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School closures expose government online failures—let’s learn a lesson

Over the past few weeks, the closing of schools, usually, initially with no specific guidance beyond resources for “enrichment”, is a challenge. If schools don't rise to the challenge, parents must.

By Trond Arne Undheim, PhD, futurist, educator, and parent

What does it mean not to be in school? How to students learn online? Great theoretical questions, but with widespread school closures across America, there’s time for a reckoning. Who is best suited to teach K-12 in the age of Coronavirus? We need an answer fast.

Over the past few weeks, the closing of schools, initially with no specific guidance beyond resources for “enrichment”, is a challenge, even for children of parents have the luxury of time and skill to mentor their own kids on the side. For many others, it is a catastrophe.

Parents across the state and country have by now, largely, found a way to work from home. Those who need to go into work, and who fit the “essential worker” category, have an additional problem, they cannot take care of their kids. Those who are lucky enough to work at home face the issue of entertaining and educating their kids and at the same time trying to work.

Ultimately, it could be a black swan event for public schools, as parents actively are seeking other, more adaptive learning accelerators. How can this be? What can we do about it?   

Elementary School kids need teacher support every day

Elementary school age kids, particularly, need more detailed guidance than just being told to use a few colorful websites in order to learn efficiently over time. I’m not sure if the problem is that the government, superintendents, principals and teachers don’t fully understand online learning, that they need more time to improvise solutions, or that they are unwilling to provide it based on principle. Very likely, the complicating factor is that there is a lack of guidance from above and a lack of initiative (or fear of consequences by simply going ahead with something) from below.

Time for leadership from below

For many K-12 teachers, it could be the month they enter the digital age that most of us inhabit and have for the last few decades. This is obviously a time of great stress. But you can also flip the coin. What a leadership from below moment for all of us. Let’s not waste it. New initiatives must surface. This is the time for learning experiments. as I wrote in my book Leadership From Below (2008), effective leadership of tomorrow will have little to do with formal position. Power will vary from project to project. Those who excel at sharing and pooling knowledge will win. How do we do this? In brief, my recipe is navigate hierarchies and networks, take charge of technology, and shape your surroundings. Let’s now see what that means for K-12 education in the coming weeks.

Effective leadership of tomorrow will have little to do with formal position. Power will vary from project to project. Those who excel at sharing and pooling knowledge will win.

Trond Undheim, Ph.D, futurist, educator and parent, in Leadership From Below (2008).

According to the Education Commission for the States (see their Covid-19 update), an outfit that tracks policy, translates research, and provides state policymakers with best practice, several states permit e-learning during extenuating circumstances (for instance, snow days or a health emergency). In fact, a 2020 report from the Digital Learning Collaborative, documents identify at least twelve states as having incorporated eLearning days, also known as cyber days, online learning days, or virtual days. Just the fact that there are many names indicates the confusion educators must feel around the concept of “online”.

If schools collapse, parents will home school

Parents cannot exactly send their hourly rates as teacher substitutes, which is around $14, give or take, to the government.  Having said that, luckily EdTech has come a long way. Kahn Academy, a nonprofit leader in online education, has hundreds of free classes, from math and science to history. I just never imagined parents had to step in to home school our kids when we live in the US, the world’s biggest economy.

However, good luck getting us back to the public school system, one of the last bastions of participatory democracy, if we find a better way to do it ourselves. This moment could be a massive watershed for the support for public school in America and perhaps around the world. Perhaps the bobble will burst. We might all discover there are better ways to learn than in traditional school—and that volunteer study groups or semi-private arrangements, homeschooling or charter schools, can be both educationally superior and economically feasible. I hope we don’t get to that. Public school must recover from corona virus, but there is not much time.

