By: Jeff Nazzaro

One of the many unfortunate effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is the well-documented extent to which K–12 students have fallen behind basic standards of learning. For example, McKinsey & Company analyzed in-school testing results for nearly two million elementary students across the United States and found that, compared to previous years, student assessments from 2021 revealed a roughly 10-point deficit in math and nine-point lag in reading. The consulting giant equated those drops to students losing five months of math learning and four months of reading. With most students required to transition to some form of remote learning during the two-year pandemic peak, it is not surprising that one of the biggest scapegoats for this dip in learning levels is the use of technology as a learning medium.

“During the pandemic, students lost 5 months of math learning, and 4 months of reading.”

UCR alum and educator Jacqui Murray “I think technology really got a bad rap with remote learning,” says Jacqui Murray, an educator and blogger who administers the “Ask a Tech Teacher” website. “They thought, ‘OK, remote learning, we’re all going to use technology and do great with it or not do great with it but we’re going to use technology,’ and it didn’t work. Schools have fallen so far behind in the standards the kids are reaching. It’s nothing that you’d expect, and technology gets the blame. It shouldn’t get the blame.”

Another effect of the pandemic—and one that hopefully turns out to be positive—is that the already expanding use of technology in schools mushroomed and became entrenched. What’s important now for students, teachers, and administrators is that the use of technology for learning is increasingly normalized and optimized.

“Technology really got a bad rap with remote learning…”

“If we were to use technology as it’s intended to be used, it’s a wonderful tool,” says Jacqui. “It is a tool. The problem is, a lot of teachers think, ‘OK, to use technology I have to first learn how to use technology myself. They have to learn the program, then they have to teach their kids. The students have to learn it, and all this is taking up time they didn’t have anyway.”

Now that students are firmly back in the classroom for face-to-face learning, most educational experts agree that what is needed in a general sense is to strike the proper balance between tried-and-true old school methods and cutting-edge classroom technology, while bearing in mind the very real phenomenon of “tech fatigue.”

“It’s time to find the balance between tried and true old-school methods and cutting-edge classroom technology…”

“There is huge tech fatigue,” Jacqui acknowledged. “The problem with giving in to tech fatigue is that we can’t. The technology ship has sailed. We are vested in technology. We do tests online. Students have to know how to use technology. Teachers have to know how to help them with it to do their online tests. Books are online. Projects are submitted and homework is submitted online. They research online. They go to the school library, but I bet they’re just as likely to research using a kid-safe research tool online. Their LMS, their virtual classroom, is online. They get their grades online. We can’t say, ‘I’m just tired of technology.’ Too bad. It’s there. How do we make this work for you?”

For Jacqui, making technology work better in schools comes down to five main strategies:

1. Cap Tech Tools at Five

Jacqui recommends teachers pick a learning management system (LMS) like Canvas or Google Classroom and run everything through that: handouts on pdfs, class texts, quizzes, tests, and homework assignments.

She loves desktop publisher Canva, which she says is perfect for visual learning and easy-to-understand and accomplish class projects.

A word processing program, whether Google Docs or Word, is essential. The former, she says, makes it particularly easy for teachers to add comments to student work, to coordinate group work, and for the whole class to share work.

While many Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers rue the demise of teaching cursive writing in schools, it is, let’s face it, a marginally useful skill in today’s world, let alone classrooms. What is essential these days is keyboarding, which is why Jacqui recommends using a typing teacher as one of the five tech tools. Even third graders need basic keyboarding skills, she says. They don’t have to be fast; they just have to get words up on the screen while listening to and processing what the teacher is saying.

To round things out, some kind of communication tool, whether email or messaging, is also necessary. You might not want younger kids using email, she says, but you need something for the students to readily communicate with the teacher and each other.

Not counted among the five, Jacqui says software that allows teachers to keep an eye on all student screens is very useful for keeping everyone on task, and instructors should consider using behavior monitoring programs if necessary. On the lighter side, she is a big fan of using Minecraft in the classroom, which she says gamifies learning and has applications in math, science, and history classes and is fun and familiar for students from second grade up into high school.

2. Make It Intuitive

Whichever tech tools you choose for your classroom, Jacqui’s advice is to make sure they are intuitive to use for both teachers and students. They should also be ad-free to minimize distractions and available both at home and school, so students have round-the-clock access.

3. Better the App You Know

One way to ensure intuitiveness and access is to choose programs and applications that students are already familiar with and/or already using. Doing so also helps to normalize the use of technology in the classroom.

“Use technology tools that students are used to that everyone uses, so it’s more of a tool,” Jacqui explains. “It’s like you say, ‘Pull your notebook out and take notes’; everyone pulls a notebook out and they go to work. They don’t say, ‘Should I use my iPad or my phone or do I use this yellow-lined tablet or do I use this book?’ You want that kind of an attitude with your tools that are used throughout your school. That way they don’t become, ‘Oh, we’re using technology now.’ They just become another tool.”

4. Coordinate, Coordinate, Coordinate

Jacqui is a firm believer in administrators and other pedagogical experts working with teachers to choose tech tools that are used throughout the school, something she doesn’t yet see happening. “I think it’s just because to them this is all so new, but it needs to be done,” she says, comparing tech use to curriculum standards. “I think schools need to take a clear-eyed look at the tools they use and then require everyone to do it.”

5. Find a Teacher-Training Sweet Spot

“Schools tend to have too much training or not enough for their teachers,” says Jacqui, who teaches fully remote courses like “Technology in Your Classroom,” “Building Digital Citizens,” and “Teaching Writing with Technology” to Education grad students. “Both are bad.” Here’s where especially the first three items on this list are doubly helpful, as limiting the number of tech tools and choosing familiar ones that have the benefit of being comfortable and intuitive will of course make finding the right amount of training for teachers that much easier.