As a former English teacher turned tech director, my fascination with technology began with its power to make the world a better place. I’ve given countless presentations that incorporated the idea that what we imagine in our fiction becomes our reality--sometimes faster than we can imagine. Seriously--I have a whole slide deck on how we’re actually living in the world the creators of Star Trek imagined in the 1960’s!
Having said that, I’m sad to report that virtual reality (VR) let me down.
If there ever was a time for a technology to emerge as the shining hero, this would have been it. We could have seen VR classrooms with chemistry labs or digitally built sets for Shakespeare performances. Those of us who have been on a VR expedition or dissected a virtual human heart—or even just played Beat Saber—know how “nearly there” this technology is.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools began by looking for a technological solution to crisis distance learning. What most of them found at the end of the search was that new tech wasn’t the thing that saved them—it was the way that engaged, creative teachers used existing technology that made the difference.
The role technology played was decidedly less glamorous than I’d imagined; technology infrastructure, rather than innovation, was key to ensuring learning continued as the long days of remote, concurrent, or hybrid learning turned into weeks and then months. School technology leaders worked long hours to ensure access for all students and faculty from home. The school’s Learning Management System (LMS), along with video connectivity became the backbone of remote learning, because consistency and reliability mattered more than anything else.
We used technology to replace what we were already doing rather than to imagine how school might be different. Dr. Reuben Puentedura’s SAMR model of technology integration is a useful guide here. The S refers to “substitution” in which technology merely enables something we already do, e.g. a live lecture takes place via Zoom rather than in the classroom, then students meet in breakout rooms rather than turning their desks towards one another to work in small groups. And as Alex Podchaski, CETL, Director of Educational and Information Technology at North Broward Preparatory School, as well as founder and co-host of the weekly #EdTechChat on Twitter said, “There was a whole lot of S” in pandemic technology.
It’s true that substitution was the focus of most school’s approaches to distance learning. And that makes sense—there was a crisis, and at the start of the crisis, it’s tempting to keep things as familiar as possible. The danger here is that we replicate systems that reinforce and widen inequities, continuing to disadvantage students who were already ill-served by systemic bias: students of color, working-class and poor students, neurodiverse students, and many others.
Now, as we head into the next normal, it’s time to think about what we keep and what we leave behind. First things first—I hope we all agree that we’ll NEVER go back to a world where schools don’t provide LMS access via a single platform. It is unconscionable that a student with seven teachers might have to navigate seven different platforms just to create the day’s to-do list. The idea that one tool “better matches” a course is a decidedly teacher-centered stance, and we should never do that to children again. Time and again, students had the best experience when teachers made the effort to see the online experience from the student perspective. Just as learner-driven classrooms produce better outcomes, attending to the user experience makes online experiences more engaging and productive.
Having said that, it’s my sincere hope that we’ll go “back” to thinking of technology as a frontier, a way to make change and discover new possibilities. As distance learning continued, there were many times when teachers and students created something new, with or without technology, that had never been done before. Let’s capture that entrepreneurial spirit!
In the summer of 2020, students and alumni leveraged technology and social media to amplify voices that had been silenced for far too long and acted to compel school leaders to examine, understand, and act to change the injustices perpetrated upon Black students on independent school campuses. Their bravery and imagination is transforming their schools. Creativity has bloomed in students at San Diego Jewish Academy as they’ve built their own virtual reality worlds by learning to program in Unity. Those worlds don’t have to be boundaried by the limitations adults have set in place. If we ever need another stay-at-home order, those students will have grown to be the visionaries who will build the more equitable and transformational VR classrooms that the next generation deserves.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)