I was dismayed to recently encounter this headline in The New York Times: “Dependence on Tech Caused ‘Staggering’ Education Inequality, U.N. Agency Says.” The Times story highlighted a UNESCO report that blamed overreliance on online learning during the pandemic’s early years for what it called “an ed tech tragedy.”
It’s part of a litany of accusatory reports and articles that put responsibility for the vast differences in academic performance between low-income students and their more affluent peers on ed tech. Also laid at ed tech’s doorstep have been the rise in student disengagement and the increase in student mental health problems. The scapegoating of technology and ed-tech companies has become a common response to the current educational inequities in the United States and worldwide, allowing researchers and policymakers alike to ignore the overarching and preexisting factors that widened an already acute problem, largely correlated to poverty.
In the rush to assign blame, many critics ignore the benefits students and teachers derived from using technology during the early months of the pandemic and since and fail to consider how much deeper the learning gaps might have been without the rapid and large-scale implementation of educational technology tools during this once-in-a-century crisis.
In retrospect, it seems clear that more should have been done to keep brick-and-mortar schools open. However, once the decision to close school buildings was made, educational technology tools were always going to be an integral part of the solution. The suggestion in UNESCO’s report that, in 2020, schoolwork packets or recorded classes delivered via radio or television would have been more equitable or engaging alternatives is risible.
Instead of laying blame, though, let’s commit to focusing on the real issues impacting students today and dedicate ourselves to closing the learning gaps that have persisted for decades. There is no doubt that a caring teacher will always be the most important element of any learning environment. Technology is a tool—a vital one—in every educator’s toolkit. What’s indisputable is that educational technology can empower teachers to deliver better learning outcomes.
Technology can and has reduced inequities in education, unleashing potential and providing new opportunities for millions of learners. Here are just a few examples:
Digital curriculum and virtual instruction allow students to engage in coursework not available in local schools, such as upper-level math and science courses, world languages, career and technical education, and Advanced Placement courses.
Rich digital media can bring the world into every classroom, enabling students to experience phenomena they might never encounter in person. Technology invites students to experience up close volcanoes erupting or sea turtles hatching. Students can also conduct scientific simulations, view historical records, and “meet” notable people through virtual visits to heritage sites in distant locales.
Educational technology delivers personalized learning with assessment-based pathways so the material is at the right level for each student. Instructional software also supports teachers with data so they can tailor their lessons to specific student needs.
Accessibility features found in many digital devices and educational programs provide additional support to students, whether they have learning differences or not. Features such as translation, magnification, and dictation have enabled countless learners to take control of their own learning.
Digital education programs offer students the flexibility to pursue academics in a manner that works for their specific situation. Whether for students who have been bullied or have special needs, homebound children, or student-athletes who train for hours each day, digital learning platforms enable learners to complete their academic requirements on their own terms.
School leaders across the world were faced with an urgent problem literally overnight: how to continue to educate millions of students, each with different home experiences, different learning needs, and varied technical capabilities. What we must do now is relentlessly innovate to ensure that each learner gets the opportunity to thrive using every available resource—dedicated teachers, high-quality curricula, and technology. We will continue to support teachers by providing high-quality educational solutions that empower them in physical or virtual classroom settings, saving them time to focus on what matters most—connecting with students to improve learning outcomes.
Ed tech is neither the villain nor the single answer to systemic problems in our educational environment. Ed tech, when properly implemented, helps teachers and benefits students.