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There is evidence showing that the closing of schools caused by COVID-19 could exacerbate existing achievement gaps in schools across the nation. This is but one of the many social and economic inequalities surfacing in the wake of the pandemic. The rush to blame e-learning as the cause of students’ learning loss flatly misses the successes school districts realized as a result of an investment in a robust, interoperable, digital ecosystem capable of delivering e-learning instruction at scale.
The typical education system was not built to deal with extended shutdowns like the one posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the COVID-19 crisis has compelled most education systems to adopt alternatives to face-to-face teaching and learning. Considering the alternate to no schooling, e-learning has been an important tool to sustain us during school closures. E-learning was found to be a sub-par substitute to face-to-face instruction in school districts where there was little or no investment in the appropriate infrastructure (hardware and software) and a lack of adequate preparation among teachers and students for the unique demands that e-learning teaching poses. Despite these obstacles we witnessed teachers, administrators, and parents working hard to keep teaching and learning alive utilizing the digital tools available.
Successful school districts planned for multiple returning scenarios and contingencies to ensure health, safety, and well-being of all students and staff. There was continued support to students and adults to address their immediate and long-term physical, psychological, social and emotional needs. Successful school districts ensured equitable access to technology for all families with a continuation of affordable access to broadband connectivity, the internet and related hardware; as well as access to instructional software by centralizing all digital resources. They rapidly converged on a 1:1 student to laptop issuance.
Successful school districts made ongoing investments prior to the pandemic in a robust technical Infrastructure capable of supporting technology needs. A sturdy digital ecosystem is constantly under construction. It is a distributed, adaptive, open computing system that needs to be robust, self-supporting, and scalable. Building this infrastructure requires following IMS Global (https://www.imsglobal.org) open standards. Open standards are the only viable way for institutions, governments, and suppliers to invest together to address today’s challenges and enable greater opportunities for innovations in the future. A commitment to open standards helps achieve low-cost, plug and play integration to enable educational institutions to design and implement an agile, scalable, and data-rich ed tech ecosystem.
By following the IMS Global standard of Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) V.1.3 or higher, school districts specify a method for a learning management system to communicate with external systems. The LTI standard prescribes a way to easily and securely connect learning applications and tools with platforms like learning management systems, portals, and learning object repositories in a secure and standard manner without requiring a learner to log in separately on the external systems. Likewise, school districts that implement the IMS Question and Test Interoperability (QTI) with their learning management system can define a standard format for the representation of assessment content and results by importing questions formatted in a QTI file and exporting questions to QTI-formatted files.
"We need to embrace a new paradigm for public education by viewing the COVID-19 crisis as a breakthrough opportunity to transform schools and education as we know them"
Having a centralized “launch pad” for all digital resources that can be entered via a single-sign-on authentication process, so students and teachers are automatically rostered to their appropriate digital materials enables a school district to provide easy access to curriculum content. A key investment to any digital ecosystem is the learning management system. Successful school districts used the learning management system as an asynchronous classroom serving as a one-stop-shop housing scope and sequences of units, lessons, and courses. While providing access to a library of curriculum content aligned to standards, it also gives teachers the ability to update curriculum with ease while delivering extensive reporting features for tracking and advancing students.
To successfully implement e-learning during COVID- 19 school districts needed to invest in a synchronous learning tool. Web conferencing allows teachers and students to meet daily for lesson delivery and to check in with their students and families. Web conferencing is also used to deliver ongoing informational sessions to parents and families enabling school districts to communicate effectively with key stakeholders.
On top of the hierarchy of digital needs to successfully implement e-learning is the need for continuous delivery of professional development and training for teachers and staff to use the digital tools skillfully. Delivering opportunities for teachers to learn how to use the learning management system, the web conferencing software, and the variety of software applications that integrate with the learning management system via LTIs is essential to developing the necessary skills to provide engaging and interactive lessons at a distance.
As many school districts are currently making plans to bring students back to face-to-face teaching and learning we need to capitalize on the technology investments that were made, the professional development that was delivered, and the new skill sets attained by our teachers. We need to embrace a new paradigm for public education by viewing the COVID-19 crisis as a breakthrough opportunity to transform schools and education as we know them. School districts need to take stock of some of the difficulties encountered by students, teachers, and schools while implementing e-learning. This will assist educators in understanding how it can be improved so that we can continue to utilize the digital tools in innovative ways as we return to face-to-face instruction.
In this way we can create dynamic learning experiences where learning continues past the last school bell ringing. With digital tools and devices enabling 24/7 access, students can continue to learn, collaborate, grow, and dig deeper into their learning on their own terms. This does not mean homework, but rather the development of a mindset for students that means learning can take place anytime, anywhere, and students can own it. We can utilize the digital tools to bring the world to our students and bring our students to the world. Our technologies can give students the opportunity to connect and learn globally as well as publish their work for a global audience. This robust digital ecosystem allows students to continue work that interests them. Thinking, learning, and exploring should not stop because it was time to turn in an assignment. Last, e-learning affords us flexibility in class and meeting schedules for students and teachers to include times outside the normal school day.
In conclusion, let us refrain from making e-learning the scapegoat for existing student achievement gaps. Rather, let us view it as the glue that kept many school districts together, especially those with the foresight to invest in a robust digital ecosystem which includes digital content, learning management systems, web conferencing tools, and ongoing professional learning for all staff.