The Future of Teaching and Learning in a Post-Covid-19 World

Second Wave Series 20 / August 23, 2020

COVID-19 has created a second pandemic, a pandemic of predictions about the future of teaching and learning. Some are glowingly optimistic and giddy. Others are depressingly pessimistic and gloomy. So, depending on who you believe, we are either on the verge of education nirvana or we are one school term away from an apocalypse. Which is it? We pose this question to a diverse and distinguished panel of educators, education program directors, and education reporters, who share what they see ahead for the future of education in a post-COVID-19 world.

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The panel was part of the 2020 Second Wave Summit.  The second wave refers to the looming threat of the return of COVID-19 in the fall that may drive another round of school closures and remote learning. It also refers to the second round of contingency planning and preparation we all now need to do to prepare for the uncertainty of whatever is coming next. Watch the full panel discussion or read the transcript below.

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Second Wave Summit

The Academy of Active Learning Arts and Sciences brought together educators and administrators who embraced the Flipped Learning framework (and those who didn’t) to share, prepare, and plan for the future of education in a post-COVID-19 world.

Source: Academy of Active Learning Arts and Sciences 2020

Errol St.Clair Smith:

Let’s start with an easy question: What has the pandemic-driven disruption made possible in education that was not possible before?

Eric Mazur:

Well, I like your question because that’s exactly how I tend to think about it. Many people are thinking, “How can we take what we’ve done face-to-face and put it online?” which I don’t think is the right way to think about it. What are the opportunities that we have now? One is that we can actually use a much more globally-oriented audience, so for example, in my course, I brought in people from all over the world to contribute to my course, something I could not have done in the face-to-face classroom. Or I would not have considered I could have done it, because I could’ve used the online environment in my face-to-face classroom.

The other thing is that I think that the transition has forced me to really reconsider the use of synchronous time, and I discovered in the process of transitioning that there were many, many activities I was doing synchronously that could just as well be asynchronous, freeing up my time to assist the students. And lastly, it frees up the constraints of a physical classroom, and a normal schedule. So it opens many more possibilities in terms of scheduling classes, in terms of opening up classes to more students. Those are just a few of the things I can come up with as you’re asking this question.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

Great. Thank you, Eric. Justin, let’s go over to you. What is now possible that was not possible just four or five months ago?

Justin Reich:

Well, one line that I’ve had to try to describe what’s happened is that everyone is having a different pandemic, so people’s responses to this are very different, very individual, very idiosyncratic, and for a lot of folks, the shift away from physical schooling has been tremendously beneficial. There are lots of students, I think particularly high school students, who have said, “Wow! I can control my own time. I can work on something for six hours if I’m excited about it, or three hours. I don’t have to stop every 42 minutes when the bell rings and change what I’m thinking about. I can make more of my own choices.” Kids saying to their parents, “Is this what college is going to be like, Mom? This is great!” I think there are a lot of folks who, if you experience social anxiety, getting away from a physical school building is great. If you’re a disenfranchised minority and you go to a school where you experience a lot of racism or bigotry, then being at home in the loving arms of your family has been great. But for all of those benefits, there have also been enormous costs borne, and the costs borne have been disproportionately borne by the most vulnerable members of our society. So for all of the things that might be possible, they’re only possible to some extent if you are connected to broadband internet, if you have a device that you don’t have to share with all of your siblings. If you have support at home to help you and you don’t have to take care of your siblings or be an essential worker, other kinds of things like that. So the opportunities that are emerging need to be balanced against the fact that the pandemic is revealing yawning inequities in our society, which have always been there, but are more pronounced and profound in the midst of a pandemic.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

So there’s always possibilities and liabilities, sounds good. Rhea, what’s your take?

Rhea Kelly:

Well, I think that by necessity, it’s enabled a lot more use of technology. And also, I’ve talked to CIOs that have said that it’s enabled them to bypass some of the institutional governance process, for better or worse. But because that initially in March, there was that emergency need to move everything online, suddenly they could just have the funds they needed to “Hey, we need to get Office 365 going. We need to…” All those things that maybe would have taken longer to go through the proper channels were suddenly streamlined. That was an interesting byproduct.

