With the rapid spread of COVID-19, educators across the country and around the world have been tasked with shifting to emergency remote teaching—a move from in-person to remote classes made necessary by pressing circumstances.
This quick move to emergency remote teaching has left educators scrambling to figure out how to use digital tools, online resources, and apps to continue their teaching at a distance. Unfortunately, across the board, educators have not been prepared to teach well with technology, let alone teach remotely with technology.
While the authors of the 2017 National Educational Technology Plan recommended that, “every new teacher should be prepared to model how to select and use the most appropriate apps and tools to support learning and evaluate these tools against basic privacy and security standards,” this has not come to fruition.
In some teacher preparation programs, pre-service teachers are not provided with any opportunities to engage with technology in meaningful ways. Other programs provide a standalone workshop or course about education technology. Meanwhile, fully infused programs, in which education technology is embedded across the curriculum, are rare (see Arizona State University’s Program-Wide and Program-Deep Technology Integration Curriculum). Similarly, higher education faculty have limited or no opportunities to learn how to teach with technology, including how to find, evaluate, adapt and use technology to enrich learning.
As a result, the majority of educators were completely underprepared to design remote learning experiences with technology when states and districts started closing schools for COVID-19. While one benefit of this shift to emergency remote teaching is that teachers around the world are stepping out of their comfort zones to learn new technologies, the use of digital tools, apps, and resources without thoughtful consideration and evaluation presents a number of concerns for student learning, particularly in regards to privacy and student data, accessibility, and the digital divide.
Privacy and Student Data
During these pressing circumstances, many educators are curating and sharing digital tools, strategies, and tips for remote teaching with their networks. Businesses and organizations are providing free access to digital tools and apps for teaching and learning (see THE Journal’s ever-growing list of Free Resources for Schools During COVID-19 Outbreak).
Pop-up social media spaces and hashtags, such as #remoteteaching, #CovidCampus, and the Educator Temporary School Closure for Online Learning Facebook group, feature numerous posts and discussions about digital tools, resources, and apps for remote teaching. In fact, there are so many digital tools, apps, and online learning resources being shared, some educators are feeling overwhelmed.
With this rapid push to remote teaching, educators may be jumping into the use of digital technologies too fast. Educator Eric Butash noted that, “as many parents, teachers and students take to virtual conferencing tools for the first time, they are zooming into a ‘digital Wild West’ fraught with as many risks as rewards.”
Butash is right in pointing out the risks involved in this quick shift to using digital technologies. Without training in how to evaluate technology for teaching and learning, educators may not be aware that they should be reviewing the privacy policies and terms of service of all digital tools and apps before determining whether to use them in their practice. They may not be aware that their use of these technologies might violate students’ privacy rights and put them in unsafe situations.
With Zoom, for example, students might experience harmful or obscene visuals during “Zoombombing”—internet trolling during video conferencing. They might experience cyberbullying through the chat feature, by logging into the Zoom room before the teacher arrives and being harassed by classmates, or by having classmates take photos or screenshots of their face during a Zoom meeting and use it in a harmful way. They might give away information to the teacher or classmates about their living situation when they are asked to show themselves on their webcam. They might also have their location data and IP address tracked without their knowledge.
Zoom does state that it complies with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). However, it puts the onus on the educators to ensure that the use of Zoom is in compliance with these policies. For instance, if educators set up a Zoom meeting that is open to the public (whether they mean to or not), they risk having uninvited visitors joining the meeting and identifying students or Zoombombing. If educators post a screenshot of their students on social media to show off their virtual teaching, that is a serious violation of both FERPA and COPPA.
Additionally, when educators record students’ faces, names, and other identifiable information on Zoom, that video or audio recording becomes an educational record. As EdSurge has recently noted: “Any images or recordings that include students’ faces or names make these materials an ‘education record’ according to FERPA, which has strict rules around how photos and videos can be accessed, stored and shared.”
Moving forward, educators need better training and support for evaluating digital tools, online resources, and apps for educational purposes. To assist with this, my students and I co-wrote a freely available, open access book, “Teaching with Digital Tools and Apps.”
The fast move from print-based to digital materials and from in person learning events to digital learning events can create additional barriers for disabled students. For instance, moving from in person lectures to video-based lectures without providing accurate closed captions can significantly limit learning for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Simply scanning a worksheet and uploading it online as a PDF document without making it compatible for screen readers (assistive technology tools that transmit information on a computer screen to blind or visually impaired individuals) might make learning impossible for a blind or visually impaired student.
Similarly when documents, slides, forms, interactive online tools, and websites feature images, graphs, and charts that do not have alternative text (describing the image to be read aloud by a screen reader), or text and visuals that can’t be adjusted in size, or visuals that use color to signal important information, students who are blind, who have low visual acuity, or are color blind may not be able to perceive important information relevant to their learning. Ultimately, disabled students, who are already a vulnerable population, are going to struggle even more with the shift to remote learning.
Educators and school leaders have “legal obligations to ensure that all students, including students with disabilities, can access online and virtual learning programs,” according to Kenneth L. Marcus, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights.
