This past March, students and educators around the globe were thrown into 100% distance learning in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic. As new platforms and tools are developed to address student and educator needs, there are many aspects to take into consideration.

Primarily, reducing the achievement gap must remain a high priority as it is vulnerable to the many challenges of distance learning. Doing so will require creative approaches that truly understand the varying degrees of student and teacher needs from the most privileged to those at the margins of society. 

As a swift response to needs for social distancing, online learning is just one of the many ways everyday routines were upended. As a result, this has brought about many benefits and challenges to students and teachers alike.

On the plus side, students can have a bit more control over their pace of learning (reviewing videos, pausing, etc.) without fear of stigmas associated with slowing down their classmates. Meanwhile, teachers can connect more personally and privately with students to address their specific needs. Overall, just the ability to continue with lessons as opposed to halting instruction completely, is something for which to be grateful.

Nonetheless, the achievement gap has the potential to widen at this time. Within the United States, as much as 14% of students between the ages of 3 – 18 do not have internet access at home.

When considering other issues such as learning disabilities, access to technological equipment and the emotional and mental implications of the pandemic, it becomes clear to see how some students may be more susceptible to falling behind.

By prioritizing a few key aspects, EdTech companies can do their part to create convenient, beneficial and functional tools that can help address the achievement gap. Investing in technical infrastructure, gamifying tools, incorporating interactive features and designing simple and intuitive user experiences will go a long way.  Globally, there are many examples of quick and short term responses thus far from a variety of companies and organizations to serve as lateral inspiration.

Ensuring Accessibility

Companies inside and outside the education space have been investing in their own capabilities to provide resources to students and educators. Lark, a communication and collaboration software, extended its services of auto-translation capabilities, real-time co-editing, unlimited video conferencing, and more for free to educational institutions in India. In order to do so, they invested in their engineering capabilities and global server infrastructure to ensure reliable connectivity.

Along the same lines, DingTalk, Alibaba’s distance learning tool set a record for capacity expansion for deploying over 100,000 new cloud servers in approximately two hours. Comcast and the NAACP are providing some school districts in Louisiana two months of free internet to help families without or limited internet access to engage in distance learning.

Meanwhile the Charleston County School District is deploying Wi-Fi buses throughout the county during set school hours to support students with online learning. Comcast is also providing free internet access to those without in the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. Public schools are providing students with Chromebooks to make sure they can participate in their lessons.

Promoting Engagement

To keep learning fun, the LA School District and PBS are working together to provide educational content targeted to three different age groups on separate television channels. Content can be streamed through a variety of devices such as an Apple TV, Roku, etc. They are also working on creating digital resources to create a curriculum through PBS Learning Media and will host training sessions for teachers to use the platform. 

The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) has also launched weeks of curriculum-based learning for children in the UK, with a variety of celebrities teaching the content. This builds excitement by mixing up the day to day school lessons and bringing students closer to people they admire.

Providing Simplicity

National Geographic has invested in a new landing page to provide caregivers and educators quick and easy access to learning materials. This is particularly impressive because it factors the perspectives of different user types.

Designing for caregivers considers the concerns and responsibilities they may be juggling in addition to playing the role of a teacher. For instance, consider a parent in the middle of their own work calls and deadlines, they simply do not have time to get lost navigating a complex site.

They are also offering live streaming of their Explorer Classroom to bring students together with researchers, educators, and scientists. The hope is to invite students to have a view of a “larger world,” outside of what their curriculum is providing so they will not be limited by their own economic or resource restrictions.

Moving Forward

At this point, it is unclear when traditional education will resume, thus the potential of distance learning is limitless. EdTech companies can look to form unique partnerships as they refine their platforms as well as infrastructure investments to meet the exponentially growing demand.

Various forms of user research, quantitative research, and continuous prototype testing must be fully embedded into the design and development process of new tools and experiences.

Creativity and agility will be essential to creating great educational products and tools that can stand apart. Given the stakes, keeping users with a range of diverse needs at the center of that process is more important now than ever.

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