Dan Berrett:

I think that I would just echo what Justin said. I think one of the ironies about what the pandemic has revealed, and that technology has revealed, is the importance of treating students as human beings, as full human beings with complicated lives who are learners on a developmental path. And perhaps with a learning environment that was very familiar and customary, and perhaps even a little bit rote… It was, people showed up in the fall, we sat in rooms together, we went along our way. That disruption, I think, has reframed, for many professors that we’ve heard of, how they view their students and what their students’ needs are, and really has amplified the importance of empathy and understanding that if you are a vulnerable student and if you are sharing your computer, or someone in your household is sick, it makes very difficult to learn. And also, paradoxically, it has exposed, I think, for a lot of people, how important the social aspect of learning is, and I’m not entirely sure that everyone in every faculty on every campus has totally figured out how to take advantage of online forms of learning to take advantage of that social aspect of learning.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

Now, Sean, we know that the educating of the whole child is what ASCD is all about, so I imagine you probably have a few thoughts on this. What say you?

Sean Slade:

Yeah, certainly, and I’ll echo everything that everyone said so far, but I’ll just take up what Dan was just saying. We’d been promoting a more holistic, whole-child approach to education for the last 12 years, and one thing this pandemic is doing, I think, which is crucial is, it’s reframing in many educators’ and actually parents’ minds what the purpose of education is. We’re moving away from education being seen as purely a content delivery system to actually a system which develops the person, the whole. And to echo on what Maria and Justin had been saying as well is, it really does force education into the future. And so some of these things we’d been talking out for, I believe the last three or four years, and some of those for the last decade, about… You’re learning about how to learn. You’re learning about well-being. Relationships are key. And a sense of agency in the learner having control of their own learning. These are concepts which the schools and the colleges that have been focused around this kind of work are actually starting to see some more traction and some more progress.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

Got it. And Valeria, we were excited to get you to give us an international perspective. I know that you’re responsible for some 150 schools down in Brazil. What are we seeing from your perspective? What’s now possible?

Valeria Franca:

Well, I think I need to not only talk about the schools we work with directly, but also the general scenario here of a huge difference which the pandemic has clearly shown, of the differences between state education and private education. It couldn’t be clearer, I think, for us in that for children and students who do not have access to the internet, this has actually become a huge problem and basically, some are getting absolutely no access to education. Where there is access to internet, education has gone online, so that’s been a huge challenge for teachers, as everywhere in the world. Teachers suddenly have to learn to use technological resources and digital tools which, I think, a lot was being said about this, but they hadn’t actually got round to using it, and then all of a sudden, they found the need to literally, in some cases, up-skill or re-skill. And I think the positive side was that we saw teachers actually grappling with this and putting themselves in a situation where culturally, here in Brazil, education can be quite conservative, still content-based as well, and there is a shift towards focus on the student, greater learner autonomy, and this is where everyone’s trying to go, especially with the new curricular guidelines. But suddenly we found ourselves propelled into a scenario we didn’t expect to reach so quickly. So I think that’s been good in that case, and I think teachers have also begun to understand also how fast students can go on their own. How important it is to give them space so that learners actually become more autonomous. And I think that is one of the benefits of going online, is that a lot of teachers discovered that the more space you give to learners, the more responsibility, the more the learning happens, because there’s been a new educational space created, rather than trying to fill that up with content. So I think that’s a benefit, really.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

Interesting. Sounds good! So I think it’s pretty interesting to consider that all around the world right now, educators are experimenting with different forms of instruction all at one time. All in all, we’re pretty fascinated. So the question is, “When all of this is said and done, do you think we’re going to be looking at an education evolution, an education revolution, or is all of this just a temporary detour and brought back to the status quo?” Let’s go with you, Eric.

Eric Mazur:

Oh, I’m quite convinced that when this is over and we look back, this has been a major jump forward. And I think we did an experiment with education that we would never have done under normal circumstances. I think, as Valeria just articulated beautifully, we are discovering that a lot of things actually work better. I found that in my students, too. Yes, there are problems, no question about it, but I found that students take more ownership of their learning, I think that’s what Valeria was implicitly saying, are getting more intrinsically motivated to learn. I think we’re also discovering something else which I think is really important, namely that our old approach to assessment is no longer working. And if you ask me, that is something… If people collectively manage to realign assessment with the new reality of remote learning, then I think we will have changed education forever, and there is no going back anymore. And since I’m an optimist, I think that it’s probably very likely to happen.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

Rhea, as I read a lot of the prognostications of the future, the most optimistic tend to come from the tech sector. To them, it’s like this is the second coming of whomever. This has been a just wonderful experience to them and they’re predicting just a wonderful transformation. What are you hearing?

