The Pandemic Put the Pressure on School Technology Leaders. What Did They Learn?
More off-campus broadband access. New ways of engaging with families. Growing concerns over digital equity and the silos that exist within school systems.
These are some of the trends that emerged in a recent survey of district technology leaders, reflecting the dramatic changes and unprecedented demand that school-based technology teams experienced during the pandemic.
The survey, which the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) has administered annually since 2014, this year included questions about video conferencing, home internet access and parent engagement, hoping to shed light on some of the ways that the pandemic has challenged school systems and their technology operations over the last year. The resulting report, released Wednesday, illuminates their realities.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, about half of districts provided some off-campus broadband services to their students, helping connect them to the internet from their homes—most often through the use of mobile hotspots. This year, that number has soared to 95 percent of districts. That may come as no surprise, given that nearly every district in the country had to make learning happen at home for some amount of time in the last 14 months. But the jump illustrates just how dramatic a change it was for schools.
Relatedly, survey respondents—who represent about 400 rural, suburban and urban school systems across the U.S.—described digital equity as a pressing concern. Nearly all (97 percent) said they worried about students’ access to devices as well as high-speed internet during remote learning. Many said that while most of their students have internet access at home, at least some of them lack robust access. Just 6 percent said that all of their students have home internet access.
One respondent, whose district has a small but meaningful number of students without broadband, explained the plight. “We hit the ground running, then realized that we have a lot of equity issues with technology at home, mainly broadband.” The person went on to say that, although it affects only a small portion of the student population in their district, that it affects anyone is not acceptable.
Even for families who had internet access, the speed and quality was often not sufficient to support the number of people in the household trying to use it simultaneously or for the types of applications they were asked to run and assignments they were expected to complete.
“Connecting students is not enough,” one respondent wrote. “We must ensure there is sufficient throughput experienced by each student.”
These conditions made video conferencing like Zoom or Google Meet—which many districts relied on for live instruction and check-ins with students—discordant, chaotic and inconsistent.
The overwhelming majority (94 percent) of technology leaders said their district experienced challenges with video conferencing. The biggest issue, according to 66 percent of respondents, was bandwidth. It was followed by security challenges and privacy concerns, including those stemming from so-called Zoombombing incidents. There were also general technical issues and trouble getting all families set up and on the same page.
One respondent elaborated on the challenges. “We went from having one district network to support, to having 22,000+ networks to support,” the technology leader wrote. “We were surprised by the number of people who did not know how to connect a device to their home network, to a printer, etc.”
Each year in its edtech leadership survey, CoSN, a professional association for school system technology leaders, asks about respondents’ greatest challenges in their work. For the seventh year in a row, the survey found that budget constraints are leaders’ top challenge. But coming in at No. 2 this year—up from third place in previous years—was the issue of silos.
During the pandemic, when success was often correlated with district departments’ ability to collaborate, move quickly and be nimble, the barriers between different teams within a school or district became glaringly apparent. And problematic.
As the report puts it, “Silos make it difficult to work across functional areas. Yet breaking down silos is precisely what was needed during the pandemic in order to be flexible and effective.”
One respondent called collaboration—the opposite of working in silos—“the key to success.” Another said the importance of eliminating silos was their top takeaway from the pandemic, adding that a “culture of change is necessary” and that future edtech decisions must involve input and communication between technology staff and curriculum and instruction leaders.
The full report, with data on demographics, cybersecurity, staffing and more, is available here.