Interactive online education is needed

That there is a Corona virus circulating is well known. But should it paralyze folks that don’t yet have it, whether they be teachers, students, parents or school authorities? My answer is no. There is simply no excuse for not providing interactive, live education to all students in America, starting today. The smaller obstacles, we can—and must—surmount quickly.  The benefit is that once streaming live, it could be broadcast across the world, to the benefit of schools around the world who soon will be even more drastically impacted than the US or Europe, perhaps for several years to come.

Could the next famous video blogger be an elementary school teacher? Sure can. Wouldn’t that be a great outcome?

Equitable access can be solved

Admittedly, there are still some equitable access issues. Some 15% of U.S. households with school-age children do not have a high-speed internet connection at home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data. Black or lower-income teens were more likely to say they cannot complete homework assignments for this reason. However, a full 94 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had a computer at home and 61 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had internet access at home, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (2015).

Given the crisis, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, known for its key e-accessibility guidelines, are at this point a key federal concern, but not one that should hamper immediate local educational relief efforts. Here’s one idea: since the numbers are so low, these students should get a regular school offering once things calm down a bit—at least one day a week. Splitting them into five groups, for instance, should take care of social distancing.

If the problem is that teachers or students don’t have computers, we can solve that together (recall, One Laptop Per Child?). Some states have solutions. The New York Department of Education is lending 300,000 internet-enabled iPads to support remote learning for students. Failing an inventory of iPads, let’s ship them an inexpensive model, or even a cell phone, and pay their broadband fees, whatever needs to be done so they can see their teacher’s face, interacting daily as usual. Teachers could even talk on the phone to those without computers until that issue was resolved. Even if school districts cannot afford this, PTAs around the country, now is your time to rally.

Basic EdTech awareness is easy to obtain–but slightly harder to execute

If the problem is awareness, educators should take the free Coursera online course on Emerging Trends & Technologies in the Virtual K-12 Classroom. Online schooling is already transforming the way kids in India and Africa learn in some pioneering programs. Online learning knows no borders. But the transformation only happens when the online process is interactive.  It’s not the availability of resources that makes the difference. What matters now, is to implement exactly those resources that make the difference.

  • Each Superintendent needs to pick a learning management system (LMS), as a starting point, and quickly negotiate a deal or at least a free month trial.
  • Each teacher needs to educate themselves on EdTech (by online means) for their exact cohort level and join a support group online to discuss emerging best practices. Most importantly, they need to quickly build enough skills to not only master online tools themselves, but also acquire enough skills to advice their students on how to use online tools.
  • Each K-12 student should—by next week—be sent (a) an awareness video on online learning (there are hundreds to pick from) and (b) should receive a suggested weekly and daily curriculum (building up slowly) that would center on problem based and experiential learning appropriate to their grade level.

With that in place, teachers can spend one day a week figuring out how to tie together the online curriculum to their common standards requirements or whatever plans they initially had for the school year. This won’t be easy, but it must happen.

Anecdotal evidence indicates private schools seem to be managing better. Evidently, they have a different incentive, since parents could simply pull their kids out if the premium education aspect of their services cease to exist. They are obviously also better resourced, but I think that argument is more of an excuse. If African schools can implement online learning, so can schools across the US and Europe.

Online public school 101  

The School 101 version of public, online K-12, beyond “enrichment websites”, simply could mean (1) greeting the students in the morning and (2) checking in with them in the afternoon, as well as (3) taking homework via email, calling low income kids in via telephone as a last resort.

What amount of training would this entail? An hour? A day? I’d say a few hours of training and weekly discussion groups and access to an EdTech mentor. Lots of volunteers would pop up in school districts across America to mentor this process for free (using appropriate social distancing and electronic means to do so).

You don’t have to be a futurist to see that K-12 will be disrupted until the end of 2020, if not longer, at least in intermittent bursts. The state of Virginia has cancelled school for the entire year already. Some parents must be asking: do I have to pay a $50,000/year tuition at a private school to have my kids get lawfully provided education this year? Don’t have that amount? Interactive, online K-12 education is emergent and with best practices to learn from. The International Virtual Learning Academy, an international accredited online school, provides bi-weekly live homeroom sessions for elementary school age students, and a year costs $2,169, which is not free, but is a far cry from a $50,000 private school tuition.