Rhea Kelly:

Well, I was just thinking about the pessimistic side. It’s really a double-edged sword because, for those who embraced the technology and did it well, I think it is an evolution and a step forward, but I think we would be fooling ourselves if we didn’t admit that there are many that didn’t embrace the move online well. I’ve heard people say there was a lot of poorly executed online education going on, and really, by no fault of their own, it was a terrible situation. So for those who, let’s say, just kept lecturing but online, maybe they didn’t enjoy teaching that way and probably their students didn’t enjoy learning that way, and in that case, maybe those people are dying to return to the old way. I don’t know, I’m not a teacher, but I just see it could go either way.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

Dan, let’s go to you. Is it your sense that most people are looking at what transpired over the last four months as an experiment, and it was a typical “we shouldn’t place an excessive amount of gravitas on what happened and recognize it was just that, an experiment,” or are they viewing this as an indictment of online learning and the possibilities? What are you seeing and hearing?

Dan Berrett:

I think it depends on where you’re sitting. I think clearly, there are some students who are really not happy with what they got online and viewed the experiment not really as an experiment, but as an exercise in triage. I think what the revolutionary/evolutionary aspect might actually happen this fall, when faculty members will have had the opportunity to have maybe taken stock of what just happened, instead of just, in an emergency situation and on the fly, try to reinvent their courses halfway through, to give some thought to what they want to do, reflecting on what they’ve done. It’s easy to forget that actually, it’s not a universal experience for faculty members to teach online, so for many of them, this is their first time doing it. I think if they have some time to take stock of what they did, learn from it, and plan for the fall, I think we’ll start to see some real movement this fall. Of course, fall’s very much in flux. We have institutions saying they’re going to be in-person, saying they’re going to be in-person with social distancing, saying they’re going to be online, asking faculty members to really plan two or even three versions of the same course, essentially: an online version, an in-person version, and a hybrid version. And I’d be curious to hear from Justin and Eric and others on this panel what the process of the fall is looking like for them, how they’re thinking about this and what they’re hearing from their colleagues, too.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

Justin, let’s go to you. Do you think we’re ever going back or is this a revolution?

Justin Reich:

I think we’re likely to go back pretty far. Education is a conservative field. People teach how they were taught, parents, learners expect to learn how they were taught, and so change tends to be incremental rather than revolutionary. I think, as Rhea said, people are really feeling the pain of being away from… They miss the best parts of traditional face-to-face learning, and they’re going to want to go back to that. But I also think, I’m probably not quite as optimistic as Eric is, but to his point, people are going to find things that worked during this period, and they’re going to add them to their repertoire, and what that looks like is going to be different from field to field. I’ve been working with a bunch of Boston public school math teachers, and they spent a lot of the spring experimenting with technologies that they wouldn’t have otherwise, and they are for sure going to bring that into their practice moving forward.

But they’re also unlikely to say, “Oh, that was great! We should let half of our kids stay home whenever they want to.” And the Boston Public Schools is relatively unlikely to make substantial changes to the way it’s organized for a wide variety of reasons, so I think it’s continued… I think the other thing too is, in the best of all possible circumstances, the independence, the self-direction, the self-regulation that learners have developed during this period will hopefully be something that serves them well, and I hope that we find more ways to tap into that, support that, and nurture that. It’s good to have… Eric and I talk a little bit about what’s happening at Harvard and MIT in terms of preparing for the fall, but it’s really important to remember our institutions are not like other institutions. MIT has a huge floor of people called the Office of Open Learning. It’s got 100-150 people on it, all of which who are doing all kinds of things, and many of which are being repurposed to help our faculty. We’ve hired dozens of undergraduates to help faculty retool their courses. We have all kinds of instructional staff throughout, and it’s because MIT is an enormously affluent and fortunate institution, and faculty teach throughout the university a one-course teaching load. They teach one course in the fall and one course in the spring.

When you only teach one course at a time, and you have a staff of two or three people helping you convert that into an online course, and your students are only those who have been admitted by the admissions office because they’re pretty capable of teaching themselves no matter what you do, you’re in good shape to have a successful fall. It’s going to be very different in institutions that don’t have the same level of resources. One of the hardest things right now is that colleges are saying to their faculty, “Well, get ready! You might have to teach it this way, you might have to teach it this way, you might have to teach it this way, and by the way, we’re still not paying you this summer, but we expect you to have all those different models prepared by fall.” And K-12 teachers are facing the same kinds of things. People need to recognize the limits of time, of expertise, of resources, and there’s not a lot of overtime pay that exists in the education system and people should expect that the systems are only capable of delivering what we pay them to be able to do.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

So this is an interesting dichotomy right here between you and Eric, Justin. Eric, I read a memo from the president of Harvard. It was written in April, which I thought was fascinating because it was way ahead of the curve, and essentially, what he was doing was saying this. “Look, we need some shared sacrifice.” We’re talking about 25 percent cuts for people at the top of the organization. We’re talking about deferring capital projects. He was talking about the fact that even though Harvard has one of the most robust endowments, that it’s not going to be enough. There are legal requisites will limit what the money can be spent and cannot be spent on. As I read the piece, I thought to myself, “If this is what Harvard is doing and thinking, what does it mean for other, so-called second-tier, third-tier institutions?” Because even as I’m listening to you, Justin, the presumption and the premise of what you’re saying is that “MIT is doing well, we’re wealthy, we have the wealthiest student body, no problem.” Eric, can you speak to, first of all, that memo? And then let’s see if Justin can go back and respond to that as well.

