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Online learningIt is very difficult to give weight to anything these days except for the conditions that we are now living and dying under, especially as a New Yorker. Time does not stand still however, so we need to assess where we are in order to adjust and move forward. If this pandemic has taught me anything, this would be my lesson learned.

When it comes to the American education system, I have experienced it in many ways and on many levels. I have been a student, a teacher, professor, a supporter, a critic, a follower and a leader. Now I deal with education as a speaker, writer, blogger, and podcaster. My focus in life has always been in education. As a critic I often engaged in theoretical discussions of how we could improve the system if we blew it all up and started anew. These were obviously theoretical discussions since a national education system cannot be physically blown up.

March of 2020 changed all that. March 2020 is when the American education system was blown up. There is no mistake about that. Schools were shut down. Testing was cancelled. Teachers were told not to concern themselves with grades, and even sports were stopped. All school related events were halted. The system, as we have come to know it after 200+ years, was shut down. It was blown up by the Covid-19 virus pandemic.

There was only one possibility available to educators. They immediately ran to the alternative that was discussed for the last decade. We have the technology! Why not transition the entire system to remote learning? Let’s mandate remote learning. Administrators will lead remotely, teachers will teach remotely, students will learn remotely. We have talked about it for years, so why not? That seemed like a sound fix for the problem, especially if it was to be a short-term need.

Well, the fix was not so simple. Although we have talked a great deal about remote learning over the last decade, we haven’t really taught teachers to do it. Since the actual practice of remote learning has been limited, few students are proficient, or even experienced in it. Many teachers and students are not even comfortable with it.

As educators we have also learned that Maslow truly comes before Bloom in learning. We need to address the emotional and physical needs of students before any learning can take place. Unfortunately, in a highly stressed environment, we have added more stress on teachers and students. We have not created stability, but rather added to the chaos in a very chaotic environment. It is amazing that many, if not most, educators have risen above all of this to make the best of a very bad situation.

Educators at every level have strived to use the technology to collaborate in finding solutions and methods to help themselves and their students through this mess. They strive to collaborate through catastrophe. By experiencing the use of technology in learning, the teachers are as much students as the younger people they are charged to teach. This may go a long way in accomplishing what countless sessions of professional development could not deliver. Experience is always the best teacher.

We have very quickly identified many problems with remote teaching. The greatest problem exposed is the digital divide caused by the economic divide. Zip codes still determine quality of education even more in a digital system. There are many drawbacks in digital systems that were less of an obstacle in face-to-face environments. Absenteeism is a big problem in remote learning. Getting to kids of large families with only one digital device in the family is a big issue. Having kids supervised at home can be a problem for many as well. Giving individual time to each student digitally is another problem that needs to be addressed.

Teachers need to shift their focus from summative assessment for grading purposes to formative assessment for actionable feedback. Teachers need to understand that piling up more work does not translate to more learning. Administrators need to learn that leading is much better that mandating. Collaboration is key to learning. If you have a thought share it. An idea not shared is just a passing thought. Sharing and modeling best practices is not bragging. Yes, these are phrases used all the time, but that doesn’t make them less important or less truthful. They were true in a classroom setting and they are true online as well.

My fear is that, when we come to an end of this catastrophe, which we now find ourselves in, we will look to assessing remote learning with a skewed perspective. We have come to grips with the priorities of the brick and mortar environment of our education system and found them in need of realignment. Teachers are trained for the classroom. Teachers have been programed for an environment of control and compliance. Their experience and training have little to do with student voice and choice in learning. Collaborative learning too often takes a back seat to lecture and direct instruction. These are tailored to classroom learning and far less effective in remote learning.

We need an honest look at both the classroom model and the remote model for learning and adjust accordingly. Face–to-face relationships between teachers and students are the best conduits for learning. Developing skills in students to be self-motivated and tech savvy to research, curate, communicate and create, as lifelong learners should be the goal of every educator. In our computer-driven world this will happen online.

We cannot look at the remote teaching and learning that is going on during this crisis as the model for online learning. Most of the teachers and students thrown into this were not prepared for, or equipped for any of this to happen, much like our medical community in handling this virus. We need to return to a system that will now and forever support a professional development system that is continual, supportive, relevant and adaptive. We cannot expect our students to strive for the best, ongoing, life-long education possible, if their teachers, mentors, and role models are not striving for that as well. We cannot waste one of the rare opportunities that this horrible disaster may have afforded us. Let us consider blending the best of both systems to reprioritize our goals for education, as well as the methods that we may use to get to those goals. We must be proactive in improving our teachers, which will in turn improve our students. It is not a passive exercise. It will not happen on its own. It will take a new mindset and of course money. Education is the best defense our country can have. Its value is worth the cost.

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