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COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to rethink the American education system to make it more accessible and equitable for all students.

2020 will go down as one of the most disruptive years in memory. A global pandemic leading to massive unemployment and an economic downturn. Protests and civil unrest within the backdrop of a fervent presidential election. Severe climate changes leading to destructive fires and extreme weather across the U.S. Schools closed down in the spring, and, suddenly, in an instant, in-person instruction, face-to-face catchups, hallway comradery, energy-burning recess and lunchroom shenanigans all disappeared.

But then our educators and communities stepped up in an unwinnable situation. Remote learning went ok. School lunches were distributed to those who truly needed them. Teachers caught up with students through video conferencing and learning management technologies. Parents filled the gaps, and government leaders made sure students, teachers and parents had the support and resources they needed.

Now, it’s autumn, and school has started back up across the country—whether in-person, remote or some combination of the two. We had all summer to prepare, and, largely, back- to-school is going well. Now is a good time to look back, assess what happened and attempt to draw insights into how we can shape the future of education in this country.

Disruption Brings Opportunity

One thing is certain: COVID-19 has laid bare a growing divide in the U.S. education system. According to Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an organization that measures scholastic performance worldwide, nearly all 15 year olds from a privileged background said they had a computer to work on at home while nearly 25 percent of those from disadvantaged backgrounds did not.

This growing gap is a big problem. Not just for the students unable to get the same education opportunity, but for the country as a whole—as a quality education system provides a bounty of economic and societal benefits as students grow up and join the workforce.

One of our EdTech companies, Instructure, the makers of the Canvas Learning Management System, commissioned an extensive global report on the state of higher education. Conducted during the COVID-19 outbreak, the report provides a data-centric look at how remote learning is impacting educational experiences across the world. Across all regions included in the study, Instructure found that college students, faculty and administrators define student success as how well they are prepared for a career. In addition, students believe achieving that will be the greatest challenge they face in the next 12 months.

 

Instructure - State of Education Trends



Socioeconomic factors, such as access to the internet, learning resources and technological devices also greatly contribute. And of course, COVID-19 continues to intensify these inequities in higher education—further disrupting student success, academic progress and engagement that causes more students to fall behind in achieving their academic goals.

Income inequality combined with the current global pandemic presents one of the most significant problems in front of students. The Instructure report found that nearly 70 percent of all students, regardless of income, believed that they were falling behind in their studies. But among lower income students the gap is greatly exacerbated. Four times more students from low income families reported it difficult to stay very engaged in their online or remote studies from home than their upper income peers.

Laying the disparity bare means that we can work on a solution. The past six months of pandemic life has taught us that connection matters. Keeping children at home should not mean our students lose access to education. Fortunately, Instructure is making a difference.

As soon as schools switched to remote learning in March and April, Instructure reached out to Microsoft to integrate Teams meetings into Canvas, Instructure’s learning platform that simplifies learning and personal development. This integration makes learning resources more accessible to students—a critical factor in whether remote learning is successful for individual students. The company launched a website for teachers, students, parents and school districts with free resources for optimizing learning at home and reached out to state education leaders about implementing Canvas to subsets of students and teachers across their entire states—13 of which signed on.

It’s clear that the global pandemic provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink how we educate our children in the U.S. and around the world.



So, what did we learn?

A lot of surprising things have come out about students’ learning experiences during COVID. For example, some students really thrive when they are allowed to learn at their own pace, set their own schedule and are free from the stressful school environment. Remote learning also gave learners access to modules and subjects they wouldn’t have had a chance to explore otherwise.

The data bears out. According to Instructure’s report into the state of higher education, half of students worldwide say that their preference for online learning has increased since the emergence of COVID-19. It’s also strengthened student passion for learning. Parents and teachers are reporting that students care deeply about their engagement with learning and how their success will be defined. More than ever we see students’ belief that their measure of success in school is determined by how that education prepares them for their post-graduate pursuits.

How will these lessons be applied—even when we return to “normal”?
Instructure made several recommendations—including intentionally designing online learning content, closing accessibility gaps related to socioeconomic disparities and democratizing education through equitable access.

When students collaborate with peers, gain hands-on experiences and directly interact with their instructors, they feel more successful. Of course, technology can be a great leveler—but we must find ways to emulate or replace these interactions in a digital environment. This is where emerging immersive technology, virtual reality, augmented reality and interactive video open up new adaptive learning channels and mechanisms. Combining immersive tech or video with collaboration tools that provide instant feedback, peer comments and feedback loops, leads to an increase in opportunities for student engagement.

In order to bridge the gap due to socioeconomic factors, institutions can emphasize the needs of individual students. This can be achieved with equitable access to resources, by offering flexibility that improves a student’s ability to successfully engage in in-person and online classes, and finding ways to help students complete their coursework and navigate their educational journey to completion. Again, technology is the great equalizer. Educators need to explore alternative ways for students to connect, build relationships and create meaningful networks of peers, instructors and mentors.

The American education system is at a crossroads. The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the inequities in educational opportunity and access. Instructure is working with educators and community leaders around the world to learn from this grand distance learning experiment and use technology to bridge the education gap and shape the future of learning—creating a world where someone’s zip code doesn’t dictate the quality of their education experience.