4 Tips to Make Tech Work Better in Schools, From Sal Khan and Other Experts

It’s been more than two years since schools pivoted wholesale to remote learning and pumped up their use of technology to record levels. Yet even though most schools have now transitioned back to more typical in-person learning, the use of technology in schools is more widespread than it ever was before the pandemic.

In the face of challenges such as designing effective online learning and assessing the impact of technology on students’ social-emotional skills, what steps should schools be taking to improve their use of technology for learning?

In a May 25 Education Week K-12 Essentials Forum, Khan Academy Founder and CEO Sal Khan, Desert Sands Unified School District (Calif.) technology facilitator Sally Adams, and Anaheim Union High School District (Calif.) instructional coach Laurie Manville shared lessons they’ve learned and suggestions they have for the future of technology use in classrooms.

1. Find balance

Khan, Adams, and Manville agreed that moving forward, schools need to find the right balance between using technology and engaging in face-to-face interactions.

During the pandemic, “teachers found themselves in what we refer to as ‘forced innovation,’” said Adams. “But it also made us all the more aware of the need for balance with devices and face-to-face classroom engagement.”

Teachers should find approaches to use technology in ways that enhance students’ interaction with their peers.

Khan said that, ideally, any work students do online should be done during class time so students are not working in isolation at home and are able to help each other. “I think that type of thing isn’t going to fatigue [students] and actually could be energizing, because the technology is being used in person, where you’re having more human-to-human interaction,” he said.

2. Keep ‘tech fatigue’ in mind

Khan, Adams, and Manville also talked about the fatigue that teachers and students are experiencing right now and how to combat it. Nearly two-thirds of teachers, principals, and district leaders who participated in a survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in December 2021 said they were experiencing technology fatigue.

Teachers need time and space to recharge. For students, the focus right now is on getting them back into the habits of in-person learning and back into the emotional and mental place they need to be.

“Teachers are weary of having to learn anything new right now,” Adams said. So any new technology that teachers need to learn should be something that will be time-saving.

“If I have to spend hours learning a new program, setting it up, teaching my students how to use it, and there’s little to no benefit with my students, then I’m not going to take it no matter how engaging it might be,” Adams said. “But if it’s going to save me time, then I’m willing to put the work in.”

In the Anaheim Union High School District, many teachers this year are more focused on mental health than innovation, “not only for themselves but for the kids, too, because they were seeing that kids needed to reconnect to school,” Manville said.

3. How to catch up on unfinished learning

Some students thrived during remote learning: They enjoyed asynchronous learning, they enjoyed setting their own schedules and managing their own work, or they were removed from potential conflicts, such as being the victims of bullying. But for many others, that wasn’t the case.

“What we’ve learned is that we need to consider the social-emotional state of a child before we can consider their intellect,” Adams said. “Students who feel cared for are more willing to work hard for their education if they feel like there’s really a teacher there that cares about them as a whole.”

Manville said that schools need to think about how students can come together and have “a collaboration agreement” and work with other students and tutors, so they can be engaged, do well, and be held accountable. Just sitting a student in front of a computer screen isn’t going to help, she said. There has to be collaboration.

4. Choose technology wisely

When thinking about using new technology in the classroom, Khan said, schools “should always start with a pedagogical goal.” Khan makes sure that the technology will help with personalized mastery learning and that it will be as interactive and collaborative as possible.

Schools should do an inventory and think about which technology is “serving an important purpose and which ones are really not necessarily adding value,” Khan said. Use technology that is “laser-focused on solving a major need.”

District leaders agreed.

“My recommendations would be first don’t buy stuff just because it looks cool,” Adams said. “Make sure that it’s really going to be used effectively in the classroom.”

Adams and Manville said they make sure to ask their teachers what they want and what they need in their classrooms to help engage students.

“It’s got to have a good return on investment,” Adams said. “So check with the people who are doing the hard work in the classrooms every day.”