Tech-Driven Learning

By Amanda O’Rourke
Summer Fall 2023 Issue

Prior to the pandemic, the use of technology in the classroom varied and was dependent on the age of the students. Elementary students had the least experience using technology. Most had some basic interaction — whether it was through Epic, a digital reading platform, or iReady, an online math curriculum that provides differentiated instruction.

“There was not a lot of technology being used pre-pandemic. Most of the student learning was very handson,” says Kelly Thorn ’17, who teaches kindergarten in Montgomery County, Maryland. “My students used a computer lab once a week for 45 minutes, but they were so unfamiliar with technology that it took most of the class time just to get them logged on.”

Mary Herman ’15 Mostik’s third graders in the Lewisburg Area School District, Pennsylvania, were also fairly unfamiliar with the technology the pandemic forced them to use.

“Before the pandemic, students learned keyboarding skills and how to type on laptops,” says Mostik. She also used various applications and programs to teach math, reading, science and vocabulary.

But the pandemic brought new challenges. While older students may have had the attention span to sit in front of a screen for longer periods of time, many of Thorn’s kindergarteners did not.

“It was very challenging to teach them how to read and write through a screen,” Thorn recalls. “Some would walk away from their computer, play other games on the computer or do something completely off task and there was nothing I could do about it from my own house!” she says.

Though this massive shift to remote learning was frustrating, the result of having to transition online is that many teachers increased their competency in educational technology. According to a survey from the EdWeek Research Center, 87% of teachers surveyed said their ed tech skills improved as a result of the pandemic.

Those findings echo the sentiments of Susquehanna alumni contacted for this piece — though much of that confidence has come through trial and error. While some school districts hosted trainings for their faculty, many teachers dedicated their own time to develop their technology skills by searching out webinars, tutorial videos or peers.

“I learned most of what I know about technology from my colleagues,” Mostik says. “I work with experienced and innovative teachers who find amazing uses of technology and are willing to share.”

John Bickhart ’01 was appointed director of curriculum at Danville Area School District, Pennsylvania, a few months after the pandemic hit. Making the transition from the district’s elementary principal, he and the information technology staff mobilized to support teachers prior to schools reopening for the 2020–21 school year.

“We created an entire training program that could be accessed online and adapted to the knowledge level of the teacher,” Bickhart explains. “We established four technology coaches — one for each building — as well as an instructional coach. When we returned to school, 99 times out of 100 our teachers taught from the classroom, even if we had to take some virtual days, because we had set them up with support.”

The shift to online learning also revealed a digital divide in American society and education — leading to equity issues in the way education was delivered. This was a particular problem in rural school districts, where highspeed internet service is spotty, expensive or nonexistent.

Jason Weller ’99 teaches eighth-grade science in the entirely rural Line Mountain School District in Pennsylvania. “Many of our students do not have reliable internet at home or even access to a computer,” Weller says. “Houses that had somewhat reliable internet faced issues if there were siblings who also needed to be online at the same time.”

Some districts near Susquehanna provided hot spots — a wireless access point — for students who did not have adequate internet service at their homes. One was Mifflinburg Area, where Rosaria Clemens ’14 teaches first grade.

“We also recorded ourselves so students could watch lessons later,” she says.

For Mostik, the larger equity issue arose regarding the amount of support some students did or didn’t receive.

“Many working parents were unable to assist their children with logging on to Zoom,” Mostik says. “Many students missed Zoom lessons or did not complete their assigned work outside of school. Some kids were at daycare or a family member’s house, and the same complications often arose.”

While most teachers claimed their opinion of educational technology has improved as a result of increased usage during the pandemic, administrators reported a rosier outlook than teachers. In the survey conducted by EdWeek, just 6% of district leaders said their experiences during the coronavirus closures have led to a more negative view of ed tech, compared to 21% of teachers.

Madison Rice ’21, who didn’t begin her teaching career until after the pandemic’s start, can see the pros and cons of relying heavily on technology- based teaching and learning in her kindergarten classroom at Selinsgrove Area School District.

The benefits, Rice says, are that students learn to work independently; they engage easily with game-based instruction; platforms can differentiate instruction based on the academic level of the student; and many have data linkages that offer snapshots of a student’s areas of strength and weakness.

“However, some students do not benefit from the learning style of technology. Each student learns differently, and if hands-on instruction is better for them then the technology piece can cause them to struggle,” she says.

For elementary-aged students who are still perfecting their fine-motor skills, teachers have found that those skills have been slower to take hold.

“Since technology is heavily incorporated into children’s lives nowadays, they struggle with simple tasks, such as holding a pencil and cutting with scissors,” Clemens says. “Sometimes technology can hinder children from developing the basic skills they need.”

Though it may have been a steep climb, increased technological demands on teachers appear here to stay — and some of that is a good thing, Clemens says.

“Technology can provide students with an array of learning opportunities,” she says. “Schools in general have become more flexible. I think we will have more options on how to provide students instruction.”

Bickhart, now superintendent of the Milton Area School District, Pennsylvania, says his district is taking steps to establish its own cyber academy, something he believes many districts will do thanks to the technological foundation they have built during the pandemic. He estimates the move will save significant taxpayer dollars that the district would otherwise be obligated to send as payment for its students who enroll in cyber schools not affiliated with the district.

Assisting with the cyber academy creation is the district’s use of Canvas, a system that supports online learning and teaching. More commonly used by colleges and universities than school districts, it allows teachers to deliver course content and post grades, information and assignments online. It is also being used by the district to build its library of online courses.

“I think we’re on the cutting edge of it and I think you’re going to see high schools will be able to do a lot of asynchronous options for their students,” he says. “It benefits the students enrolled in cyber programs as well as all students.”

The pandemic proved something else to society that most teachers already know.

“The pandemic reinforced the importance of face-to-face instruction and having students and teachers in the classroom together,” Weller says. “As great as our technology is in bringing us together and allowing access to unlimited information, there is no substitute for a teacher being with their students.”

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