remote learning

One year later…

March 12, 2021

The one-year anniversary of the world shutting down due to COVID-19 has summoned a flood of perspectives and insights about the unthinkable change that has occurred in such a short time.  I’ve been challenged, dumbfounded, and sometimes inspired by the ideas born out of the pandemic.

We’ve rethought the future of work, of community, of travel, of communication, even of food and how we eat.  In most of these categories, the consensus is that we’re not going back to the rhythm and experiences of 2020. We’ll compromise and evolve our expectations to something that might actually be better.

COVID accelerated much of the good innovation that was on the cusp of occurring before the pandemic.  For example, remote work was being heralded as a way to drive productivity, but we just couldn’t get comfortable actually committing days, let alone weeks, driving projects from home.  However, circumstances forced immediate change and eventually an acceptance, and dare I say enthusiasm, for this new way of thinking and working.

There is one area of life, however, where I don’t feel this same energy for taking the best of what we’ve learned and applying it post-pandemic.  It’s in education.  When I listen to the year in review interviews and commentary about schools and learning, the only sentiment I keep hearing is, “Let’s just get them back to school.”  While I certainly have seen the social and psychological impact on my own children from prolonged absence from the in-person classroom and want all children to have the option to be back in class immediately, we might miss out on the opportunity to radically disrupt K-12 education if we simply settle for the mantra of “Let’s go back to the way things used to be.”

In this area of our lives, we have settled for a “playing not to lose” mentality rather than choosing “to play to win.”

Over the course of the last twelve months, I’ve learned so much from working with corporations as they have changed their expectations and vision for learning.  The lack of in-person learning events forced a new creativity in what they are prioritizing for their people to learn, in what voices become suitable to teach, and in what format we teach people.  Now is the time to take some of these lessons and put them to work in America’s classrooms.

Reimagine curricula

The first thing I’ve watched companies do is focus on essential learning.  There is no more “nice to have” projects or filler content. To get to this point, they are asking the fundamental question, “What does this particular individual need to know to develop and succeed?”  This isn’t just a question that boutique firms are asking. Rather, mega corporations with hundreds of thousands of employees are scaling the answer to this question by pinpointing the learning needs of a specific individual and then providing it.

Why in the world are we still operating on a “one size fits all curriculum” that forces a certain progression of courses and experiences to most students? Shouldn’t we begin to help students understand and articulate their strengths earlier in life and begin creating diverse learning paths and outside experiences to drive their knowledge?  Did the remote learning experience of the last twelve months teach us that students can learn the essentials more quickly than we might imagine?  At my house, when asynchronous remote learning was used, it was a common goal to get done with all schoolwork by noon.  Instead of diving into additional learning that was fueled by their strengths, my children ended up starting Fortnite by lunchtime.

What would it look like if a middle school child interested in business was more quickly steered to different mathematics, strategy and entrepreneurship topics rather than spinning through advanced sciences that offered little value or interest? Why should a high school student that begins to sense a calling in medicine be required to complete a rigid set of semester long history courses that don’t contribute to a lifelong learning path?

Let’s establish crisp, simplified mandates of “essential knowledge” in core areas.  Once a student tests out of these areas or completes on demand modules to help them meet the requirement, we could promote a culture of electives, outside experiences, and stretch assignments to help fuel the student’s passions and interests.

Rethink voices of instructors

Besides reimagining the curriculum itself, a new set of voices should be considered to deliver learning.  I’ve watched clients lean on their internal teams rather than a constant stream of external thought leaders to instruct and teach.  One reason for this is that these internal subject matters experts have had the time to be able to contribute to learning in ways they couldn’t if travel was required.  They’ve also wanted to connect with their own people as a result of the pandemic.

The result of these new voices has been more interest in the subject matter as the most relevant instructors are delivering the content. It has also resulted in a much more diverse set of perspectives and personalities which has improved the quality of the instruction.

Why wouldn’t we try to do more of this in K-12? Why do we settle on one instructor teaching an entire semester’s worth of content rather than being creative about mixing up the different perspectives and voices our students hear?  Some of the instruction can be delivered virtually so that in-person class time can be used for collaboration and application. Arcane licensing standards and union rules have limited the creativity about how and which people can “teach.” It’s time to revisit the way we hire, retain, and utilize different types of teachers throughout the system. Let’s bring new voices into the classroom.

Radically embrace technology

Why do we predominately focus on teaching platforms like Zoom classrooms or Google Classrooms when we reflect on the past year of learning?  Certainly, these massive video conferencing platforms were the literal bridges to keep schools operating and students learning in the early days of the pandemic.  They’ve also become the main reasons for the rallying cries to get students back into the classroom immediately as they lack personalization or real community building functionality. What’s been missed in the discussions are the really interesting tools that have allowed for different kinds of customization, augmented reality, and application in the classroom.

We’ve only scratched the surface of how gamification or quizzing technologies could allow for more tailored paths for students.  We’ve not really seen an embrace of the same technologies that propel video gaming to be applied to creating virtual spaces for learning and experimentation.  We’ve also not seen the development of the most robust types of simulations which drive collaboration and high-level thinking.

Here’s the good news. All these types of technologies can be used whether in the physical classroom or in remote learning.  So, let’s embrace more funding and experimentation with technological “widgets” that can be inserted into a curriculum.  This past year gave us only a glimpse of what’s possible with new EdTech.  However, COVID accelerated the acceptance of these tools and expanded the creativity that we should use in designing and applying them in the future.

One year out, I’m so grateful that my kiddos are back in school. There were moments of real frustration, isolation, and simple chaos.  However, I’m in awe of the way faculty and administrators improvised and delivered during the most turbulent period in American education. They are the heroes that should begin the task of working with parents and thought leaders to redesign the school of the future.

If we just long to go back to the way things were before March of 2020, we’ve missed the opportunity for massive improvement in our education system.  Companies have completely rethought the way their people grow and develop remotely.  Universities radically changed their models to reimagine hybrid options that worked.  What will be the headline for what K-12 schools learned as a part of this year?  Let’s not settle for a yearning for yesterday.

So, what’s next?

Let’s be clear.  The immediate priority of America’s schools should be to ensure that every classroom is safely opened as soon as possible and that every child has the option for in-person learning.  At the same time, every school district and private school system should convene a group of its boldest thinkers to begin the debrief of the last twelve months with an eye toward looking ahead rather than simply listing the lessons of what could have been done better.  National educational policy groups, EdTech entrepreneurs, and venture capital leaders should also be a part of the conversation around “What’s next?”

The posture of these conversations cannot be around “How do we prepare for the next pandemic?” Rather, they should focus on a simple question, “How do we use the lessons of COVID-19 to fundamentally change an antiquated, outdated set of rules for learning?” 

We do that by reimagining what is taught, who teaches it, and how we deliver learning for a new era.