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The relationship between education and technology has never been an easy one. The role of technology in the classroom has been subject to all sorts of scrutiny over the years, much of it justified, some not. 

Worries have included the effects of screen time on young minds, along with questions about whether robots will replace teachers.

Ed tech consists of thousands of tools. As with any other tools, some are better than others, and not every tool is right for every job.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, it was clear that technology was going to be part of education now and for the future. More than $13 billion is spent on technology “solutions” annually.

One prevailing narrative before the pandemic was Silicon Valley’s purported desire to take over our schools. It was at the heart of stories about an anti-technology rebellion in Kansas schools, the implications of big data for student privacy, and the ineffectiveness of the billions of dollars schools spend on technology each year.

Now the virus has introduced another unexpected twist, becoming a “stress test” for schooling — and making it abundantly clear that ed tech must be part of the future in a far more systematic and effective way.

A recent survey conducted by the University of Virginia (UVA) and the EdTech Evidence Exchange found that an overwhelming share of educators see a sharply increased need for individualized attention and instruction as a result of learning-from-home challenges, including unequal access to technology and varying levels of support from caring adults.

Many educators also say that providing this type of personalized support to tens of millions of students will be nearly impossible without dramatically improving the way we select and use ed tech.

Related: Ed tech companies promise results, but their claims are often based on shoddy research

Nine in 10 survey respondents see education technology becoming more important or much more important in the coming three years.

Very quickly, technology has become a primary lifeline for schools, at a time when the importance of in-person instruction has become clearer than ever.

The pandemic has also made it painfully clear how much — or how little — various schools and districts have been doing when it comes to the effective use of education technology to support students.

A flood of stories about the number of disconnected students brought to mind Warren Buffett’s famous 2002 admonition to his shareholders: “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.”

Too many schools, not to mention tech companies, have not invested in the personnel, infrastructure, processes, training and support necessary to allow teachers and students to benefit from the power of modern ed tech. 

So when technology suddenly became schools’ best — if not only — hope, neither side was ready for it.

This paints a bleak picture of technology’s potential to help the U.S. education system recover from the pandemic. But ed tech will be essential for a speedy and full recovery — and a far more robust use of technology will be fundamentally important for future-proofing the education system.

As it turns out, the coronavirus has also revealed some unexpected silver linings.

For some schools, the pandemic has encouraged rapid-fire improvements in their use of technology — in ways that would not have happened without the pandemic but are likely to remain effective even when the crisis is over.

“The virus has introduced another unexpected twist, becoming a ‘stress test’ for schooling — and making it abundantly clear that ed tech must be part of the future in a far more systematic and effective way.”

In addition, a comprehensive look at Summit Learning — the program behind the so-called  rebellion in Kansas — found that it was often making good on its potential to “transform teaching and learning for the better.”

Programs like Summit may provide the bridge that schools need to continue instruction effectively in the wake of the pandemic. A number of other examples in the past few weeks, from Texas to Massachusetts, suggest that the pandemic has created a unique — and perhaps counterintuitive — opportunity for schools and districts to rethink their use of technology in ways that better serve students.

As schools have been forced into a new way of teaching, they’re beginning to recognize the value of some of these tools, many of which were previously unused, misused or underutilized.

As a result, it’s possible that Covid-19 may force more evidence-based use of education technology that schools and districts sorely need. And we may learn the best and most effective uses for technology in schools — and the best and most essential role of in-person interactions and relationships in educational settings.

Sorting this out could be a way to leverage the value of technology while preserving, protecting and nurturing the essential contributions of educating together in person.

These are hopeful signs that the relationship between education and technology may be slowly changing for the better. Of course, that doesn’t mean we’ve solved all the problems. Right now, it’s difficult for schools to predict which of more than 7,000 tech tools are likely to be a good fit. Too many decisions are based on marketing and brand names, rather than evidence of what has worked in similar contexts.

As a nation, we have collected relatively little evidence about what works and under which circumstances. Existing efforts have consistently lacked funding to conduct the independent research that 14,000 districts desperately need as they collectively spend billions of federal dollars each year on tools that often don’t work.

We have a long way to go before we fully realize the promise of technology in education. But the shift we’re beginning to see in some schools, away from fear and toward potential, is a critical first step to ensuring that technology can actually be a force for good in the classroom.

We may look back on this as one of the unexpected upsides of this pandemic: It’s forcing a mending of some fences in the uneasy relationship between education and technology. It may galvanize schools and districts to fight for the information they need to make more informed decisions about what they buy and how it is used.

A better understanding of what works, where and why will help us use technology more effectively — to actually make a meaningful difference in students’ learning outcomes.

Robert Pianta is dean of the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development. Bart Epstein is a research associate professor at UVA and CEO of the EdTech Evidence Exchange.

This story about education technology was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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