Can you feel it? It’s an educational paradigm shift. Every few years there is a shift in educational philosophy and pedagogy that take the field of education by storm. The COVID-19 pandemic may very well have been the biggest shift to date. Going as far back as The Enlightenment, to the Progressive movement of Mann and Dewey, to Common Core, the Pandemic of 2020 has launched the next shift, and it’s here to stay: e-learning. The time has come to discard the old model of teaching and learning for the new. We are preparing students for a college or career that doesn’t exist yet.
In the new model teachers can expect smaller class sizes but potentially more work. As states unveil their social distancing models for the coming school year, many models have students at the secondary level meeting face-to-face with teachers on a rotation schedule. The students will have to continue to e-learn when they are at home. We can expect to see increases in public school enrollment as families who were hit hard during the pandemic cannot afford private school tuition. There will be a surge in homeschooling ventures as well for some students who have had a positive experience with online instruction.
Students in the Class of 2025 and beyond can expect to see the traditional model of college all but disappear, too. Our current middle school students will likely see fewer opportunities to go “off to college” as colleges will begin offering more online programming, making college more accessible to many. We are now in the business of preparing students for this new mode of learning that requires them to take ownership of their education (in whole or in part). COVID-19 is literally turning the whole of education upside down. Here are some upsides and downsides of this new reality:
- Embrace the tech! E-learning will be a growing part of instruction.The upside: Technology is providing students with the skills and assets needed to communicate, collaborate, and exist in a 21st century workplace. Teachers are preparing students for a work world that does not yet exist. The education community has been talking about this for years, and now finally here we are.The downside: The challenge is two-fold. First, in addition to the prep teachers will need to do to prepare for face-to-face instruction, teachers will need to prep online modules to keep students engaged in learning when they are not in the classroom. Second, accountability for students will have a significant and long reaching impact on their success overall. Sadly, many districts ramped up e-learning then quickly traded out grading accountability. The message received by parents and adolescents? The work didn’t matter. Switching mindsets in a new teaching model will be challenging to overcome.
- How will we collaborate as teachers?The upside: Use of digital collaboration spaces means that teammates can engage in projects remotely and build shareable educational materials. Teachers are also honing the necessary skills to be practitioners in a new learning world that is going to be beneficial for new teachers growing their pedagogy practices.The downside: Collaboration is essential to student growth and achievement. It is well documented and practiced nationally. With a new model for teaching rapidly coming, collaborating will take a hit. In teacher schedules that are already pressed for time, creating professional collaboration communities to continue key topics such as data-driven instruction, brainstorming, and sharing of resources will be challenging. Software giants will eventually respond with educational collaborative workspaces, but until then there are some collaborative technologies that work, such as Google Classroom.
- How will we foster relationships with students and colleagues?The upside: We are now creating relationships that were previously unavailable in traditional school building settings. We can more actively reach beyond classroom walls and into the community. Community partnerships can be fostered via live lessons with guest speakers from a variety of places, and students can access adult mentors and role models previously unconsidered. What greater relationships are there than with people in the community our schools serve?The downside: Relationships are critical to fostering resilience and connection. There is no app that can replace human connection. In a new educational model, how will we continue to grow and build relationships with the colleagues and students we interact with? Showing care is a fundamental part of what teachers do every day and without human interaction, how will teachers and leaders continue to demonstrate caring via technology? Can we go back to the time-honored tradition of handwritten letters and cards by mail? A positive phone call home for students, or a positive affirmation email for colleagues? Sometimes, going “old school” is necessary to maintain human connectedness in a technology-infused learning and work space.
- How do we support the disenfranchised?The upside (if there is one): Finding creative ways to provide meaningful, purposeful and equitable instruction will be at a premium. Districts will be forced into what teachers have been crying out for for these students: support and equity. The disenfranchised and their school advocates will not be able to be ignored. In this new model, people are watching what district leaders will be doing to support this group. The downside: Our most vulnerable students will need the most support. The kids living in poverty, the kids living in abuse or neglect, the special education kids, the emerging bilingual students. In the new models for social distancing, we are going to further marginalize an already excluded group.
E-learning is going to become a significant and growing part of the teaching and learning cycle. For better or worse, we can expect growing pains as we adapt to our new virtual classroom hybrids. For reasons that are bound to policy and budgets, the new models are also a means to keep class sizes small and capital building projects down. This will translate to more educational bang for the buck. E-learning will require leadership to consider professional development that makes sense and can be differentiated to meet the needs of educators. We need to prepare students for college and careers that aren’t even dreamed of today, but are the future they are entering.
Michele Schuler is an eighth grade science teacher at Meade Middle School, Fort Meade, Maryland.
Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.