Welcome to the Connected Era: Digital Learning Comes of Age

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Future of Teaching and Learning

We are on the cusp of a new era in teaching and learning. The tools and resources teachers have used to do their jobs no longer seem adequate to the challenges presented by the extreme disruption brought upon us by the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Every year, teachers confront “summer learning loss.” But this fall, in some disciplines, students could return with less than 50% of the learning gains and in some grades nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions, according to researchers at the Northwest Evaluation Association. And children from high-need communities will be hit the hardest. 

How will our K–12 system shift to address this reality? And beyond the challenge of new learning gaps, what lasting impact will this life-altering outbreak have on our nation’s education system? First, let’s take a closer look at where we are today.

This is a seminal moment for teachers. In a modern world where porosity defines the ebb and flow of work life into home life, lesson planning and grading are done in the teacher’s lounge during the day and at the kitchen table during the evening. Emails from students are the last thing teachers look at before sleep each night and the first thing they check on upon waking. But somehow, with the “new normal” brought upon us by the COVID-19 virus outbreak, any remnants of emotional sanctuary at home has disappeared. Now it is the place from which teachers are teaching.

Even if this moment feels temporary and makeshift, the necessity that invented the virtual classroom will leave a permanent mark on how teachers teach in the future.

How so? 

For many teachers, online teaching was supplemental prior to the virus. They used a growing assortment of online resources, and students found some engaging. They were a great help in “personalizing” instruction, and online assessments had an auto-grade feature, which saved time. Online was a “nice-to-have” companion in a print-digital “blended” environment. Now, online seems essential and nondiscretionary. Even the most technologically hesitant teachers have adapted quickly to using a variety of online tools to find lessons, share assignments, and conduct video conferences. Whereas “blended” teaching and learning was the 2010s, “connected” teaching and learning will be the 2020s. The virus was the forcing function that made it so.

And the virus made it so not just because teachers are now required to be fluent in online teaching. It made it so because the virus drew attention to a major social injustice. Students in high-need neighborhoods were sent home to “isolate” in homes bereft of internet connectivity—making “disconnected” the cruelest and most unjust form of social isolation. The virus has shifted the ground beneath policy makers and administrators with a new central K–12 priority—to bridge the digital divide and supply all students with a computing device and access to the internet. Print can no longer be the only instructional default to compensate for inequitable access to online learning. The entire teaching and learning community needs to be connected—not as an aspiration but as a necessity.

Still, with increased funding and a renewed push to get devices into the hands of students, we will see that the ratio of students to devices will be 1:1 in the connected era—but the ratio of teachers to students will remain 1:25. Having the time to meet the learning and social-emotional needs of each child fully remains aspirational. Teachers need help. They need assistants. As consumers, we have grown used to artificial intelligence-enabled “Virtual Assistants” with names and voices to make our lives just a little bit easier.

The classroom demands the same empowerment, in the form of a virtual assistant with an accessible, easy-to-use front end in the absence of an overwhelming and often incoherent set of controls. Teachers can delegate certain tasks to this virtual assistant, reserving for themselves the high-impact activities where there is no substitute for human connection. And just like in our homes, this assistant is addressed naturally and conversationally—with voice as the new interface for the platform facilitating the moment-to-moment flow of teaching and learning.

Underlying the conception of this new connected era is the insistence that all tasks be made as simple as possible at all times. The platform infrastructure supporting online teaching and learning needs to be invisible. The myriad point-and-click controls and charts depicting student mastery and growth will fade into the background and be replaced by the algorithmic surfacing of learning insights and recommendations that support the teacher’s experience. Connection to students, to parents, to school district staff, and to virtual assistants will be effortless. 

Now, more than ever, this new connected era is urgently needed for teachers—because of the scale and force of the changes the virus has brought about in their everyday lives, and because of the promise technology holds to help them meet the learning and social-emotional needs of each child fully. 

It is time for the conventional to give way to the essential, for “we did what we could” to give way to “let’s do what is right,” and virtual and physical to make peace with one another, respecting the fact that human connection and social discourse can coexist gracefully with personalization and convenience.

So what comes next? How can we usher this new era in with the speed and immediacy it demands, and how can we truly make it a reality for our teachers, our students, and our families?

At its core, it must begin with the creation of a New Deal for Education, a national infrastructure project recognizing the social justice imperative of connected as the indispensable mediator of the everyday teaching and learning experience. And beyond the foundational necessity of high-speed connections and devices, our school districts and teachers will need true partners in learning who are willing to lean into the need for a connected experience, and underpin all they do with smart software that puts the educator at the center.

The result will be a new era where technology finally has the immensely positive reframing power to alter K–12 education—and the lives of our teachers and students—forevermore.