Before the coronavirus outbreak, the majority of teachers were using digital instructional materials only on a supplemental basis. And of the resources they reported using most in their classrooms, only 30% were digital, according to new data from the American Instructional Resources Survey, which was administered to the RAND Corp.’s American Teacher Panel.

When planning lessons, more than half of teachers said they consult Teachers Pay Teachers, a popular site for online resources some experts have said are not always well-aligned with academic standards. Just over 40% said they conduct Google searches, about a quarter use Pinterest, and less than a fifth consult the Common Core standards or their state education agency websites.

In the classroom, YouTube, Kahoot!, ReadWorks and Khan Academy were among the sites and tools teachers reported using most frequently. 

The results, released Thursday, provide a glimpse into how teachers were planning instruction before they had to shift all of their teaching to an online platform. 

Teachers reported using comprehensive curriculum materials, such as textbooks and non-digital materials, for the “bulk of their instructional time,” wrote the authors of the survey report. Fewer than 20% of teachers said they used any digital materials for more than half of their teaching.

“These findings suggest to us that teachers who are now providing online instruction for students could be using digital materials that are not really intended to support students over time,” Katie Tosh, a RAND policy analyst and an author of the report, and Julia Kaufman, who leads the AIRS project at RAND, wrote in a joint email. “Instead, these materials could be providing a lot of one-shot practice opportunities that may not connect to other materials or to the curricula students were using before schools closed.”

Kaufman added if teachers lack expertise in using digital materials and platforms, much of the burden now shifts to students and parents at home. “Never before have so many students and families engaged in online learning, and they likely need far more technical support than schools typically provide,” they wrote, adding districts could form technology teams to support families. 

For support and enrichment

Of the almost 6,000 teachers responding to the survey, those who reported already using standards-aligned, comprehensive curriculum materials were more likely than those without such programs to use supplemental digital materials.

Teachers in the highest-poverty schools were also more likely to use digital materials, perhaps “to support students who need additional scaffolding to master standards-aligned materials or even for enrichment,” the researchers wrote. “Prior research suggests that teachers seek supplementary materials when their main materials are perceived as ‘too hard’ or ‘too easy.’” 

Teachers in high-poverty schools were also more likely to say the cost of materials, as well as students’ lack of access to devices or reliable internet at home, were barriers to greater use. Forty-three percent of respondents said lack of access at home was a minor barrier, and 23% listed it as a major barrier. 

Teachers who attended preparation programs run by districts — and especially by charter management organizations — were also more likely than graduates of traditional university preparation programs to use online materials, the authors wrote.

Writing their conclusions before the pandemic, the authors suggest more research is needed on the quality of digital materials, and states and school districts “have a role to play in setting recommendations and guidelines for the use of digital materials.”

Supplemental materials offer some benefits

With teachers now shifting to virtual instruction, those recommendations take on additional meaning. 

“It’s hard to believe this crisis wouldn’t result in at least a temporary increase in teachers’ use of digital and supplementary materials,” said Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California.

Polikoff co-authored a report in December from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that argued, in addition to their weak alignment with standards, supplemental materials don’t always provide strong assessments, are “not cognitively demanding,” and can do a poor job of “supporting diverse learners.”

But in this current reality — “when distance learning is likely causing engagement challenges, when whole class instruction probably isn’t the norm as it once was, and when teachers … are overwhelmed and short on time” — he said supplemental materials offer some benefits. 

Websites, apps and videos can often be more engaging for students, he said. And they can save teachers time and effort they would otherwise spend creating materials on their own. 

“Everyone’s doing the best they can in this crazy time,” he said. “If kids are learning anything — if they’re not backsliding, if gaps aren’t widening — then that’s terrific.”

Tosh and Kaufman also recommend educators plan lessons by “starting with the content and skills within curricula that students were using before schools closed and utilize digital materials just to provide practice on those content and skills.”

When AIRS — a three-year project — is conducted this spring, the survey will also include questions on “what materials they are relying on most during school closures,” they said.

The importance of ‘teacher professionalism’

The AIRS results also follow the recent release of international data exploring some related issues. Part two of the 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey, a project of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, shows the U.S. scored above the OECD average on whether teachers — according to principals — have the skills and knowledge to integrate digital devices into instruction, and whether teachers “frequently” or “always” let students use information and communication technology for projects or classwork.  

The results overall focused on teacher autonomy and whether teachers feel empowered to make decisions at their schools. “Teacher professionalism has never been more important than in this moment,” Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for Education and Skills, said last week during a National Center on Education and the Economy webinar. He added the world had entered a time “where online learning is no longer a nice thing to have.”

In a conversation with NCEE President and CEO Anthony Mackay, Schleicher said it’s possible when teachers return to their classrooms, they’ll be even more engaged in working with administrators to “organize schools differently.”

But he added there is also the risk of returning to the status quo. 

“Real change happens in crisis,” he said, but added, “Not every crisis leads to real change.” 

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