Eric Mazur:

Yeah, so I didn’t write that memo so I’m not the right person to ask. I do want to react a little bit to some of things I’ve heard before, namely about the effect. Let’s face it. In a thousand years, education has evolved so little. It’s almost mind-boggling (silence) it’s changed, so I wouldn’t expect that what is happening now completely radically changes education forever. I do think that it has accelerated, or maybe started, a movement in the right direction, where people are really rethinking, and I think everybody said that to some degree. Now at the same time, here in the United States, we’re facing a situation where the cost of higher education has gone completely through the roof, and I think we may well be also on a path to discovering that, I think, the cost is hugely inflated and not representative of the value you get for it. In that respect, the United States is completely unique. There’s no other place in the world where the cost of higher education is as high as it is here. So I’m hoping, I’m not seeing a clear path myself right now, but I’m hoping that what is happening right now will actually teach us how to (silence) education not only better, but also more efficient. And I hope that being forced to tighten the belt, which I think all institutions have to do to some degree, including those at the top, MIT, Harvard, Stanford, you name it, will actually force us to consider to make education more efficient.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Sean, let’s go down to you. What, from your take, from your perspective, what are the key factors that would determine whether or not you’re about to witness a quantum leap forward, or whether or not we’re going to slowly, maybe even precipitously, tack back to the status quo?

Sean Slade:

Well, I think we won’t know that for a couple of years, or maybe another decade, and I actually take a bit of a more revolutionary stance that I think we will look back at this time and see that this was a fairly clear watershed in education. And that’s not to say that what we’re currently doing now is the way forward, because this is a triage situation. Teachers have been asked, required to change what they’re doing with 24 or 48 hours, from being in school to being online, so what we’re doing now is not what the revolution or the change in education will come out to be. And I think this has been mentioned: we’ll start to see more and more changes and more and more adjustments to the system, all the way through this next school year and probably for the foreseeable future.

I have a slightly different take, as well, on what the difference in this revolution in education is going to be seen to be, because I don’t think it’s purely about technology and purely about online. I think the biggest change that we’re going to see is, tapping back into what I mentioned before, is a reappraisal of what an education system is. but I think the biggest mover in changing that education is going to be an acceptance or an understanding of student agency, that students are co-creators of their learning, that students, if you give them the time and yes, wherever possible, the tools, they are able to self-direct, grow, develop their own learning. The revolution is going to be, I think, in schools, and I’m talking K-12 schools here, having to adjust to accommodate that, and because of that, having to adjust and accommodate the teacher agency as well, and the ability for teachers and schools and principals to actually craft and adjust a learning system, or a learning ecosystem, that enables that to happen. So that’s where I see.

I do think we’re going to look back at this time and we won’t be repeating what is occurring now, but we will look back at this time and think, “That really made a monumental shift in education.” It’s probably also going to make a monumental shift in our global society as well, just to understand that there is great inequity out there. As Valeria was saying, there are students who, for the last couple of months, have virtually been outcast from the education system because of a lack of access or inequity. And there’s also this understanding that we are part of this world and we are interconnected, both for good, but also, as we’re seeing with the coronavirus, for ill, as well, but I do think we will look back at this time as a pretty great, significant watershed in education.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

I see, Sean and Dan, let’s go back to you, so let’s get a bit granular. So let’s assume that everything is not necessarily going to survive and carry forward from this experiment. What things do you think are mostly like to be immediately jettisoned, and which elements of the status quo do you think are going to be most resistant to change and most durable as we move forward? Dan.

Dan Berrett:

I would give the first caveat that it seems to me that history is seldom linear, so it’s difficult to understand or to easily project out from right now to what is going to come right in front of us, especially for traumatic events like this. They often have unintended consequences, so I would just caveat that this way first.

I don’t know that I can say what is being jettisoned. I can say who is being jettisoned. We have tracked about 50,000 jobs already at the Chronicle that are in higher education that have been cut, furloughed, trimmed in some way.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

Can you give us a quick snapshot of what some of those jobs are?

