When teachers turned to edTech products to support at-home learning last year, we wondered whether the pandemic had inadvertently convinced more educators of the value of edTech.
One year later, we wanted to know: are the teachers who embraced digital learning tools in 2020 still using them during in-person learning in 2021? And what kind of shifts in edTech can we expect in 2022?
Earlier this month, we talked to two members of Backpack Interactive’s Teacher Council, Rachel Pauta and Kylie Reiman, to find out.
Over the course of our conversation, we learned which kinds of learning tools they’re still using in the classroom, what the pandemic learning gap looks like for their students, and what they wish edTech product owners knew about their day-to-day experiences.
Rachel Pauta teaches 2nd grade in a dual language classroom in a New York City public school. Kylie Reiman is a ninth-grade physics teacher at a charter school in Camden, New Jersey. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
In-Person Learning & Closing the Learning Gap
How are you feeling now that you’re mid-way into the school year? Have you had to return to virtual or hybrid learning for any reason?
Kylie Reiman: Good. I’ve been in the building every day since the middle of July. Our kids started in the middle of August [with in-person learning].
Rachel Pauta: I have been at school since September 27th. I feel like we’re acting like everything is normal, but it’s totally not normal. I thought there might be a push to talk about where our students are and what they need, but instead they just gave us the curriculum and told us to go for it. I just looked at my reading curriculum and the basic sight words for second grade are, like, huge.
Is part of what you’re noticing a gap from where students should be because of what happened last year?
RP: That’s part of it. Some students are fine. Some of them are ready to go. But some of them seem like they’re brand new to school. It doesn’t seem like there’s a huge attempt to figure out what these kids went through. One of my kids told me, ‘No, I was in kindergarten last year.’ And I said, ‘You weren’t. You did first grade.’ He doesn’t have any recollection of school. I just think he thinks that the last time he was in school, he was in kindergarten. Like the last year didn’t even count.
KR: I teach physics in ninth grade, and even that can be a struggle for ninth graders. Most of the math we’re doing in physics, they haven’t seen at all, ever. Because the last time they were in a ‘real’ math class was in seventh grade. Now we’re doing high school-level math in a physics classroom, which is not only reading and numbers, but it’s all applied to real-life situations.
Sometimes I feel stressed because I’m teaching a math course in my physics course just to give them what they need to be successful. I just taught an hour-long ladder lesson on inverse operations. They needed it to do the basic physics concept we were talking about, but they’ve never done it in math class before.
RP: I think I did a lot virtually. It bugs me when people say there was a huge [learning] gap. But we also didn’t have the same routine for them: show me what you can do, then go off and practice and I’ll look at it. Then, if I need to repeat the lesson to the whole class, I will. There was none of that last year.
I just did a basic spelling inventory. I asked them to write down letters that are sounds that they heard, even if they couldn’t spell the word. They weren’t even close, some of them. They would say, ‘I don’t know what sound that letter makes.’ And this is second grade, where some of the vocabulary is a word like ‘mascot.’
I think it would have been great for someone to come up with some sort of post-pandemic, post-virtual curriculum.
The Challenge of Using edTech Tools in In-Person Classrooms
I’m going to switch gears to talk a little bit more about technology. Are you noticing any changes or new software features from digital tools that you depended on during the pandemic?
KR: Since we’ve been back in person, I haven’t used a lot of the software that I had to, due to necessity, in the virtual learning sphere. I have a class set of computers, but they stay in their cart for the most part because of the logistics of having 30 kids transition [to using computers]. Nearpod, which I loved for virtual because you could see all their work and where they’re at, isn’t that reasonable to use in a classroom setting. The kids [don’t] have to learn on the computer when there’s a teacher right in front of them. I just use paper and pencil. I print them out packets, and we work through them together. I mean, I wish it would be more exciting.
RP: I feel the same. In a lot of ways, I could get more engagement from the kids virtually. I can meet with four or five kids [while others work asynchronously]. I know I can do that in the classroom, but it’s like, ‘You guys have to be quiet!’ You know what I mean?
Like Kylie was saying, I loved using interactive software. We did PearDeck, and all those slides were interactive. I can’t do that now. I think Google Classroom has sort of gotten better. We put this whole list together of all the things that it needed, especially for younger kids: large font and bold [type], different colors. The font was so small for kids in K-2. I don’t think you can make the font bigger yet, but you’re able to bold things. That was huge.
KR: I do use Google classroom and that’s something I didn’t use pre-pandemic. It’s primarily to focus on the kids who are quarantined or in close contact [with COVID]. At any given point, we have roughly 20 kids who are learning at home. And that’s where I utilize Google Classroom, for any assignments for them.
I think it is a good, accessible tool, especially if students are going to be absent for a significant time for various health things. Even with my kids who may not have a computer at home, they can at least access it on their phone, and have some kind of venue into the school.
Digital Learning Tools & Family Communication
During virtual learning last year, teachers had many different ways of communicating with families using technology. Are you planning to use technology to communicate with families differently than you have in the past?
KR: I think there’s a big push, at least in my school, to make it as similar to pre-pandemic times as possible. My students have access to different software platforms where their parents can sign on and see their grades, their behavior report, and their attendance. I believe that was also available pre-pandemic. I don’t think anything’s different in regards to parent communication.
RP: My parents this year are WhatsApp users, and they’ll respond to me in seconds. They have to use a health screener every day, so they’re screenshotting their health screener [and sending it to me]. It’s been such a lifesaver. I do this [kind of communication] on ClassDojo, too, but they don’t all sign up for ClassDojo. Even if you give them the access code, or you help them log in, they’re still not connected or they still don’t download the app on their phone. WhatsApp is more accessible, in my opinion.
District-Level Shifts in edTech Investment
Is your administration investing more in technology? Do you have access to money for tech upgrades to your own classroom?
KR: We’re mandated to have the OwlLabs cameras set up and ready to go, for when the first batch of at-home learners was inevitably announced. We have the cameras from last year. If a kid on the quarantine list is in your classroom, you have to livestream.
RP: In New York City, they said that every student should still have their district computer or iPad. But they have a shortage right now, and they’re not able to give out any more. So it’s almost like the opposite. Like not only are they not updating any tech, they’re really stopping the distribution.
Shifts in edTech: What Teachers See Today
If switching to virtual learning was difficult last year, the transition back to in-person learning has its own unique set of challenges. Plenty of students are still struggling with learning content, even if they’re now learning side by side with their peers.
Even teachers who enjoyed using edTech during the pandemic might struggle to fit digital learning tools into their day-to-day realities. This means that product owners can do more to make digital curricula useful, valuable, and easy-to-implement for teachers, students, and parents.
By conducting additional user experience research, testing learning tools in real or hybrid classrooms, and drawing on the insights of the Backpack Interactive Teacher Council, your next edTech product can help teachers meet even more students where they are right now.
Want to learn more about how the Backpack Interactive Teacher Council can help with your next edTech product? Let’s talk!