How Technology Has Changed the Modern Learning Environment
As computers become essential classroom tools, educators reimagine their classroom traditions to create a new paradigm.
The role of technology in education has changed dramatically in recent decades. Computers have become an essential tool for teaching and learning.
Technology has been the most powerful driver of change in K–12 education in recent memory, pushing educators to re-examine long-held beliefs about pedagogy and reimagine established classroom traditions. Ubiquitous devices, widespread connectivity, robust learning platforms and emerging technologies continue to transform not only what children learn but also how they learn and how they demonstrate their mastery to others.
Educators began to align technology and pedagogy more deliberately in the 2000s, an evolution often expressed in the SAMR model: a spectrum of technology integration that identifies stages of substitution, augmentation, modification and redefinition. Ultimately, educators began designing lessons around content and tasks for which computers were not optional, but necessary.
Parallel to this shift, educators began to rethink the learning environment. The traditional classroom — students seated in rows, teachers directing every element of the learning process — no longer reflects current pedagogical best practices. As technology opened the doors to active learning and self-directed exploration, teachers became architects of collaborative learning rather than disseminators of top-down instruction. Many districts are adapting classrooms to align with this philosophy, outfitting them with movable, flexible furniture and technology solutions designed for interactive, project-based activities.
These shifts have also opened the door to a vastly broader set of curricular possibilities. Students are learning to code; exploring distant countries through virtual reality; creating video games and robots; and deepening their understanding and application of science, technology, engineering and math. Educators have expanded their view of assessment, moving from tests of rote knowledge to demonstrations of critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication.
These changes have also transformed the roles and responsibilities of IT staff. The emphasis on classroom technology, combined with widespread adoption of one-to-one device programs, has placed massive demands on school infrastructure, particularly networking. In addition, much like their counterparts in other industries, K–12 IT leaders are now involved in every facet of operations: 74 percent say their responsibilities include both educational and administrative technologies, up from 63 percent in 2019, according to research from the Consortium for School Networking.
As technology has evolved, IT leaders have had to adapt staffing accordingly, ensuring they have the skills to support everything from cloud computing to educational software. Today’s IT departments must include both generalists and highly skilled specialists.
Pandemic Response and Remote Learning
However dramatic these evolutions have been, they were still situated in the physical classroom. That changed in early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to move quickly to remote learning.
Two make-or-break factors shaped districts’ experiences: technological readiness and educator readiness. For students who lacked adequate devices or high-speed internet access at home, the same technologies that once opened doors to new learning experiences became a barrier to keeping up. It also became clear that, however much progress teachers had made in integrating digital content, they were completely unprepared for remote learning. In one region of Texas studied by the Urban Education Institute, 95 percent of teachers had no previous experience with online teaching.
In their first encounter with remote learning, many teachers struggled to engage students and to translate lessons to the virtual space. They have had to develop new ways to provide access to assignments, facilitate collaboration and communicate with students and families. These realities have exacerbated an existing challenge in K–12 education, in which teachers consistently report that they lack the skills and knowledge to optimize educational technology.
The rapid shift to remote learning, together with the need to prepare for various scenarios amid pandemic-related uncertainty, has stretched IT teams thin. The pandemic has forced IT departments to accomplish in weeks what they normally might have tackled in months. Districts that lacked one-to-one device programs have struggled tremendously, and IT teams have been at the forefront of efforts to overcome these hurdles.
A recent survey by the International Society for Technology in Education and BrightBytes (PDF) found that the majority of teachers, students and parents say they always or usually have access to device-related technical support from their schools when they need it. The flip side of this positive outcome, of course, is that IT staff are spending a significant amount of time responding to these requests, even as they work to manage new workloads, transition to or expand the use of cloud computing, and address new security threats and vulnerabilities.
Future Challenges and Opportunities
For the foreseeable future, most districts will remain focused on improving and optimizing remote instruction; when possible, transitioning back to fully in-person instruction; and working to address the lags in academic progress that many fear have resulted from this uneven period of remote learning. When McKinsey analyzed high schoolers’ experiences with remote learning in 2020, it identified three groups: students continuing to progress academically, albeit more slowly than usual; those receiving low-quality instruction that hinders their progress; and those receiving no instruction at all.
From an opportunity perspective, experiments in remote learning are likely to add momentum to calls for change in pedagogy, for improvement in digital equity and for innovation in the embrace of classroom technologies. Schools may also respond to these experiences by renewing their focus on professional development programs that prepare teachers for technological fluency within a modern pedagogical approach — one that is capable of delivering high-quality instruction both face to face and online.
Finally, K–12 educators will be asking how to evolve the modern learning environment from here. If the traditional classroom was out of step with active learning before the pandemic, it may seem even more disconnected after it, once students and teachers have mastered the art of “anytime, anywhere learning.” In addition, the emerging technologies of today — virtual reality, artificial intelligence–powered personalized learning, data-driven analytics — will mature in ways that push the boundaries of education even further. As educators continue to advance pedagogy for the modern age, the role of technology will shift accordingly, adding value to IT solutions that are adaptable and flexible.
Learn about the technological building blocks of tomorrow’s learning environments by reading the white paper “Delivering the Future of K–12 Education.”