Dan Berrett:

A lot of, well, of course, contingent faculty, even some tenure-track faculty jobs have been cut in a couple places because of the financial burdens. Universities are declaring financial exigency, restructuring their programs, and dismissing tenured faculty. Of course, there’s also the people on the campus, the staffers who help the campus run. Without students there, they’re being furloughed. I think what that this has shown us, to go back to Eric’s point about just the cost, a lot of these universities, institutions, organizations are, as businesses, much more vulnerable than I think we ever really understood. We have multi-billion-dollar institutions laying off hundreds, or furloughing hundreds of people because the margins are not quite as big as we thought they might’ve been.

And I think we’re going to see some institutions very badly strained, perhaps closing. This has been long forecast that we have a lot of institutions that are very small, not very well-endowed, highly tuition-dependent. It’s going to be very difficult for them to remain a going concern if you’re taking a class on your couch. The in-person environment is a real part of the value proposition for a lot of these institutions. And I think Harvard and MIT are going to be just fine, like Justin and Eric have said, that I think it’s some of these more vulnerable institutions that are going to have a tough time.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

I see. I want to shift gears for a moment and talk about learning loss. We know that sometimes just over the summer… Not “sometimes,” often, perhaps even most times, over the summer there’s learning loss. We know that when New York City struck in 1968, there was learning loss. Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, there was learning loss. So it’s quite likely that we’re going to experience a considerable level of learning loss from the remote transition to online learning. In some of the panels that we’ve done this week, we’ve discovered that the watch word has been “traumatized.” Teachers traumatized by the experience, students traumatized, parents traumatized. So as we reopen, we’re going to have traumatized teachers, traumatized students, traumatized parents going to face the challenge of catching up without burning out. Do you think we’re prepared for that, Justin?

Justin Reich:

No. Our systems are not at all… If we’ve learned anything in America, it’s that we are not prepared for a global pandemic. Epidemiologically, culturally, socially, economically, we are losing. But one of the great things about America’s educational institution is that they’re filled with extraordinarily devoted individuals who care deeply about their students, who care deeply about their colleagues, and it’s a tragedy that we’re dramatically underfunding our response. A serious effort in preparing for schooling next year would have billions more. Schools should be looking forward to additional resources to address these challenges and instead, they’re facing budget cuts. But for all that, America’s educators are still going to wake up in August and September, and they’re going to do the very best job they can.

The only piece of advice… I think there’s lots of good advice circulating on how to address learning loss. I think not starting with mass remediation has been widely acknowledged to be the right answer. When a kid moves to fourth grade, help them move forward in fourth grade, identify the places in which they’re missing some key third-grade content that needs to be remediated… (We’re busy, honey. You are? Okay. This is one fourth-grader who’s presenting her opinions on things, thank you very much. And I actually usually invite her to jump in and say “hi” on these things, because I think it’s important to remind folks that for everyone who’s trying to teach or trying to work or trying to be a student at home, there’s lots of people in the background who have a variety of different needs and concerns, and we aren’t all lucky to be able to stay focused on our work all day.)

Errol St.Clair Smith:

Valid point.

Justin Reich:

So I think there’s widespread acceptance that we need to let people move forward, that we need to remediate as best we can, not in a broad-brush way, but in very specific ways. You hit moments where people miss something in the third grade, you go back and help them. But I think a really important thing that schools need to do is celebrate all the incredible learning and resilience that students have shown over the spring. It’s very easy to bring a deficit framing and deficit mindset into rebuilding for the spring, and that’s important, but I would caution folks against making that the centrality. No one wants to have a kid show up in September and go, “Well, boy, you were in trouble before but now you’re really behind!” That’s not the way to kick off a motivated, engaged, connected school year. The place to start is, “Wow, tell us what you did learn this past spring.” Students learned incredible things about independence, about self-reliance, about technology, about online learning. Let’s celebrate and build on all of these things, and then when it’s important and strategic, we’ll get to addressing the learning loss pieces. But if the overwhelming message of the fall is “You’re behind and you’re in big trouble,” that’s not going to be a strong point to start the school year.

Sean Slade:

I’ll weigh in quickly. My hand was actually up from a little while ago, but I will just echo exactly what Justin was talking about. We need to start the schools in the fall from the basis of thinking that everybody is coming from varying degrees of trauma, and that includes, and one is not to forget this, it includes the teachers, and it includes the education support professionals, and it includes some of the families as well. So go in with a strength-based mindset, as Justin was saying, go in trying to make the environment as safe and supportive and relationship-strong as you can. Once people are grounded and they feel connected, then you can start to move towards some of that content catch-up.