To have scores of America’s “one percent” asking this question is not a good situation to be in. If the exodus towards home schooling or other learning means happens among the “10 percent” or worse, the public school system might collapse. The good thing for public sector, I guess, is that for most of us this is not an option anyway, that is, unless online schools became better than public school and could be provided at low cost. To be clear, no amount of corona virus should stop school. It is precisely in these times that we need school to step up a notch.

What if public schools fail to rise to the challenge?

However, if the public option fails, I’m sure entrepreneurs will think of a way to provide it. Not just EdTech players, I’m talking about full-fledged schools that could be mounted over a few weeks. Given the seismic shifts we are witnessing in mobility restrictions, new business models could arise quickly in the K-12 education market. Could we see a new movement of blended learning charter schools which promise to come up with an offline solution over time? I wouldn’t bet against that business model right now. All they would need is their existing charter school business plan with the caveat that the first year would be online only. Once they sign up 1000 kids, they are off to the races. As long as they have a credible online learning offering in place, the market for this option has become very attractive.

Why is it that public schools, led by Governor decrees, feel it is enough to provide passive enrichment and not active, live online schooling? Such decrees typically mention “effective remote learning resources” but don’t mandate that it should be guided by teachers themselves on a daily basis.

The key success criteria for bringing in online means for K-12 in the age of Coronavirus is blended learning, combining live (mostly) online instruction, safe social distancing in smaller groups interspersed throughout the week, with remote online participation and offline study and homework

Trond A. Undheim, Ph.D, futurist, educator and parent

The key success criteria for bringing in online means for K-12 in the age of Coronavirus is blended learning, combining live (mostly) online instruction, safe social distancing in smaller groups interspersed throughout the week, with remote online participation and offline study and homework, which is what would work with kids that age. Daily follow-up is particularly urgent for Elementary School kids. Those of you who have these kids (and I do) might want to add that minute-by-minute monitoring sometimes is needed!

EdTech is booming and knocking on schools’ and parents’ doors

Having written a PhD on What the Net Can’t do back in 2002, I’m not particularly surprised that some segments of society have taken longer than others to get on the online bandwagon. There are things the internet cannot do alone. Skills and awareness are needed. In some instances, such as difficult conversations, high stakes matters, and the like, online still doesn’t work as well.

EdTech, a booming startup domain, also has quite established providers by now. K12 (founded in 2000), a publicly traded company since 2007, offers personalized learning. Having served over 1 million students, their offering consists of three options, (1) tuition-free online public school, (2) tuition-based online private school, or (3) individual online courses from the K12 curriculum and advertises its offering to a variety of use cases: gifted students, home schooled students, students with alternative schedules (military, diplomats, athletes, students with physical restrictions), and students who need more support.

Teleconferencing and learning management systems (LMS) platforms

However, in 2020, there are widely available, inexpensive teleconferencing solutions (e.g. Google Hangout, Zoom, Skype) that could cater both to audio and video presence (although many schools also have been experimenting with true, tested online learning management systems, such as Agilix, Blackboard, Canvas, Desire2Learn, Epsilen, Moodle, and Pearson Learning Solutions. In fact, the two leading learning management systems, Blackboard and Canvas, are reportedly beefing up their capacity to get ready for the surge. School starts at 8:30 am.

EdTech startups rushing in to help

A plethora of startups having recently completed in excess of $50m funding rounds also stand ready to offer their services. Each of these, stand ready to either contract with schools or even parents or students directly, take over some of their functions, or provide near complete solutions on a subject-by-subject basis or beyond. Some provide mentors or teachers, others just enable educators to be more efficient and entertaining online than they otherwise would have been.

