Online instruction: Is it temporary?
It was late February when it became clear to us at the school I visit the most that we would need to prepare staff for a switch to online instruction. We went into high gear to select a few specific-purpose tools to get everyone up to speed—ahead of a shutdown.
The closure came barely a week later, and while we did make major strides, it still has been a challenging transition.
Teachers who had developed strengths over years or decades suddenly found themselves wondering whether they could do what was needed to help students to move forward with their learning.
Many thought the situation would be temporary, with perhaps only a few weeks of online instruction before we could get back to normal. Clearly, that is not how it worked out.
We may be on the brink of another daunting adjustment, and only a handful of the schools I’ve been in touch with have begun to plan for it.
Adding online instruction to the toolbox
I’m not talking about the possibility of starting the 2020-21 school year online. As one teacher friend in a nearby district put it: “The only way we’re getting anything done now is because of the community we built during the first part of the year. I can’t imagine starting the year teaching online.” But school districts should consider plans for it.
The adjustment I have in mind is the possibility that we will have to switch back and forth repeatedly between in-person and online schooling for the next year or more.
We need to prepare for switches between in-person and online instruction as needed, blending our approaches to draw on the strengths of both, and dealing with questions we’ve had the luxury of ignoring.
Since states and county governments across the country may be treating the crisis differently, Stanford Economics Professor Matthew Jackson compared the current effort to halt the spread of the virus to “ridding your house of termites by fumigating one room at a time.” That is, we could close schools and shelter in place for a period, reach a point of returning to our campuses, see new outbreaks of the virus, and repeat the process—multiple times.
The obvious, and daunting, way to deal with that is to prepare for switches between in-person and online instruction as needed, blending our approaches to draw on the strengths of both, and dealing with questions we’ve had the luxury of ignoring.
Here are three ways to prepare that would also benefit our professional communities—even if the threat of the virus turns out to be temporary.
- Recognize that in many schools, this crisis has led to much more dynamic professional interaction among teachers. What do we cover, and how? What works well for you? Can we share the workload in a way that helps everyone? Developing this kind of atmosphere should now be a specific goal of school leaders everywhere. Poor direction only makes things worse during a crisis, but giving people space to discover how to integrate their strengths into a new system helps everyone. Be open, listen carefully and adapt what you do. Discuss failures and successes as a clinical team, not as pro sports partisans.
- Let’s admit that there are all sorts of “learning” activities that we have engaged in for years that are somewhere between weak and thoroughly ineffective. The easy target for this: worksheets. Yes, we all understand that they get used often. No, that doesn’t mean they’re a good thing to use. Evaluate learning activities: What do they actually do to move the needle of learning in the right direction? In a setting where people have been wrenched into accepting talking openly about both successes and failures, the question of actual value is a good frame for quickly getting to what works.
Know that making adjustments for multiple switches to and from online instruction will likely help students achieve plenty of noteworthy moments of progress. These moments should become stories that inform both PD efforts with your team and PR efforts within the community. Done well, this moment of challenge may allow for connecting with people who are one story away from becoming active supporters of your school.
Rushton Hurley directs the educational nonprofit Next Vista for Learning, which houses a free library of creative educational and service videos at NextVista.org, and he is a featured speaker for FETC®. Hurley has worked all over the globe as a Japanese language teacher, school principal, school improvement consultant and inspirational speaker.
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