Eric Mazur:

Yes, I wanted to add to the point that Sean was making. Also, if you want to talk about a loss, you have to have a measurement of what was there before the loss, and you have to assume that the learning that took place before this presumed loss was actually useful learning. I think, as Justin pointed out, probably in terms of resilience, in terms of independence, in terms of, as Valeria put it, intrinsic motivation to learn, we may have actually made gains that are extremely valuable.

Just think about it, something totally different, maybe. I used to be very much opposed to gap years, so when my eldest daughter came to me after finishing high school and said, “I want to take a gap year,” I tried really hard to talk her out of it. Luckily, she persisted and she took a gap year, and boy, did she ever learn a lot in the gap year, and it sent her on a trajectory for her whole educational and professional life, which is so much richer than it would have been if she had not taken that gap year. So you can see a gap year as a learning loss, but at the same time, it was an opportunity to gain things that are just of immeasurable value.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

So this is interesting. I’m hearing a pretty balanced perspective, really, from most of the panelists about the future. So I want to go up to you, Rhea. Again, most the, what I would consider to be, overly optimistic predictions that I’m reading are coming from the education technology sector. Question: is it possible that the education technology sector is over-promising and that they’re going to end up not being able to deliver? Your thoughts.

Rhea Kelly:

I would say absolutely. It’s just the nature of the tech sector to market themselves as a silver bullet. But I also want to comment on the learning loss aspect, just from my own experience as a parent. The thing I think we lost the most was the sense of connection with our teacher. We had very little synchronous time with the teacher when we were working remotely, and I’m pretty worried about what that’s going to look like in the fall, because my daughter’s in third grade now, and I just can’t see how to motivate her without having that engagement with the teacher. And so far, the technology tools have not been very good for enabling that, at least not in elementary school. So in that sense, I’m really hoping for some face-to-face time in the fall.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). I read a study that 75 percent of students called said that they didn’t think that the education they received remotely was good. They didn’t like it. And conversely, I read an interesting report by a professor of education out of Michigan State University, and she posited that online education can be as good, even better, than face-to-face. Justin, respond to that, would you?

Justin Reich:

Sure! Yeah, people are different, and learning environments are different, and so it’s absolutely the case that there are online environments that, in various places, are superior to their face-to-face counterparts. They also can, on average, be about the same as their face-to-face counterparts, and better for some kids and worse for other learners. But one of things that we’ve done over the last 10 years is, we’ve, in a variety of ways, sent millions of people to learn online. We’ve created a number of circumstances in community colleges, with the K-12 virtual schools where we can compare the performance of people who take an online learning experience with those who take a face-to-face learning experience in real-world field settings. And the direction of that research over the last 10 years has suggested that for our most capable students, they really do fine anywhere. For students who you wouldn’t worry about learning well anyway, they learn just fine online and they create more opportunities. They get more flexibility. They can take courses that aren’t available in their local institution. It’s great.

For many students, however, there seems to be an online penalty, that students who take an online course instead of a face-to-face course are more likely to have worse outcomes, lower grade point averages, more likely to fail, those kinds of things. And that online penalty is most severe for the most vulnerable students in our society, so students that are younger, students that haven’t been served well by the education system in the past, that have lower levels of prior achievement, ethnic and racial minorities in the United States in some studies. Basically, all of the people that you would expect to be hit hardest by a pandemic, to be hit hardest by a recession, to have all the challenges of inadequate access to healthcare and job losses in their family, all those kinds of things. In the best of circumstances, those are the same students that we would expect to be served least well by online learning.

And the key piece of it seems to be that people really depend upon the face-to-face support of their peers and their teachers to be successful. If you’re someone who has really high levels of self-regulation and you live in a home where there’s a quiet space that you can work, and you have a network of parents and other high-achieving friends who can help you and so forth, then online learning is fine. But in particular, K-12 online schools have a really terrible track record by all accounts. Every major study of big, full-time virtual schools suggests that students who enroll in them do worse, and the negative impact in performance lasts for years. And these are institutions that were not built in the midst of a pandemic. They were built in normal times and had lots of funding behind them, and for the most part had students who were choosing to participate in them.

So I think there are good reasons to be very concerned that lots of students don’t do well in online learning settings, even though in theory, some can, and the most high-achieving students can. We should be very concerned. It’s another reason why schools should be thinking very, very carefully about how is it going to be possible to safely bring as many students back in the fall? And we’ve got to look at the research and look in the science on this. We can’t do it universally grades K-12. I think there’s increasing evidence that our youngest students are the least likely to transmit the virus. There’s a great piece on NPR about, there are 1,000 YMCAs with over 40,000 kids or something like that, that they’ve been looking at over the summer, who have been able to stay safe with no major outbreaks during the midst of this pandemic. And some of that seems to be because younger people don’t get the virus as much, and when they get it, they don’t transmit it as much.

