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4 investments that will improve the digital classroom next school year

April 2, 2021, 12:00 AM UTC
Commentary-Digital Classrooms
Student resources are being reimagined for the 2021 school year, given the impact COVID has had on digital education, writes Taher Behbehani.
Allen J. Schaben—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Preparing for a new academic year once was as simple as back-to-school shopping. Binders and notebooks. Pencils and pens. Maybe a new backpack.

But like the big-box stores themselves, the resources that students in 2021 require for a new school year have experienced a dramatic reimagination, as the coronavirus pandemic has pushed—rather harshly for many students, teachers, and families—the education sector into a digital model, one whose classrooms are inherently reliant on devices and remote connectivity.

Equitably outfitting students for the modern classroom is a collective effort. (Samsung Electronics America is a technology supplier and partner for educational institutions across the country.) Here are four investments to make now to ensure learning is accessible for all students and teachers:

Bridge the connectivity gap

The pandemic revealed that basic Internet access is not a reality for many in the U.S., with research showing that millions of students did not have Internet while home during the pandemic. Without connectivity, access to devices and other technologies is futile, so closing the gap is a critical first step to ensuring every student can participate in the digital classroom.

The public and private sectors both have roles to play in solving this problem. In the public sector, for example, e-rate program eligibility could be expanded. These programs have historically allowed schools and libraries to obtain affordable broadband, but could give millions of students the opportunity to connect if private households qualified as well.

Finding ways to bring 5G into more homes should be a top priority for the private sector, along with examining how existing technologies can be reimagined to increase connectivity. For example, in developing countries, devices that function on mobile data and mobile SIM cards are often used to provide 5G connectivity, as are laptops with USB keys that can connect to mobile Internet. These approaches are not common in the U.S., but could be introduced to give access to students in low-coverage areas.

Expand professional development for teachers

When the pandemic started, most teachers and students had to adapt to virtual learning practically overnight. The time to practice effective online teaching strategies was nonexistent. 

But ahead of the 2021–2022 school year, there is an opportunity for educators, school leaders, and technologists to come together to research, build, test, and incorporate effective strategies that account for the digital tools students and teachers are using. This will help create an effective, personalized learning experience that makes the most of class time.

Partner to improve the virtual experience

To create a sustainable remote learning experience, ongoing collaboration will be critical. In California, for example, Google joined forces with state officials to donate 4,000 Chromebooks to the California students in greatest need and free Wi-Fi to 100,000 rural households. And in Maine, Samsung collaborated with the state education department to provide Internet access and devices to students with reported need.

Partnership is also necessary within the education ecosystem itself. In Maine, collaboration and communication at every level was key to their success in deploying virtual learning. In addition to regular contact with school districts’ superintendents and technology directors, the state’s education department created an advisory cabinet of students—from fourth graders to college freshmen—for feedback on the virtual learning experience. The department also conducted focus groups with parents, teachers, counselors, and school leaders.

Build a technology reserve

Research shows that 4.4 million U.S. households with children do not have consistent access to computers for online learning. In 2020, that challenge was compounded as demand surged during the transition to remote learning and schools across the country faced a device shortage. With supply starting to return to pre-COVID levels, now is the time for schools to consider proactively building a reserve of devices. 

A permanent solution

It has been one year since our world forever changed as a result of the pandemic.

As we consider the path forward, we must use the lessons learned in 2020 to create a better learning experience—and ultimately, a better future—for our students. The tools and techniques we equip them with today will shape how they can contribute to society as adults.

Remote learning is not a temporary solution to a temporary problem. It’s an opportunity to broaden our definition of school, students’ capacity for learning, and the technological proficiency of tomorrow’s workforce.

Taher Behbehani is head of the mobile business-to-business division at Samsung Electronics America.