Notable EdTech companies and startups with a K12 offering include:

  • Newsela (founded in 2013), an instructional content tool, is offering free access to Newsela’s entire product suite for the rest of the 2019/2020 school year.
  • Dreambox Learning (founded in 2004), an online mathematics education at the elementary and middle school level; Coursera (founded in 2011), the online learning provider, has online courses, specializations, and degrees.
  • Instructure, the publisher of Canvas (founded in 2008), enables a custom K–12 learning environment.
  • Knewton (founded in 2008), the personalized learning solutions provider, was recently acquired by education and research giant Wiley and is now offering their brand new Knewton Alta product in free access for students for the spring 2020 term (normally $39.95/student).
  • CreativeLive (founded in 2010) is the world’s largest live-streaming education website providing on-demand instruction from Grammy winners, Best-sellers, World-renowned photographers and more.
  • Duolingo (founded in 2011), arguably the “world’s most popular way to learn languages online” with over 120 million users, is a viable candidate to almost completely take over language instruction in this new climate, given its freemium business model. The company already had a $1.5B valuation in December (before Coronavirus was known), which gives it the unicorn startup label, and is poised for bigger things in the current learning environment where, increasingly, everyone is mandated to be at home for long stretches of time.
  • Kahoot! (founded in 2013), the game-based learning platform, brings engagement and fun to 1+ billion players every year at school, at work, and at home, and is likely an antidote to the slow speed and lacking fun factors of any traditional learning environment. Used by more than 5 million teachers globally, Kahoot! now offers free Premium edition access to schools affected by coronavirus, according to their 13 March press release.
  • Remind (2011) the two-way messaging app, can provide updates, instruction, and more, to answer questions, coordinate logistics, and handle individual situations. With 30 million monthly active users across the United States and reportedly used by 80% of the public schools in the U.S., and among 60% of teachers, one would expect significantly increased usage both domestically and beyond.
  • Schoology, already supporting 45 million students in over 80 countries and helping schools and districts efficiently manage instruction, learning, grading, attendance, assessment, analytics, state reporting, special education, student registration, talent, finance, and HR, even has a distance learning readiness kit.

Early stage startups are also rushing in to help. A full 14 startups in the Boston based LearnLaunch accelerator have launched initiatives like providing resources for free for a limited time, including online curriculum development tools, certification sessions and distance learning plans for students with special needs.

School starts at 8:30am

Why was there no school in many K-12 schools across America starting at 8:30 am over the past weeks and lasting at least until 2 pm (I’d even settle for 9 am to Noon) over the past few weeks? How do Governors, Secretaries of Education and Superintendents think it is okay to let school be out for another month without specifically mentioning that school must continue? What does school mean? We can discuss—but—at the very minimum, school must mean an interactive experience involving teachers day-to-day and it has to include immediate feedback.

Why was there no school in many K-12 schools across America starting at 8:30 am over the past weeks and lasting at least until 2 pm (I’d even settle for 9am to Noon) over the past few weeks?

Trond Undheim, Ph.D., futurist, educator and parent

Why is continuity of schools important and why can’t it take weeks or months to implement? If not, our kids learn that school is not serious enough to focus on when it really matters. I fear they have already. We now have to reign that in. Let’s also, in the medium term, make this the moment we improve schools forever.

We need highly reflective, well-educated kids in order to save our troubled world. Let’s put in place live learning now, for all K-12 students in our country, through voluntary action if we have to, but ideally with our local school districts on board—we can get the Governors and the federal government on board once corona virus is handled. They seem to be otherwise occupied, which is a shame. Kids are watching, and increasingly, parents, too.

One small outcome of all this (sorry kids), will ultimately be to completely abolish snow days–what they will become in the future is e-learning days–which is a whole lot more fruitful and will get kids out in time for summer break without the ridiculous uncertainty about which exact day the school year ends. But as parents, we want more. As a society, we cannot collapse our learning institutions over a virus.

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