Teens are a different story. They do seem to get the virus, and they engage in a whole bunch of high-risk behaviors because they’re teenagers. Now, as it turns out, teenagers are way more likely to be able to have a successful learning experience online than a kindergartner or a first-grader or a second-grader. So I think schools should really be thinking about how they treat their youngest students and their older students very differently in the months ahead, and I think we really–

Errol St.Clair Smith:

Got it, Justin. Got it. Let me go to Valeria. Valeria, let’s talk a little bit about skill sets. In your perception, from where you sit, is the ability to teach online going to be a requisite skill for teachers going forward? What say you?

Valeria Franca:

I think it is going to be, and I think here in Brazil, we’re a bit behind in terms of the pandemic because we’ve reached where we’ve got very high numbers, and it looks like we aren’t going back to school too early, so it really begins to look as if the second semester will probably happen completely online. And I think this is really worrying, because one thing, I think, is the first phase of this whole pandemic when we had to get ready to deal with online learning from one day to the next. A next moment is when you actually talk about the sustainability of online teaching, and I think I agree with Justin. With teenagers, it’s much easier, but with young learners, and in our context, where we’re teaching English as an additional language, in most schools it’s a major focus. And obviously, it’s far more complicated, and with very young learners, we’re talking between two and four, how do you actually do that online throughout a suspended period of time?

So I think it’s not just the skills of actually using digital resources and technology, that is well part of the problem, but is actually finding… And I usually like to talk about finding a new language when you actually come to teaching online. And I’m not quite sure we’ve got there yet, because I think we need to begin considering, what do we mean when we teach young children online? What is it exactly that we’re teaching? What do we expect parents’ roles to be, or caretakers’ roles to be? Because obviously, with much younger children, there is a level of support you need from people who are looking out for these children. They can’t just be in front of a screen all of the time. So I think that’s another issue we need to begin dealing with. It’s not just the technological skills. It’s also rethinking your teaching.

There’s been a surge here of people taking courses on project-based learning. It’s part of our national curriculum. It is part of it, but many people have looked to this as another way of dealing with teaching, so in a way, I think that that’s a positive thing, but it’s still a very small group. But how do you change your teaching? I think we mentioned this. In universities and faculties, it might not be the straightforward lecture anymore. But when you’re dealing with children, and I think this might be something Sean probably considers the.. how do I bring that whole effective factor into the online ambience while we’re teaching? So I think when we’re talking about teachers developing skills, it’s that special skill which we really need to focus on to keep this going a bit further on, and to guarantee, I think, this revolution, which probably we’re looking towards.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

I see, Valeria. Eric, back to you. Online teaching: a requisite skill going forward or maybe not? What say you?

Eric Mazur:

In a sense, you’re putting an assumption in my mind that it’s black and white between online teaching and face-to-face teaching. After all, there are already several things that we’re doing asynchronous, even in a completely face-to-face, like homework, self-study, and so on. So I don’t see this as a black-or-white proposition, and I think, if anything, going forward, as I said in my opening remarks here, we need to really rethink the difference between synchronous and asynchronous instruction, between self-based and instructor-led instruction, and between student-focused and instructor-focused instruction. And I think what is happening right now is pushing us to more asynchronous, more self-based, more student-centered, and I think that’s a requisite skill for all of us in any circumstances.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

It’s fascinating to listen to you, Eric, because I know that you are uniquely positioned. You were in many ways ahead of the curve. I can tell you what we’ve heard on our end over the last three months: professors all around the world essentially saying, “Help. I don’t know anything about teaching online.” “Asynchronous, synchronous,” you’re talking a foreign language to many of the professors that we’ve talked with. So I’m curious to get some other takes on this. I know that that’s completely true for you based on your context. Dan, what do you think? Going forward, the ability to teach online, especially in higher ed, where lecturing is often the dominant mode of transmitting information, is it going to be requisite going forward? What say you?

Dan Berrett:

I think being thoughtful about your teaching is going to be requisite no matter where it takes place. I think it’s an old truism that people teach how they were taught, and it’s easy to walk into a lecture hall and go on memory. One benefit of this exogenous shock here is faculty members have to look with fresh eyes on what they teach and ask for help, like you said. Asking for help, I think, is going to be a good thing, that they’re hopefully going to give some increased scrutiny to old assumptions. Whether that’s in-person, online, or some sort of hybrid, I think that will probably be a lasting change.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

Got it. We’ll go to you, Sean, and then we’re going to get closing statements from you all. Sean, the curriculum is your space: requisite for K-12 teachers going forward or not?

