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Selecting Education-Driven Technologies for Distance Learning

REL Pacific
Jeanette Simenson-Gurolnick & Jason Victor
May 25, 2021

Elementary studentlearningonline at home stock photo

The fundamentals of design thinking allow us to remain flexible while designing learning experiences to address new challenges, such as the near-total shift to distance learning for many school systems at the onset of—and throughout—the COVID-19 pandemic. In the second blog in this series, we examine how to apply design thinking to select education-driven technologies for distance learning courses.

Educators who have already designed technology-rich learning experiences for their students have most readily adapted to distance learning mandates from their schools, school systems, or institutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (Trust & Walen, 2020). For many educators, however, the real-world design challenge precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic has been a steep learning curve. But as with many challenges, it has also created an opportunity for collaboration across myriad groups of stakeholders and to deeply consider how best to serve our students—pandemic or not.

Design thinking is an iterative problem-solving process, undertaken in teams, that can allow educators to move toward distance learning deliberately, while continuously communicating the process and possible outcomes to key participants. The first step in the process is to empathize with students, staff, community members, and any other affected stakeholders. Our goal is to understand how the current learning environment has changed and how stakeholders are affected—in this case, by the shift to distance learning and the use of technology to deliver and receive instruction. When students are learning online, we need to know, for example, if they have a safe place to work, the technology, and associated resources (e.g., a reliable internet connection) that they need to access instruction. For teachers, we might consider their technology comfort levels and familiarity with specific instructional platforms. Family members may struggle with understanding how best to support students in meeting course expectations, or may be having difficulty juggling work and at-home schooling. Collecting information, formally or informally, on how students and staff perceive this change is a great starting point and can provide specific parameters for defining the problem.

Defining the Core Problem

Once we've gathered information on how stakeholders are affected, we can move on to defining the core problem and determining how to address it. In our example, the core problem might be the limited amount of in-person contact allowed during the pandemic. Within this core problem, a myriad of other concerns are likely to arise. Because we've already taken the time to empathize with our key stakeholders, we might know, for example, that not all students have access to the technology they need to participate in online learning. Other students may require in-person supports that are no longer easily accessible. At the school or district level, we may not have the resources we need to purchase virtual instructional platforms, or to provide professional learning to teachers on delivering content online. As you think about these issues, consider each identified problem independently, considering stakeholders' needs, the assets and constraints in your existing system, and the types of support each stakeholder group may require.

Moving to the Ideation Phase

When our problem(s) have been defined, we can move on to the ideation phase, where we consider all possible solutions. Design thinking often uses a “yes, and” approach to structuring brainstorming sessions, in which we begin with a “How can we...?” question, with participants adding on to prior answers. For example, if the question is “How can we best leverage our limited resources to identify a standard platform that can address multiple different instructional needs?”, one brainstorming participant—let's say a math teacher—might suggest using Google Classroom, which is a free service for qualifying institutions. But maybe our band teacher isn't yet familiar with Google Classroom, and has questions about how it might work within their environment. To avoid shutting down the conversation, we can encourage “yes, and” responses: for example, instead of saying “But my band students need to be able to play in separate sections,” our band teacher might say, “Yes, and let's consider Google Classroom's functionality for different content areas. Can I place my students into breakout rooms? Are there other apps that integrate with Google Classroom to address specific content-area needs?”

Aligning to Instructional Goals

Another thing to consider when choosing education technologies is whether they align to existing instructional goals. For example, if teachers use Bloom's Taxonomy in the classroom, almost any virtual learning platform may suffice for the “remembering” or “understanding” domains. But what happens when students need to apply knowledge, or to create, or to analyze? Considering—at the outset—whether the technology used for instruction encourages higher-level thinking can help educators design learning experiences that engage and support students, whatever the content.

Distance Learning is Here to Stay

Though vaccines are becoming more widely available and we continue to inch toward “normalcy”—perhaps in time to fully return to in-person schooling by this fall—distance learning, whether integrated into traditional schooling or provided as an option for students with different learning styles or who enjoy its flexibility, is likely here to stay. These design considerations will continue to be germane as systems consider ways to incorporate distance learning options into schooling, whether to expand the curriculum, adjust for school closures due to weather-related events, provide alternate schooling options for students grappling with a family emergency, or flexibly address any number of other circumstances.

Keep an eye out for the next blog in this series, which will focus on integrating student support services into distance learning!