Silver Linings: What should educators keep after a year online?

The Covid-19 pandemic has (and continues) to disrupt lives in unimaginable ways. In the United States the shift began in March 2020 as some workers moved to a work-from-home model, while the majority of students and schools shifted to virtual learning at least in the short term, and in some cases for the following school year. The immediate and universal change from in-person to virtual learning challenged schools to engage students while entirely redesigning policies, procedures and norms that had been in place for decades. 

As we begin to think about what the fall will look like in our classrooms, it is important for educators to reflect on what can be learned from the virtual schooling experience to better improve our practice. Organically the field experienced broad implementation of strategies intended to broaden access, increase practitioner knowledge and provide diversity of choice for stakeholders. While the temptation to revert back to the “old way” is understandable, it is important that teachers and educational leaders not abandon innovative approaches to student learning that evolved during the pandemic. Analyzing, identifying and encouraging these innovations can provide enhanced educational experiences for students returning to in-person learning this fall.

Here are a few “silver-linings” from a year online that I believe can be captured and enhanced during our return to in-person learning. 

  1. Ubiquity of learning materials

One of the first things that felt out of place when I got back into my classroom after 15 months of virtual learning was the old filing cabinet that I used to fill with paper copies from class. The purpose of the filing cabinet was to have extras ready for the students who missed class or who lost their papers from the previous day. However, as I stood in my room I found myself staring at that filing cabinet much in the same way that I look at fax or scantron machines. Throughout the pandemic I had been forced to rethink and revise the way that I shared information with my students, and without even considering it I had developed a far superior system that made my filing cabinet obsolete. 

According to a national survey conducted by Digital Promise, one of the most common supports that instructional technology coaches provided to teachers during the pandemic was related to training and supporting the creation of Learning Management Systems (LMS). Through tools like Google Classroom, Seesaw, Desire2Learn, Blackboard, Schoology, etc. teachers developed ways to meet students wherever they were, whenever they needed it. While the issue of internet connectivity remained present for far too many students and communities, LMS’s provided an anchor point for students to access the materials that were independent from their location or individual obligations. This affordance can be enhanced by continuing to utilize tools that allow students to access learning from home and after the final school bell. While some students will gladly abandon the daily practice of logging into Google Classroom, for others it can continue to be a way to minimize disruptions to their learning by providing a constant and reliable location for support materials. 

  1. Alternative  Assessments

As learning moved online and students moved from classroom desks lined up in rows to kitchen tables and shared bedrooms. Many teachers found themselves reconsidering their modes of assessment as they lost the ability to micromanage every student movement during “test time”. In an environment where teachers couldn’t tightly regulate the assessment space, many pivoted away from multiple choice and rote memory assessments instinctually. The outcome of this constraint was the experimentation with creation based tools, and student choice being more broadly incorporated into assessments. 

Some teachers began using podcasts and video creation platforms as avenues for students to demonstrate their understanding. Others found creation tools like Adobe Spark, Buncee and Skratch for students, allowing them a blank canvas to paint evidence of their learning. All of these alternatives allowed students to not just show their learning in a pandemic, they allowed students to show their learning authentically. 

Education leaders can assist in the continuation of alternative assessments by emphasizing this best practice regardless of the mode of learning. As teachers return to buildings, professional development opportunities can be harnessed to allow peer-to-peer learning, where teachers share the ways in which they were able to assess student learning while engaging in an online environment. Through the sharing of these alternatives in a sanctioned space and time, leaders will send the message to their staff that this type of innovation is not only accepted, but encouraged. 

  1. Informal PD

As the educational world pivoted from an almost entirely in-person experience to an exclusively virtual experience overnight, many educators found themselves cobbling together information, training and resources wherever they could find them. Whether it was in building specific Facebook groups, Twitter chats, via department Zoom meetings or even informal text threads, teachers sought advice and guidance from colleagues throughout the pandemic. While these avenues of professional growth were certainly evident before the pandemic, teacher participation grew significantly as educators of all age levels and content areas found themselves trying to address the same pressing questions. 

The networks of learning that were created during this time of severe constraint shouldn’t be abandoned because the constraints lessen. Instead, educational leaders can provide oxygen to these informal learning networks and help them grow within their own contexts. As research shows, teachers are just as likely to adopt a technological initiative because of peer support as they are any other element  of support provided.(Frank, Zhao, & Borman, 2004)  To encourage these avenues of professional growth it is imperative that leaders provide space and time for them to happen in-person, without falling into the trap of trying to institutionalize them. The key to these informal PD outlets is that teachers felt comfortable exploring them without feeling as if they were being mandated to utilize their findings or judged for their lack of knowledge or experience. The key for leaders is to find ways to keep the culture of exploration and peer led learning amongst their staff without succumbing to the temptation to control and dictate its outcomes. 

  1. Flexibility 

An almost constant refrain in education circles throughout the past year and a half was “Maslow’s before Bloom’s” –  the need to meet student’s immediate needs (Maslow’s Hierarchy) as priority over instructional goals (Bloom’s Taxonomy).  As every industry tried to figure out how to adapt to the sudden and drastic alterations to daily life, there was a shared sense of understanding that everyone needed a bit of grace and flexibility. Teachers had to adjust to leading class during toddler nap times, or while assisting their own children with online classes. Students needed to share devices and internet bandwidth with a house full of online users thrust into the same situation. Across the board, a sense of shared experience developed as all stakeholders felt the same obstacles and struggled to adapt. 

 Teachers, schools and districts developed new norms in the face of these needs, and many relaxed policies on due dates, homework requirements, attendance and assessment retakes. As leaders consider what school looks like in-person it is important that the policies that were viewed as non-essential during the pandemic be thoroughly analyzed before being reinstated. While there are obvious benefits to some of the policies that needed to be relaxed during the year online, others may fail to prove their worth upon further examination. If the purpose of an assignment is to promote student understanding through practice, does that understanding truly change if the assignment was submitted at 8pm on Tuesday night as opposed to 2:30pm Tuesday afternoon? Before the code-of-conduct and classroom rules are reinstated, there should be some time taken to consider the purposes of said policies, and if the post-pandemic classroom would be better off without them. It was easy for educators to prioritize flexibility when the constraints were felt by all stakeholders, but it is important to remember that many students regularly face similar constraints under non-pandemic circumstances. The grace, latitude and prioritization of the learner above all else should remain a core foundational value for all institutions even after the acute impacts of the pandemic have subsided. 

While I am sure there are many more themes and strategies that have developed over the past year that deserve to be considered, these are a few of the key ideas that I will be reflecting upon as I welcome students back into my room this fall. Throughout the past eighteen months old procedures and strategies have had to be jettisoned in the face of circumstantial necessity. While some of those priors should return with encouragement when we arrive in-person this fall, we should all remember to keep questioning the true purpose and outcome before blindly implementing past strategies. I truly believe that student’s learning can only be enhanced by the continued prioritization of improving student access, student centered assessments and encouraging avenues of flexible learning for both staff and students. 

References: 

Bakhshaei, M., Seylar, J., Ruiz, P., & Vang, M.C. (2020) The Valuable Role of Edtech Coaches during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A National Survey. Digital Promise
Frank, K., Zhao, Y., & Borman, K. (2004). Social Capital and the Diffusion of Innovations within Organizations: The Case of Computer Technology in Schools. Sociology of Education,77(2), 148-171.

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