To Make Online Learning Work, Invest in Teachers

To Make Online Learning Work, Invest in Teachers
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As Congress debates the second federal education relief bill, including the HEALS Act, the issue of effective technology use is gaining increasing attention. During a June hearing on reopening schools, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) remarked, “This shift [to online learning] underscored the need to help educators effectively integrate a wide range of technologies… and use them to educate students who may have… specific needs.” This sentiment was echoed by an educator quoted in Baldwin’s recent article coauthored with Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who said, “Teachers… are asking for additional training… on the use of educational technology, but districts need funding to support this type of professional development.”

The COVID-19 global pandemic exposed and exacerbated major gaps to digital equity. We must address the access to devices and internet connectivity that millions of students still lack. But closing the digital divide is only one side of the equation. True digital equity only comes when our teachers know how to use technology to transform and accelerate learning across content areas, whether instruction takes an online, blended, or a face-to-face approach. 

This “digital use divide” refers to the gap between students learning from educators who are prepared to use technology in effective, equitable ways, and those whose teachers have not received the proper training. Recent surveys have revealed an overall failure to address teacher technology proficiency as well as discrepancies in the quality of online instruction available to students from different backgrounds.

Educators from various states often warn about what will happen should federal and state leaders continue to de-prioritize professional development. 

In Arizona, efforts led by edtech coaches and local organizations have been critical in preparing for the fall. Coaches are getting educators up to speed in effectively using online learning systems. Organizations like AzTEA, Arizona Science Teachers Association, Arizona Association of Math Teachers Association, and the Arizona Council of History Educators provided training on topics such as online learning discourse, collaboration, student engagement, and evaluating digital tools to hundreds of educators. 

Without continued, substantial investment to maintain these professional development opportunities, educators are essentially left to fend for themselves, as Arizona already ranks 49th in education spending. Districts would either forego this priority altogether or pull from already limited budgets. Recognizing this issue, Arizona’s local school boards recently wrote to the governor, education chief, and legislature to make additional investments. 

In Alaska, ensuring that small, remote districts have the same professional development opportunities as larger counterparts is an ongoing challenge. In the spring, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District organized a week-long virtual conference with over 250 sessions initially for their own educators, but materials were later shared with neighbors. Larger districts are volunteering to lead training once more in preparation for the fall, alongside organizations like the Alaska Society for Technology in Education, as there still exists a wide spectrum of understanding about effective distance learning strategies. 

Educators like Heather Baker, a 4th grade teacher in Kenai, Alaska have used digital tools to personalize learning, offer room for student collaboration, and hold one-to-one conferences. However, this is not the norm for every educator in the state, and without funding, districts will not be able to provide training on high-demand topics like designing virtual learning spaces to promote collaboration, maintaining relationships, and engaging families. In turn, learning gaps for students are likely to widen. For example, teachers and parents in Alaska are requiring significant amounts of assistance with implementing the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and accessibility tools. Education stabilization funds under CARES are far too limited and are causing delays in district submission of learning plans.

With these local challenges in mind, educators have the following recommendations for our leaders.

For Members of Congress: Support substantial investments in the next COVID-19 education relief package that would fund professional learning opportunities for K-12 educators, focused around online education and other strategies necessary to keep learning going. For example, the Coronavirus Child Care and Education Relief Act, supported by members of the COVID-19 Education Coalition, proposes $175 billion in additional K-12 education stabilization funds, 20% of which must be set aside by districts to address students’ learning loss, including “providing professional development to educators and other staff on how to effectively implement distance learning.” Members on both sides of the aisle recognize the continued need to help schools. For example, Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) recently remarked, “The coronavirus pandemic is straining education budgets as schools have had to shift to distance learning to keep kids safe.”

For state education leaders: Education stabilization dollars from the federal government are incredibly flexible in allowable uses. Prioritize the investment of those dollars into educator capacity building in effective use of technology. Use the recommendations from the International Society for Technology in Education and the National Association of State Boards of Education as a starting point to build systems around that professional development, so that effective educator practices are sustained beyond the pandemic. Consider the case of Utah, whose prior strategic investments to address the digital use divide supported a smoother transition to online learning in spring 2020. 

Education researchers are already projecting significant learning losses as a fallout of the COVID-19 global pandemic, and most recently, a group of approximately 200 came together to recommend that schools must provide teachers with the training they need to provide quality online learning environments. Our leaders must use this moment as an opportunity to support educators and ensure all students have access to quality instruction.

Ji Soo Song is a Senior Policy and Advocacy Associate at the International Society for Technology in Education.

Amanda Adams is the President of the Alaska Society for Technology in Education.

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