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Expert Viewpoint: Teacher Prep, Student Access to Technology Vital

by Gina Manola / Apr 29, 2020

Sarah McCarthey

Sarah McCarthey is department head and professor of Curriculum & Instruction in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is overseeing the launch in fall 2020 of a new online Master of Education degree in Curriculum & Instruction. Her research focuses on teachers’ writing instruction within current policy contexts, and she has been recognized for her seminal publications in literacy research. McCarthey, who joined the University of Illinois in 1999, has received numerous awards over her academic career, including the Distinguished Teaching Career Award in 2017.

Here, she speaks to the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on various aspects of K-12 education.

Some people have voiced the opinion that teacher education may be forever shifted by the pandemic. What do you think?

I do think education, including teacher education, will be forever shifted. One of the most important lessons from the pandemic is the need to prepare our teachers to deliver high-quality education online. This will involve more than simply assisting teachers in using Zoom, or other remote conferencing platforms, but will also be about preparing teachers to adapt existing materials, to consider new ways to encourage children and youth to use technology to collaborate, and to help teachers find resources beyond the textbook.

Some have also pointed out that the digital divide in education, in terms of equal access, is even more apparent with the shift to remote learning. What strategies can K-12 teachers take to overcome that inequity?

The lack of access to the internet for many low-income families is a huge barrier to their learning, and exacerbates the already deep divide. However, it is not just the lack of access to technology and the internet, but the juggling of resources, caring for family members, and finding adequate food and shelter during the pandemic that has increased inequities. I know of principals who are delivering power cords to homes for students to use for their Chromebooks at home; I know of teachers who are calling individual families to ask how they are doing and offering emotional support as well as ideas for keeping their children engaged.

There are huge challenges for our teachers and for our families. One key principle is for teachers to know their children and families so they can reach out. Developing positive relationships before having to switch to online learning can help bridge the gap when there has to be a sudden change, as there has been in March.

What innovations do you think might arise from our collective experience in the pandemic, in terms of teaching and learning?

We know there is no “one size fits all” for learners. Having to adapt on the spot to this life-altering event drives home this point. We need to develop and make accessible more tools that encourage collaboration and allow for diverse learning styles. We also need to develop alternatives to totally online learning, and consider how to adapt some of the cutting-edge technologies to help parents in managing multiple demands and needs of their children in ways that are not technology-dependent.

We need more coherence between the university-developed innovative technologies and the capabilities of K-12 schools. We have incredible work and innovation in the College, but there are challenges in scaling up for schools.

Anything else?

It is essential that state and local governments assist educators by providing access to technology. Every home in the USA should have access to the internet. Just as every person has the right to safe and clean water, every home should have access to the internet!