Sean Slade:

Yeah, I think it comes down to, as we were saying before, and as Eric was pointing out, it’s not going to be an either/or conversation. It’s going to be “Let’s determine,” and I think this moment is going to allow us or force us to do it, “Let’s determine what we want to get out of the education system, and then let’s start to plan these tools and these steps in order to get there.” So whether we’re talking about making sure that teachers are proficient in online learning, whether we’re talking about what curriculum, what benchmarks, I think what this time is allowing is the chance to reappraise what we’re doing and why. We’ve already seen a number of states in the U.S. end standardized testing. We’ve already had conversations around, “Well, if we’re testing this or doing this, what’s the outcome, or what’s the reason we’re seeking?”

We’ve already seen, even in this conversation today, almost everybody on the panel talk about, there have been schools around creativity, around collaboration, around resilience, around networking, around independence, that have been developed in very trying circumstances by our students over the last couple of months. And there have been things that have been gained, so I think this is really just reappraising what we’re doing.

One quick anecdote for 30 seconds is, in many of my talks over the last year, I’ve asked the audience, “Imagine the child at 25. Imagine the child after they’ve finished all formal schooling and college, university, and describe them.” And we put the words up in a word cloud, and the answers are the same no matter where I go and who I speak to. They talk about “empathy, creativity, healthy, happy, independent, collaborative, team player, leader, community member, resourceful.” And the question should now come back to us of, if this is what we want our children to look like when they finish formal schooling and education, then let’s start to plan more effectively how we’re actually developing that, because some of these students are actually been developing it in the midst of this crisis over the last couple of months.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

Well, let’s get a closing statement from you all, if you can keep it to a tight 30 seconds. I want to just open it up: what would you like to leave us with? Rhea.

Rhea Kelly:

Well, from an un-tech perspective, I think this has been an unprecedented time to try a lot of new tools. And it’s really important, I think, to take some time to figure out what worked and how to incorporate those, the best of what we’ve been doing and teaching and learning over this strange time, and keep it going for the future.

Justin Reich:

I’d just say the challenges that we face are bigger than schools. I think the people who are there in schools will do the very best job we can, but if we don’t have a society, a civilization that’s supporting broadband internet access and nutrition and housing support for kids and families, and all of those other things, it’s going to take more than schools to tackle the challenges that we have. It needs to be a society-wide response.

Dan Berrett:

I would agree. I think this has been a seismic event, but I think, absent on some deliberate and thoughtful planning, the world that we will inherit after this is likely to be perhaps more inequitable and more strange unless there is some deliberate action to mitigate that.

Eric Mazur:

I think this is both an exciting and frightening opportunity to change and improve education. I’d like to focus on the opportunity, not the challenging part, and I really look forward to being able to look back in a couple of years and see the true meaning of the events that we’re going through for education.

Sean Slade:

I would pretty much echo the same thing. I think we’re at a philosophical turning point in education and in society. And if we do not make some concrete, deliberate changes, we’re going to make things worse, and so it’s really our time right now to make some decisions and determine what kind of world we want for our kids moving forward.

Valeria Franca:

Yes, I think I have to say more or less the same. I think it’s a huge opportunity for us to rethink how we can make society far more equitable and make sure that education also offers equitable possibilities for all students. And also I think we need to have time, which I don’t know when we’ll have time, but we need to let everything which has been happening settle down so we can start rethinking and bringing up new possibilities. This is really, really important. Unless we find this time to reflect upon everything that has happened and everything that will be happening in the near future, it will be very difficult to come up with new possibilities. So that’s, I think, our challenge, to actually have time to reflect a bit more.

Errol St.Clair Smith:

I see. Well, I had no idea what to expect from this panel, but what we see is that I think we have a panel of radical centrists, an equal balance of both optimism and pessimism when appropriate. One of the most striking things that came out of one of the earlier panels was from the Director of Teaching and Learning at Anahuac University in Mexico City. And she made the point that, especially in higher education, change typically happens at a glacial rate, which she noted that, in just one week, her entire university made a transition. And her big takeaway from all of that was that transformation is possible. And so I’d like to leave on that closing note. Clearly, transformation is possible. How fast? How far? Time will tell.

 






Editorial Leam
Editorial Team
This article was written by a collaboration of editors and columnists on the FLR editorial team or guest contributors.




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