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Why I Believed Edtech Could Save My School — and How It Failed Me

Admin By Admin Nov26,2023

While I’m not proud to admit it, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought teaching remotely would be a dream come true. It wasn’t that I didn’t value, cherish and miss the face-to-face interactions I had with my students, but because I naively assumed that my more reluctant colleagues would see the light and finally embrace edtech. As a techie at heart, I envisioned a digital utopia where post-pandemic schools would become fully digitized with students and teachers always remote and online while still preserving the magic of human interaction.

But when I looked over my classes after returning to in-person instruction, I had the sinking feeling that I had exchanged the traditional model of student instruction with individual seats in rows and columns for a replica with devices instead. Are we just educational luddites or has the edtech revolution fallen short of its promises? As educators, we need to be more discerning and discriminating about the use of technology in our classrooms and be willing to admit when the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.

The Hype Has Left the Building

The tech landscape at my school was far from unique before the pandemic. Between early adopters and strident naysayers, most teachers fell in the middle. Google classrooms were rarely used, and laptops, while ubiquitous, were primarily used during standardized testing season. The landscape seemed ripe for a tech revolution but it never gained the critical mass needed to be realized.

While I thought the integration of new tech at my school would be a good thing, it turned out to be mediocre, at best. Working from home on a subpar laptop, most of my time was spent waiting for things to load. Even the best tech couldn’t drown out the sounds and distractions from neighbors in my building who were also forced to shelter in place and work from home. A dropped Internet connection – a minor annoyance in the best of times – became the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Ironically, though, it was the lack of human interaction that became the central issue. Chat messages were not able to mimic lively in-person exchanges between students, shared documents couldn’t replace collaboration in real-time, and a collage of student avatars was certainly no substitute for seeing students face-to-face — even in the rare instances when they would choose to turn on their device cameras. When tech adoption was voluntary, these shortcomings could be mitigated by using technology to enhance rather than replace human-centric teaching. When there was no alternative to making it the centerpiece, its deficiencies became impossible to work around.

Being a computer science teacher, I thought I had a natural affinity for technology that could translate into a successful tech-agnostic approach to curriculum and instruction; however, by Thanksgiving of the following year, I had led one too many uninspiring and demoralizing online classes where it felt like I was talking into a deep, dark void. Swapping stories with fellow teachers over the past year, it is apparent that these experiences are nearly universal. As the medium and the messenger, technology became the scapegoat for all the frustration and discouragement teachers and students felt at that time, including myself. Ultimately, when put to the test, the edtech boom in 2020 fell far short of its hype.

The Exhaustion Lingers On

The lingering fatigue many teachers and students are experiencing with edtech is real, and in hindsight, completely predictable. Lockdowns and hybrid classes during the pandemic gave edtech companies a golden opportunity to peddle their wares to a captive audience, and it gave teachers enthusiastic about edtech a virtually limitless playground to try out new tools and apps. The tech deluge also necessitated that users create multiple accounts on multiple platforms, each with its own dashboards to monitor and quirks to work around. “I just delete all the emails from tech companies and people offering PD because it’s just too much,” a colleague told me in the later stages of the pandemic.

Even students, the “digital natives” whom many of us assumed would be much more facile with technology, eventually got tired of juggling so many different platforms. In each of my classes — from freshman introductory programming to my senior-level advanced placement calculus — as the months went on, I noticed much lower student engagement with numerous tech platforms I used to teach. Every new app seemed to fill the gap and provide features that other apps were missing, so it was tempting to try and find a use case for all of them, but the experience left us dazed, confused and apathetic.

Much of my time was spent learning keystrokes and navigating preferences instead of thinking about the more impactful question of how to incorporate technology in a meaningful way that would facilitate the human aspects of teaching and learning, like discourse and creativity. The time I spent fiddling and tweaking classroom tech gave me a harmless, mindless and justifiable escape from confronting the realities of an unprecedented worldwide pandemic, but these distractions were also emblematic of my worldview before the world changed. My preference for a technological solution above all others was as much an unconscious attempt to mitigate and hide deficiencies in my own teaching as it was about my belief in the superiority of bits and bytes. This was a hard truth to swallow, one which spurred me to delete more than a few accounts and intentionally cherish the slivers of human contact that managed to make it through digital filters and firewalls.

Observing my classes during these early days back to in-person instruction and seeing a sea of silent, unresponsive, and almost shell-shocked students, I felt more defeated, ineffective and powerless than at any other time in my career. There is an exhaustion that lingers from that experience, an exhaustion that teachers have not had the time and space to recover from before being thrown back into the classroom to make up learning losses and bolster social-emotional learning deficits.

Accepting What Never Was

As we continue on in this new school year, I finally feel a sense of normalcy has returned to our campus. Classrooms are filled with excited and happy student voices, but among us teachers, there is still skepticism about edtech that remains. While that may seem unfortunate, it is actually healthy and, in the long run, serves as a cautionary tale for us all. Like all of the human actors in the pandemic drama, edtech was forced into a role that it was never designed for.

Our humanity remains at the heart of good teaching, and tech is best used to support, enhance and facilitate the human-to-human interactions that underlie it. When it tries to assume a starring role and become all things to all people, its rapidly diminishing benefits become outweighed by its drawbacks. While my digital utopia never came to fruition, at least edtech has given us a better ability to distinguish between a dream and reality.

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