There's no debating that COVID-19 brought chaos to education--but in all that chaos may be a chance for education to reinvent itself

Out of COVID crisis comes education’s opportunity

There's no debating that COVID-19 brought chaos to education--but in all that chaos may be a chance for education to reinvent itself

The COVID-19 crisis has caused unprecedented disruption to schools, bringing a fractured landscape of reopened classrooms, distance learning, and hybrid models that combine both.

While it’s tough to find silver linings in the pandemic, I think there may be one for the American education system: an opportunity not only to better leverage digitization to ensure the best outcomes for students, but to reimagine many aspects of pedagogy entirely.

“In chaos, there is fertility,” the author Anais Nin wrote, and I believe COVID-19 could be the impetus for long-overdue changes in everything from teaching methods to school schedules. This could improve education long after the pandemic has subsided.

I’ve been in the education field for 27 years and have traveled to schools all around the world. While digitization is taking hold in many communities, access to and integration of digital resources is thus far inconsistent.

Meanwhile, many cling to traditional teaching models that prevent students from learning in new ways and archaic practices such as allowing athletics and a need for childcare to determine school schedules, which is the main reason the typical school day starts at 8 a.m. when research shows adolescents don’t really wake up until 9.

Educators for years have discussed various ways of modernizing the learning experience with more personalization, flexibility, and interaction with digital tools.

This long list includes Technology-Enabled Active Learning (TEAL), a collaborative, media-rich method that was pioneered in higher education and, its proponents say, works well in secondary schools, and flipped classrooms, a blended learning model where students are introduced to content at home and work through it in the classroom.

COVID-19 puts more wind behind the sails of such initiatives because techniques and curricula tailored to the individual needs of each student have moved from idealistic goals to must-haves during the crisis.

There are too many variables in the current environment for a one-size-fits-all education approach, from differing degrees of in-classroom vs. distance learning within states, districts, or even schools, to disruption of a student’s routine to take care of a sick parent or work a part-time job to help out financially during the pandemic-driven recession.

COVID-19 has magnified the need for flexibility to allow each student to be fully engaged and learn at their own pace.

Addressing distance learning, a McKinsey study said school systems must “determine the appropriate number of learning hours each day and the proportion of those hours spent online for each age group. The split between synchronous learning, with students taught together in real time, and self-paced, asynchronous learning will vary as students mature. So will the mix of large groups, small groups, and one-on-one instruction.”

Such considerations are urgent because of the pandemic, but the actions that educators take now and the lessons they learn from them could form the basis of long-term changes in education practice in a digital world.

Nothing should be off the table when it comes to reimagining the post-COVID education future.

For the next six months, for example, why not reduce teachers’ number of classroom and online instruction days to three and let them devote the other two to professional development? After all, teachers simultaneously are being required to change their instructional practices for distance learning and become digital mavens. It’s a big ask, and they need the training to get it right. Empathy for teachers, while often touted in the media, needs actionable mitigation. They, like everyone else, are dealing with the same circumstances of disruption to their family routine, the same economic stressors and concerns.

We have an opportunity to consider replacing the traditional school day scheduling that may not be conducive to the needs of all students with more elastic schemes that better reflect today’s digital realities. In her book, “Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning – Learning in the Age of Empowerment,” Beatrice McGarvey cited examples of organizational change that places the needs of the student at the center of decisions on when, where, and how learning should take place.

Why not employ more “mass customization,” which sounds like an oxymoron but is a way of tailoring instruction to each student’s needs and interests through a self-paced curriculum? TEAL fits into this strategy, even out of the classroom. Technology-enabled customization is not limited to the content. With the right tools, school leaders and teachers can adjust learners’ access resource and device-based privileges to meet the students’ ever-adjusting readiness.

While the pandemic has school systems scrambling to drive student engagement amid extraordinary disruption, the technologies and practices being put to use now can not only preserve the education experience in the near term but enhance pedagogy well into the future.

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