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Perspective | Ed tech as a way to help close North Carolina COVID learning gaps

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North Carolina educators are grappling with the uncertainties of classroom and at-home learning because of COVID-19. This has made it imperative, now more than ever, that teachers identify exactly what challenges and learning gaps their students are facing.

As a former educator for 31 years, 21 of those in North Carolina, I found it tough to determine exactly “when” my students experienced struggles with their learning. I knew that was key to helping them get back on the right track. As all teachers know, it’s not easy to gather this information and that is part of the reason why students can fall behind. Today, I still live and work in North Carolina as an education consultant and continue to hear from teachers and administrators about these hurdles.

For teachers, understanding more about where their students are struggling entails a lot of late-night grading. That’s why today’s educators are embracing ed tech. Due to the pandemic, experts have come to believe that digital tools are increasingly important for improving learning outcomes; standardized test results show the typical U.S. student is now eight to 12 percentage points behind in math. Younger students, minorities, and those in high-poverty districts score even worse.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), a highly respected education-focused organization, takes the position that it’s essential for teachers and students to have regular access to technologies that support and advance mathematical sense-making, reasoning, problem solving, and communication. Effective teachers optimize the potential of technology to develop students’ understanding, stimulate their interest, and increase their proficiency in mathematics. 

This summer, a pilot program involving a middle school digital platform that could potentially help North Carolina students was conducted at three middle schools in Ashe, Gates, and Polk counties. The program, introduced by Alef Education using its artificial intelligence-powered platform, is a data-driven approach and proved successful during the six-week pilot. Participating teachers embraced the program.

“I think Alef, paired with a targeted lesson, helped close the learning gap by ensuring students were truly able to apply the content they learn,” said Jamie Graber, a teacher at Polk County Middle School. “The Alef Platform allows students to review the content just taught and then practice later without fear of failure. It also provides an opportunity for deeper application after the basic concept is understood.”

The pilot focused on addressing priority standards in mathematics while providing performance and usage data to teachers and school leaders. Teachers praised the platform’s approach, as well as the real-time data that is delivered to them during a weekly review with a coach. Among students, approximately 80% of them said they had learned more math with the program and indicated that they would like to continue using the technology in the future. 

Polk Middle School will continue to use the Alef Platform this academic year to supplement instruction and provide real-time data insights for teachers and school leaders in the future.

The results of the pilot are not surprising, considering the opinion of another respected group, the International Society for Technology in Education. The organization supports the implementation of programs such as this to provide a framework for guiding the digital age of learning and empowering teachers to make student learning possible. 

Data-driven tools promote less screen time for teachers as well as students, since it is made clear quickly exactly what students need to be taught. Schools in our state and across the country should continue to use ed tech platforms to help address learning loss and empower teachers and school leaders with data that will help them and their students achieve better learning outcomes.   

David Taylor

David Taylor is a managing partner and the executive vice president for services and solutions with Framework Consulting. Taylor designs, develops, and directs the implementation of day-to-day operational processes aimed at facilitating clients in achieving educational and business goals. Taylor administers departmental budgets for delivery projects while creating new educational offerings for K-12 clients. He conducts effective training programs for staff members and plans and determines long-term school improvement, leadership development, and project, grant, and enterprise management initiatives to accomplish strategic business goals.