Unfortunately, most educators are not trained how to create accessible digital materials or evaluate digital tools, resources and apps for accessibility. Additionally, most digital tools and apps are not very accessible. For the past four years, I have asked my students in one of the courses I teach, called Online Tools for Learning & Instruction, to evaluate the accessibility of digital tools for the Online Tools for Teaching & Learning website. Students look for whether tools have accessibility statements or policies (i.e., Flipgrid and Accessibility), whether the tool features a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, or VPAT, (i.e., Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities VPAT review database), and whether the tool can be used with voiceover narration or voice control. While there are many additional features to explore for accessibility (e.g., alternative keyboard input, text resizing, language complexity), through these initial reviews my students discovered that far too many digital tools are not fully accessible.
On the other hand, big education technology companies, such as Microsoft, Google and Apple, have put significantly more focus on embedding accessibility into their tools. Google Hangouts Meet, Google Slides, Skype and Apple’s video editing app Clips all feature live closed captioning. Microsoft has developed new tools for accessibility, such as Immersive Reader which allows users to adjust how text is presented (e.g., font size, spacing, picture dictionary, translation) and read aloud. Microsoft and Google both have support pages dedicated to teaching users how to create accessible digital materials, including documents, slides and spreadsheets.
While educators are pressed for time in moving their materials and teaching events online, they must seek out ways to ensure that all students are able to access and engage with the digital materials, resources, and tools they use for teaching. Otherwise, they may risk legal implications for not providing accessible learning experiences. Moving forward, educators need better training and support for designing accessible digital materials and learning opportunities. In the current circumstances, educators should start building their knowledge of, and using, accessible tools like the ones from Google, Apple and Microsoft. Educators should also use the Universal Design for Learning framework from CAST as a guide for creating inclusive educational experiences for remote learners.
The Digital Divide
The shift to emergency remote teaching has illuminated and exacerbated the digital divide, or the gap between students who have access to and use technology in meaningful ways to further their learning and those who do not. The digital divide has been around as long as technology has, but the move to remote teaching has made it even more apparent. Some schools rushed to get laptops and tablets to students in need. Internet providers, like Comcast and Spectrum, started offering free Internet access to low-income families. Educators in COVID-19 related social media spaces discussed ideas, shared resources and exchanged teaching strategies to support all learners at home.
However, some schools and districts have banned or restricted educators from doing any teaching because it would exacerbate the digital divide. Yet, as Educator Vikki Katz noted, “the notion that we cut off virtual learning for everybody because we don’t have it for everybody is the right concern, but the wrong solution.”
When schools or districts ban teaching for all students, the students who have parents, guardians, or siblings who can homeschool them (or pay for their tutoring) and access to quality technology and Internet will continue learning. Students whose parents don’t have the time to homeschool them, students without access to devices or reliable internet or students who have to share their devices with family members, will struggle to continue learning.
Banning or restricting teaching or the use of technology for learning can be detrimental to the most vulnerable populations of students. Oftentimes, these bans come from a place of fear (e.g., worrying about getting sued due to lack of equity; concerns about students’ misuse of the tools) or lack of knowledge (e.g., being unsure how to teach with technology when students have a range of access).
Yet, technology is an incredibly important tool for educators. As the authors of the National Education Technology Plan noted, “technology can be a powerful tool for transforming learning. It can help affirm and advance relationships between educators and students, reinvent our approaches to learning and collaboration, shrink long-standing equity and accessibility gaps, and adapt learning experiences to meet the needs of all learners.” Rather than ban or restrict technology, educators need to be turning toward technology as one of many tools to support student learning during emergency remote teaching or risk exacerbating the digital divide.
Of course, there are still a number of students who have limited or no access to technology or the internet. In these cases, educators need to survey their students (or families) to determine what technology and quality of internet access students have access to and then they need to be creative with their assignments. Using the Universal Design for Learning principles, previously mentioned, is a good place to start. These principles encourage educators to provide students with choices for how they access content (e.g., reading, watching a video, listening to a podcast), how they engage with the content (e.g., choosing topics of interest or related to their homes or communities) and how they showcase their knowledge (e.g., choosing which tools to use to display their understanding).
Educators should aim to provide both low-tech and high-tech learning experiences and allow students to choose which type of learning experience to engage in based on their interest and access to technology. By being creative and designing for inclusivity, educators can help prevent the digital divide from magnifying during pressing times.
Ultimately, educators need more training and support for teaching with technology. The lack of preparation to teach with technology has resulted in many educators scrambling to shift to emergency remote teaching. It has left students more vulnerable than before and negatively impacted learning for students across the country, especially those who need extra support and high quality learning experiences.
Teacher preparation programs need to do a better job of preparing future teachers to find, critically evaluate, and use technology in enriching and transformative ways. Teacher educators, including coaches, faculty development staff, and professional development specialists, need to ensure that educators are ready to shift to emergency remote teaching should the occasion arise in the future. Additionally, education technology companies need to do a better job of informing educators about their privacy policies and accessibility features and how that might impact student learning.
Keeping the lessons learned from this crisis in mind, educators, leaders, businesses and organizations, can be better prepared to support student learning with technology in the future.