When the COVID-19 pandemic forced every school across the country to quickly pivot into a remote learning experience for their students, the effort was mostly clunky at best. This shift for many school districts highlighted some glaring areas of need when it came to communication, delivery of learning, and equity. With some areas of the country loosening stay-at-home restrictions in the next few weeks, it’s possible that many schools will reopen in the fall. But what does it mean to “re-open?”
School might look the same as it’s been the past month with all learning online, or it might evolve into more of a hybrid situation with staggered schedules and students wearing masks, plus integrated online learning.
Regardless of what it looks like, here are five things that we’ve learned from this sudden shift in learning that should continue when this is all over.
1. More blended learning
Blended learning has been a bit of a niche market. Schools that can afford devices for students in a 1:1 or cart capacity have dabbled in it. Those that have been 1:1 for many years have started to see some real gains and are even considering an “Enriched Virtual Blended Model” for high schools.
The truth is we can always do better as educators to make sure that whatever learning is happening on devices is more thoughtful than digital worksheets or guided research. The 4 C’s have been around a long time, and while we use a lot of creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication in the physical classroom, we need to expand that into the virtual one. Students need new opportunities to be creative about solving real-world problems and we need to start letting them do some of this learning without a script rather than relying on 20th-century homework practices.
2. More flexible schedules
Here in Texas, like many states, our funding is based on the “seat time” model. In other words, public schools get their state allotment based on the physical presence of student bodies in seats. A vast majority of schools also still base their school calendar on the agricultural calendar of the early 20th century (summers off) and the work week calendar of the industrial revolution (Monday-Friday). As with any tradition, it’s hard to change something that has been rooted in our society for almost a century.
This pandemic has upended all of that. Schedules were quickly thrown out the window as we all struggled to figure out how to re-create learning from a distance. Some schools have tried to stick to a synchronous model where classes still happen on a schedule (albeit slightly altered) with video chats. Others have used an asynchronous model and sent the week’s work on Monday for students to complete.
What many educators and students have learned from this is that our schedules have been too rigid in the past. We don’t allow opportunities for free form creative tasks or deeper dives into topics that motivate our students. What might a schedule for school look like if we alternated days when students were there? Or what if we took Wednesdays off? (Something we’ve employed in our home.) Can school shift to later in the day and have a break in the middle? If we think creatively and leave behind the old schedules, there are many options to find what works best for learning.
3. Equity and access
With this pandemic and subsequent attempts at remote learning, a glaring spotlight has shined on communities and schools that lack access and devices for their learners at home. Districts and schools have done their best to address this quickly by distributing worksheet packets and issuing devices and/or hotspots to families in need, but this has been a band-aid at best.
To truly address this equity and access, it will require a significant investment in resources for schools, but they shouldn’t have to handle it alone. State and local governments need to step up to the plate and partner with local internet service providers to guarantee all preK-12 students have access to broadband internet. Until that happens, schools will continue to be thrown into the “triage mode” we’ve been experiencing these past several weeks when it comes to providing access for our students.
4. Better communication of tools/strategies/ideas with parents
As most parents do, we place a lot of trust in the teaching and learning taking place in schools. We don’t usually ask what online tools they are using or even access those at home regularly except for the occasional Seesaw post. Now that all parents have been thrust into the teacher role, we have been scrambling to figure out how to help our kids access their educational resources.
When this is over, teachers and schools need to do a better job of communicating what tools are being used as well as effective teaching strategies. As a former district administrator, I admit that I didn’t do the best job of this. Often I would post a list of the apps being used in the classroom, but with little explanation or instruction for parents wanting to extend the learning at home.
Even something as simple as a “cheat sheet” of resources with each students’ login information would be a good way to start the new school year so that parents can better support learning from home.
5. Alternative professional learning choices
Professional learning, much like the traditional school schedule, is largely based on a model where you gather everyone in a room or auditorium. While I personally love speaking to large crowds of educators, that professional learning process is evolving.
Learning can happen in such a large variety of ways online, from webinars to twitter chats to virtual book studies, that forcing people to sit in a seat for six hours on a summer day seems unnecessary. I do think there is great value in having face-to-face conversations, collaboration and problem-solving, but by utilizing video conference tools and other collaborative apps, I’ve been able to lead some creative virtual professional learning sessions that engage our adult learners and leverage all the tools we want them to use with their students as well.
These five ideas are not the end of the discussion of what schools should look like going forward, but the start. From hiring practices to food services, there are many other topics that will need to be re-evaluated in our districts in the post-COVID world.
As someone who always looks for silver linings, my hope is that this pandemic pause will force us to reflect and re-imagine what learning looks like for both kids and adults in our schools. Disruption can be both a positive and negative force in our lives. If we see improved teaching and learning with technology going forward, we will at least have gained something positive from this disruptively dark time.
Carl Hooker has been a part of a strong educational shift with technology integration since becoming an educator. As Director of Innovation & Digital Learning at Eanes ISD, he has helped spearhead the LEAP program, which put one-to-one iPads in the hands of all K-12 students in his 8000-student district. He is also the founder of “iPadpalooza”- a three-day “learning festival” held in Austin annually. He's also the author of the six-book series titled Mobile Learning Mindset, a guide for teachers, administrators, parents and others to support and embrace mobile learning in our schools. Read more at Hooked on Innovation.