Technology’s role in the next new normal in education


The societal shocks that resulted from COVID-19 followed by the long-overdue exposure of the harsh realities of systemic racism have laid bare many of the inequalities in modern society. While some may hope for a return to “normalcy,” what was “normal” was clearly not equitable. We need to create the next new normal, one that has equity as its foundation. And creating a more equitable educational system is fundamental to that next new normal.


One immediate area for attention is educational technology (EdTech). For decades EdTech has held the promise of a more effective and equitable educational experience. This promise still holds sway with many, including those who are looking to “reimagine education” with technology at the forefront. However, there are still significant hurdles to technology creating more, not less, equitable learning environments.

Some of these hurdles became glaringly obvious in the move to emergency remote teaching during the pandemic. For instance, communities must overcome the significant inequalities in access — access to computers, to reliable high-speed internet, and to the digital literacy and support required to take advantage of online learning. While there are examples of noble efforts to address these inequalities as a response to the COVID-19 outbreak, inequalities still exist and remain inexcusable: the most at-risk students are often the least connected, and a move to greater technology use in education only exacerbates existing societal inequalities.

A perhaps less obvious hurdle is inequitable access to content due to EdTech design. Educational technology is often designed by technologists with input from a small number of educators, which can result in solutions that best serve students who benefit from online versions of traditional schooling practices. While educator input is important, there are other voices, some based in research, some based in the community, that need to be heard to reduce inequity. Designing for the diversity of students, an area of deep expertise of SRI, requires collaboration across the education sphere unlike what we have engaged in previously. It is only by foregoing the view that a limited number of technologists can invent the future of education, and instead by integrating the perspectives and expertise of different groups that we will be able to reap the full benefits of educational technology for all students.

To finally unlock the potential of technology for all students we must use varying perspectives to answer questions such as:

  • How do we methodically scale up the capacity of today’s teaching workforce to design and engage in high quality inclusive online learning experiences?
  • What supports are required so that every student can learn to their full potential?
  • What kinds of current and yet-to-be imagined EdTech should be prioritized moving forward? While there has been great effort in areas such as creating personalized, adaptive learning environments to practice specific skills, many of the promised opportunities of technology-mediated learning have not benefitted from the same focus, including:

    ▹ Building on student, community, and cultural “funds of knowledge,” which leverage cultural differences and prior experiences instead of viewing differences as deficits that need to be remediated.
    ▹ Project-based learning (using projects to situate learning in authentic settings that allow students to apply important skills and concepts in ways that are meaningful)
    ▹ Collaborative learning (working with other students to understand concepts or solve problems that results in deeper learning, exposure to diverse ideas, clarifying of misconceptions, and improved communication and social skills)

Leveraging technology in these ways will require significant changes in educational practices.

However, one bright spot from recent events is that it has demonstrated broad-based willingness to rethink the existing ways of doing things: for instance, teachers did their best to stay engaged with their students even while learning shifted to remote-only, and many educational policymakers, practitioners, and other stakeholders are thinking about what equity in education means and how to achieve it.

As we prepare for the Next New Normal SRI, can help EdTech designers work together with education practitioners and leaders, learning science researchers, students and families, and scholars of educational equity to collaborate in the creation of increasingly equitable and resilient learning systems.

Authors: Phil Vahey, Ph.D. (SRI Education) in collaboration with Jim Vanides, M.Ed. (Senior Education & Industry Consultant)

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