers experienced stress and anxiety at alarming levels and today, teachers are battling new challenges to their mental health. This is especially troubling after considering that emerging research suggests when teachers struggle emotionally, student well-being and academic success can suffer.
Enter the pioneering work of Healthy Minds Innovations. Founded in 2014, the organization creates education technology tools fueled by the latest neuroscience insights to help people improve their well-being. The app-based training program, available freely to the general public, is designed to help users build resilience in four areas: awareness, connection, insight and purpose.
Testing tech with teachers
Responding to teachers’ growing need for mental health support throughout the pandemic, HMI and its partner, the Center for Healthy Minds, have connected with teachers across Wisconsin. Using podcast-style lessons, educators have learned about brain science, and through guided meditations they develop skills to support themselves inside and outside of the classroom.
After four weeks, participating teachers from the Madison Metropolitan School District showed lower rates of psychological distress and loneliness, and these improvements were still seen at an HMI follow-up three months later. Teachers also showed significant increases in mindfulness, self-compassion and overall well-being.
“The learning sessions and practices help ground me and allow me to pause and practice strategies I can use throughout my day,” one MMSD teacher said. “The app teaches me to carry on my day with more intention, appreciation and healthier relations with others, even in times of higher stress.”
As educators navigated a seismic shift in their educational environments, many also struggled to gauge the total well-being of individual students. While teachers could virtually track a student’s academic progress, maintaining a healthy, trusting relationship with them became increasingly difficult. And since research has made it clear that having a strong connection with an adult is critical to student learning and well-being, teachers needed a tool to help them connect at a distance.
In response, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Gradient Learning partnered with researchers and educators to build Along, a free digital reflection tool designed to help teachers make each of their students feel seen and understood. Inspired by the Search Institute’s applied research on building developmental relationships, Along equips teachers with a series of research-informed questions that help students open up about what’s really on their minds. Teachers then log into a dashboard where they can access, organize and respond to each of their students’ reflections.
Before it was officially launched — and even now as we continue to improve the product — Along was reviewed and piloted collaboratively by experts, teachers and students across different student ages and school contexts. And it’s only one example of how marrying education technology with research insights and student-teacher input can holistically transform learning communities.
Building the future of learning together
The process of translating research into practice is difficult, but when we ensure that it’s deeply collaborative and interdisciplinary, built with teachers to solve challenges teachers face, the benefits to students are immeasurable. And while this interruption to learning as usual has been painful, it’s also a chance to address the shortcomings revealed by the pandemic and build on the innovation and resilience teachers and students continue to demonstrate.
It’s up to all of us in the education technology community to ensure that every perspective of every stakeholder — educators, students, researchers and engineers alike — are actively engaged in this work. Because together, we have the power to build a better future.
We should seize this opportunity.
Sandra Liu Huang is head of education and vice president of product at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Before joining CZI, she was the head of product at Quora, where she oversaw its growth to 100 million unique users monthly. Sandra previously led product development in roles at Google and Facebook.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.