“I’m supposed to be reading a book about Hawaii, but when I search for it, all the books that come up are in French.”
My daughters are sitting at the kitchen table across from each other, staring at their computers. They’re both wearing headphones. They’ve both been on their computers for the past two hours, pretty much nonstop since breakfast. My youngest also has an iPad out, next to her computer, which she’s using as a digital whiteboard for her daily online math class.
This scene is not one that would have been ok three months ago. And yet here I am, coming in to check on them after my morning calls, thinking, “Success!”
I help my daughter find the books about Hawaii that she’s supposed to read for her social studies class. Once she reads the online book, she will take a comprehension quiz online and mark the assignment as “done” on her Google Classroom board before moving on to her next assignment.
I have no idea whether this new routine approximates what they were doing at school before the pandemic. To be honest, I had no idea what they did at school. I only really caught glimpses here and there, when they’d bring a test or project home, or when I’d ask their teachers for an update. Now I am intimately familiar with every aspect of their daily curriculum — and it all revolves around their computers.
If you Google “family technology” or “technology for children,” the majority of what you will see revolves around how to limit your children’s access to technology. You’ll see articles about the harmful effects of screen time on younger children, and tips on how to pry your children away from their computers and devices. You’ll find very little about how to use technology to help your children or your family. And yet, when the global COVID-19 pandemic pushed 1.9 billion children worldwide out of their classrooms, we immediately turned to technology to help.
Of course we did.
We turn to our phones, tablets and computers to help in every other aspect of life. But for some reason when it came to our families, we vilified the same technology tools we depended on for everything else. With COVID-19, we no longer have that luxury. We are managing our kids’ distance learning alongside our own telecommutes and conference calls — and realizing that it would be impossible to accomplish either without a heavy lift from technology. In fact, research shows that online learning increases retention of information from between 8 and 10% to between 25 and 60%.
Unfortunately, the technology-driven simulacrum of everyday life in which we now live struggles with the usual inequities in education and access to resources. Access to computers and a reliable internet connection are more important than ever, and communities that lack either are finding it even more difficult to adjust to the shelter-at-home lifestyle. With computers now fundamentally required for education, things like the digital divide and affordable access to educational technology has become part of a national crisis rather than a footnote to the broader discussion around education in general.
After the pandemic, will telecom companies continue to honor the Keep America Connected Pledge to not terminate internet service over financial troubles and allow free access to Wi-Fi services? Will the FCC expand the Lifeline program, which has been subsidizing access to telecommunications services for low-income households since the 1980s? Will more people continue to homeschool their kids using online distance learning platforms — or at least supplement their children’s classroom education with the tools we have been introduced to during COVID? Could online distance learning become the great educational equalizer?
Or will we yank the Chromebooks and iPads away as soon as the pandemic ends, and plunge our kids back into the digital dark ages?
Of course, as a passionate believer that technology can and should be used to help families the same way it has worked to help business, I hope for the former. But taking a more pragmatic view, here are my three actual predictions for how our use of technology will fundamentally change coming out of COVID:
1. Our children will have a greater fluency — and independence — in using educational technology tools at home.
Distance learning has brought educational software platforms onto home computers, and I think they’re here to stay. My kids are in love with Prodigy, which is essentially a massively multiplayer online game (MMO) that revolves around solving math problems to win battles. My younger daughter also loves Epic!, a digital library app for young readers (which also offers videos on reading, science, and math). They have long used both of these products at school, but as part of their distance learning curriculum, they’re now go-to downtime activities in everyday life in our house — as are a number of other platforms that are available for free or at reduced prices through their school. I don’t see why they’d stop wanting to use these at home after the pandemic has ended — or why I’d want to stop them.
2. With a greater awareness of the tools available, we will rely more on digital learning to help enrich our kids’ lives.
When my daughters recently got into mummies and Ancient Egypt, we decided to check out some virtual museum tours online. We started with the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which, it turns out, hasn’t digitized much of its legendary Ancient Egypt exhibit), and ended up with my kids spending hours doing a self-guided virtual tour of the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose (which is amazing — check it out if you’re into Ancient Egypt). Other parents I know have gone all-in on introducing their kids to a second language using DuoLingo. Coming out of COVID, not only will we have the habit of using the resources we discovered during this time, but we’ll also be used to the idea of looking for technology tools to help our kids learn and experience pretty much anything else we (or they) can think of.
3. We will start demanding more and better tools.
Given the pre-COVID cultural bias against kids using technology, the field of family tech and ed tech have not traditionally been the hotbeds of innovation that we’ve seen in other industries. There are some serious gaps to be filled — in education but also in general family tech innovation. Now that parents have a taste for what’s possible when using the dark magic of technology for the power of good, we will see a greater demand for innovative technology solutions in education, parenting and family life.
Watching my kids “battle” each other in a virtual online universe by solving curriculum-aligned math problems has given me a glimpse of what’s possible when we bring educational and family technology into our everyday lives. I hope history proves it to be one of the positive side effects of this crazy time — along with the hilarious sight of watching twenty-five six-year-olds participate in show-and-tell over a Zoom call.
Liz Polizzi Oertle is CEO and co-founder of Nanno, the first national app for helping parents find, book and pay high-quality, fully vetted babysitters on demand. She's mom to two girls and splits her time between Denver, CO and San Francisco, CA.