Not a Compromise

But an opportunity

In my local paper a few weeks ago there was an article about how the pandemic will change education, from K-12 through higher ed. In that article, two quotes stood out to me, and not only because they came from the leaders of our two state Universities. One said:

Our student population really wants a residential college experience.

And the other said:

There can be a compromise between a fully online model and an on-campus always live model.

I am not suggesting that either statement is wrong, exactly. What troubled me about these quotes from our educational leaders is they both contain the embedded assumption that online learning is inferior in some way. Using the term “a compromise” suggests that the two modes of instruction are at odds with each other, battling for supremacy. Or that online instruction necessarily undermines the “residential college experience.”

An educational newsletter that I read last week tapped into a related - and to me also worrisome - perspective I have heard among teachers lately. It referred to this Spring as “another disrupted semester,” and counseled its readers that:

Next fall we can look forward to being back to normal.

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that the pandemic year of teaching has been incredibly difficult for many of us, in myriad ways. The quick pivot in March was stressful for students and teachers alike. And this year, students are reportedly getting an uneven experience - to put it diplomatically - and our teachers are stretched as tight as a drum. The New York Times reported this week that the pandemic has exacerbated teacher shortages - with illness and days off - and many have just retired or quit. It has been painful and difficult for all, and we probably should admit that teaching young children is especially difficult in a fully online environment - my heart goes out to those teachers especially.

And then… there’s Mackenzie Adams to show us how, and before long she goes viral inspiring others around the country.

Despite the difficult year we have had, and continue to have, I believe that online learning and in-person instruction are not in a battle with each other, and this fall we should not just go back “to normal.” My hope is that the pandemic will be seen as an opportunity for all levels of education to learn, improve, and - most importantly - increase accessibility.

Online learning has opened up opportunities for more personalized learning. It has taught us methods and techniques that just might be more effective than doing the same thing in-person every day that we always did. There is a blazingly interesting conversation we should be having - and must have soon - about what we have learned in the online space. Sure, some of it has been poor or missed the mark, but we have learned from those examples too. I submit that much of the online instruction this year has been more effective than not, and worked well for more students than even they are able to know or admit. If we go back to “normal,” we not only shut down that interesting conversation, but we regress. And we regress to a place that I think everyone will admit had its own flaws.

Not the least of which is accessibility. If we are truly concerned about rooting out systemic racism in our society, we must face those ways in which our educational system supports and perpetuates it. What if some of our teaching became regularized in an online environment, and we were able to reach more students as a result? To use the technology to reduce the time, place, and manner barriers to entry that are currently baked into the system? To take advantage of customized learning opportunities, and allow ourselves to be surprised by students we might have overlooked or underserved before?

The story of what happened to newspapers is a cautionary one for us educators who would like everything to return to “normal” in the fall. I will agree upfront that the comparison between delivery of news and teaching is not a perfect one. But here is something for you to think about from Clay Shirky on what newspapers decided to do when they were confronted by the Internet’s impact on their business:

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ‘90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes ... was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift. (from NEWSPAPERS AND THINKING THE UNTHINKABLE)

We all know what the internet has done to newspapers. So rather than looking for a “compromise” or hoping for a return to “normal,” let’s us teachers and educational administrators resolve to embrace what the pandemic has taught us about online teaching and learning, and look to a hybrid future that is more effective and accessible to more students.

Letters of Recommendation

This week, my recommendation is of a book I have been reading: Stephen Hough, Rough Ideas. Stephen is a concert pianist, writer, composer, and a painter - accomplished in all. In other words, a polymath. His book contains short (2 or 3 page) essays on the traveling life of a concert pianist, and about the pieces of music he loves and plays. The perfect thing when you only have a few minutes before your eyes get heavy at the end of an exhausting day. As a bonus moment of Zen, here is Stephen playing Paderewski’s Nocturne in B flat Major, op. 16 at Carnegie Hall:

Q of the Week

This week, Q of the Week is a Quote, from a reader of last week’s newsletter. I asked readers to write to me about what they have learned from a student, and here is what one of you replied:

I have learned the importance of reaching out across the years to connect my students with each other - whether help in finding a job, giving advice, or braving a pandemic.