How the Pandemic Is Influencing Tech Trends for In-Person Learning

Photo of a teacher wearing a mask and using a computer

The coronavirus pandemic has come with specific challenges for teachers: Keeping students engaged during hybrid or fully remote learning, addressing systemic inequity and the digital divide, and coping with days of seemingly endless multitasking are just a few among so many other obstacles. As a high school English teacher, I've experienced most of these bumps in the road myself.

But despite myriad struggles, teaching during the pandemic has also brought to light some positive aspects. In the face of concerning trends in students' mental health, some teachers have discovered the importance of incorporating social and emotional learning into classroom practice. Others have discovered just how important their own self-care is.

And, of course, as digital tools have become essential for teaching and learning, teachers everywhere have discovered new tools they hadn't used before the shift to remote learning. But which of these tools will we continue to use after the return to in-person instruction?

Here are some insights I've compiled, from both Common Sense's Editorial team as well as a group of teachers who realized how some digital tools and teaching practices have shaped learning in new and positive ways.

Changing trends in how teachers and students use technology

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic made certain digital tools essential for teaching and learning. Like many teachers in this upended environment, I've been on a quest to find tools with both utility and consistency for my classroom. For example, at the beginning of the year, I toggled between using Google Meet and Zoom as a video platform until I realized that integrating Google Meet with Google Classroom solved some issues (for me, at least).

In talking with Common Sense Education's editors, internal traffic and page-view metrics showed that certain digital tools and apps had become much more widely searched since the beginning of the pandemic. This probably reflects teachers' and students' shifting needs during remote learning, and the idea that many teachers were experimenting with new types of tools.

As teachers and students adapted to remote learning, a number of tools saw huge increases in search traffic on the Common Sense Education site: Google's Jamboard, an interactive whiteboard app; Lalilo, a K–2 literacy program; and Mathgames, which has games and quizzes aligned to the Common Core Standards.

But for me, the more interesting question isn't so much which tools teachers have been using, but how they’ve been using them -- this question of implementation gets at the heart of the edtech tools that have worked so far, and the kind of instruction that might be worth continuing once in-person instruction resumes.

Improving student feedback with digital tools

As a visual arts teacher at Ballard High School in Louisville, Kentucky, Mike Sturgeon has always valued giving his students quality feedback, whether during informal classroom rounds or more formal art critiques. As much as he's missed the in-person instruction over the past year, he admits that he's appreciated how easy it is to give students feedback in Google Classroom. "It is a little difficult because it can get wordy sometimes. But just the ability to just say, 'Hey, this is exactly what I was looking for,' or 'Have you considered doing this?' goes a long way with the kids," Sturgeon says.

Like Sturgeon, I miss the informal interactions of giving kids feedback and community-building in a "normal" classroom. But I agree that it’s a lot easier to give kids organized feedback with a tool like Google Classroom or a learning management system (LMS).

"I've discovered how great [Google Classroom] is for giving immediate and meaningful feedback to students. They've gotten better at checking for feedback too." —Sue Darpino, Endicott, New York

Sue Darpino, a high school health teacher in Endicott, New York, agrees, noting that her students have really seemed to benefit from the feedback loop she's able to facilitate. "I had used Google Classroom a little before this year, but I’ve discovered how great it is for giving immediate and meaningful feedback to students. They’ve gotten better at checking for feedback too. I love that it allows for students to submit things multiple times. I have more students doing revisions now than ever before," Darpino writes on Facebook.

Teaching with shared documents and live instruction

Social studies teacher Joe Franzen of Cuba-Rushford Middle-High School in Cuba, New York, has had the challenge of concurrent teaching, or working with both in-person and remote students all year. For Franzen and others in the same boat, finding strategies that simultaneously engage both in-person and remote students is difficult. "One of the really cool things that I stumbled on is using shared Microsoft documents in real time with classes," Franzen says, adding that it's a great way for students to participate in a low-stakes way while he's introducing new concepts.

For example, in previous years, if Franzen was providing direct instruction on the origins and types of political cartoons, he wasn't always sure if students were on task. His students would be on their iPads, ostensibly taking notes on their own. Now, he says, with the same lesson students at home and in-person can "actively contribute to the classwork in a collaborative space, without interrupting or without me thinking [students] are off-task on their devices." He created a Microsoft document where students could add their own questions or examples of cartoons in real time as he instructs, creating a more engaging lesson for all.

Using shared documents during live practice or instruction is a strategy I've also used as an English teacher. When introducing and practicing sentence structures and variety, for example, I'll create a shared Google Doc, project it on the whiteboard, and have students practice and receive feedback from me and from each other. By framing this type of public practice as an opportunity to learn with and from each other, student engagement and focus usually improves. As a bonus, this type of instruction and assessment also gives me some relief from formally collecting and assessing so much work.

Screencastify and the power of voice

Based on Common Sense's review traffic, one of the top tools this past year was Screencastify, a screen recording tool with a huge range of instructional applications. I've used it to record a variety of different screencasts for students. Among other things, I can explain annotations on students' writing, or give more detail about assignments I've posted on Google Classroom. I've also asked students to record themselves reading drafts of their own writing. And because some students have such anxiety about presenting or speaking aloud in a live setting, Screencastify may offer an alternative and more appealing route to communication practice.

Darpino is also a fan of the tool -- she's recorded a variety of presentations and lessons with Screencastify to help frontload activities. "I'd present slides and give [students] the basic information that they needed to complete some work on their own, like reviewing directions [or] showing them resources," she says.

What's next for technology in America's classrooms?

As schools and districts emerge from the pandemic, we're likely to see a wide range of different schedules and learning models develop. Schools and districts across the country are diverse in how they operate, and they'll probably also be diverse in the types of digital tools and teaching strategies they'll adopt as we all return to some sense of normalcy. For everyone eager to resume teaching in-person, it's safe to say that the pandemic has given us countless hours of practice with digital tools. And that's something that should help us -- and our students -- well into the future.

Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

Paul Barnwell

A New Hampshire-based handyman, writer, and hobby farmer, Paul Barnwell is a freelance contributor to Common Sense Education. Paul lived and taught high school English in Louisville, Kentucky, for 13 years, where he embraced bluegrass music, barbecue, and horse racing. He's been published in the Atlantic online, Education Week, and Harvard's Ed. magazine, among other outlets. Paul and his wife, Rebecca, now reside in central New Hampshire.