(Photo: Akshay Chauhan/Unsplash)

With the vaccine roll-out progressing across the U.S., schools and universities are looking toward in-person classes and full campuses in fall 2021. Even as students and teachers return to their former classrooms, whether they’ll return to the pre-pandemic educational system remains an open question.

The crisis of COVID-19 exposed both weaknesses and opportunities in American education. These were the subject of an online SFI flash workshop on “Education, Equity, and Technology.” The meeting convened researchers, practitioners, and leaders from across the educational enterprise. Susan Fitzpatrick, President of the James S. McDonnell Foundation and a member of SFI’s Science Board, organized the workshop alongside Carrie Cowan, SFI’s Director for Education.

According to Fitzpatrick, one motivation for the workshop was to look at education as a complex system, from the neuroscience of learning to the social institutions of schools. 

With the onset of the pandemic, she explained, “suddenly, what we all knew implicitly — that this system does much more than teach reading, writing, and arithmetic — was made explicit: child care, child security, two meals a day, basic healthcare, and social support are all things we ask of schools. All these challenges that we have known about — the last year will make it hard to push it all back under the rug.” 

Because the pandemic forced an almost-overnight shift to technology-enabled education that has been slowly gaining momentum for decades, many of the workshop presenters focused on the role of technology in education, in particular how technology can be used to promote equity for underserved students.

Daphne Bavelier, a neuroscientist from the University of Geneva, described her group’s findings that suggest playing video games may be good for the brain. But she cautioned attendees that there are “as many different impacts as there are tech uses,” when it comes to learning.

Mitch Nathan, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin, drew on his background in engineering to suggest a compartmentalized approach to designing educational interventions. Rather than focusing on scaling up, an oft-purported advantage of technology, he proposed “scaling down to scale back up.” 

To best serve students, regardless of technology, schools as institutions must be adaptable. Jared Joiner, from the philanthropic Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, highlighted the importance of a whole child, trauma-based approach to education. He emphasized that stressful events, like the COVID-19 pandemic, create an opportunity to focus on belonging and well-being for students and staff.

As a model of technology-enabled education at scale, Arizona State University’s President Michael Crow, alongside Philip Regier, University Dean for Educational Initiatives, outlined ASU’s ambitious project to change the face of higher education through an expansion of opportunity.  Crow highlighted pervasive issues in higher education that limit access, including exclusivity as the key measure of institutional success. Instead, ASU strives to be both “egalitarian, and excellent, in the same institution,” according to Crow. “We’ll measure our success not based on who we exclude.”

The impact of the pandemic will be felt in education as it will in all systems,” said Cowan. “We can’t simply return to the way things were before. Some students excelled with online instruction. Some students took gap years and gained tremendous real-world work experience instead. Going forward, how can technology — and a more liberal definition of education — meet the needs of each individual?”

Fitzpatrick hopes the workshop is seen as a call to action: “If we want to have a school system that does all these things, [we have to ask] what would a healthy, robust education system that serves everyone and serves all the different roles we’re asking of it look like.”

Read more about the "Education, Equity, & Technology" workshop.