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What Lessons might schools learn from the COVID-19 crisis?

What we know

As of the 4th of March, 2020, the New York Times reports that, according to the United Nations, 22 countries across three continents have already started closing schools as a result of COVID-19 outbreaks. This has resulted in nearly 300 million children missing class worldwide, creating an “unparalleled” education disruption.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has seen public health officials calling for fewer public gatherings, resulting in many activities moving online. The issue is particularly severe for schools, where the risk of spreading the disease is high.  As many schools try to shift to online lesson delivery, they’re meeting with a number of difficulties – ranging from motivational and psychosocial well-being challenges to infrastructure limitations of broadband networks, which leave many students and teachers unable to connect to their new online classrooms. Some of these problems point to serious gaps in “school-business” contingency planning and governments lack of leadership and understanding of the needs of schools in the 21st century.

A good education contingency plan should enable analysis and assessment of the impact of a potential crisis in different scenarios to ensure appropriate arrangements for containment - in the event of an outbreak of infectious diseases, fire, or other emergencies, and assure business continuity – quality teaching and learning in the context of schools.

While interest in the online delivery of lessons by the education sector is a positive and welcome move, we must remember that the sudden demand wasn’t by design. It has almost entirely been driven by the wave of school closures  –  a fallout from the COVID-19 crisis, with schools scrambling for alternative solutions. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to describe this demand as a knee jerk reaction brought on by an “in-the-moment fad” that will vanish as soon as the COVID-19 crisis is brought under control. Notwithstanding, some education technology providers have unashamedly seized on the current crisis as their opportunity to offer all manner of technology solutions to education establishments and schools with little to no real understanding of the problem and zero regard for stakeholder benefits realisation. We see this as blatant opportunism at worst, and extremely counterproductive at best.

School leaders must recognise that in the absence of the prerequisite professional development for their staff, the current rush to move from face-to-face to online teaching would be quite a confronting proposition for teachers. The nature of teaching, roles and workload distribution changes as instructors teach in online courses (Coppola, Hiltz, & Rotter, 2002; Young, 2002). Many experienced or expert face-to-face teachers find themselves as novices or beginners when first teaching online. In some cases, it could result in some resistance towards online teaching (McQuiggan, 2007).

Our view is that there is an absence of answers to the critical question of “how do we provide quality education continuity online, and one that supports, not only learning, but also the psychosocial well-being of both students and educators?” Without meaningfully addressing these questions, any move online will ultimately prove unsuccessful. Simply pushing technology and flipping to online delivery of lessons, without the prerequisite consideration for the quality and methods of teaching that are critical for the success of such a shift, is a recipe for failure. This also incorporates largely unexamined questions regarding the learning community’s readiness - in terms of training and support for teachers, students and parents in already strained educational environments.

According to a 2017 Educause survey, only 9 percent of academics prefer to teach in a completely online environment. That suggests that a huge number – 91 percent, of academics would prefer to teach anywhere but online. While the Educause survey was focused on the higher education sector, it is reasonable to surmise that the results would be similar if conducted in the k12 sector.

This knee-jerk rush to online delivery will see many teachers fail to make the transformational shift in their approach to teaching from one of disseminating information to one of creating learning environments where students co-construct knowledge through interactions (Vaughan, 2010, p. 61). They will be under pressure to re-examine their philosophy and their pedagogy.

We know from research that the selection and coordination of pedagogy, technology, and content is a primary task for teachers to provide students with quality online learning opportunities (Kurtz, Beaudoin, & Sagee, 2004a; Olson & Wisher, 2002). Implementing these new strategies associated with the use of pedagogy, technology, and instructional design can require teachers to undergo a major shift from what they have experienced in off-line settings (Coppa, 2004; Lee & Hirumi, 2004b; O’Neil, 2006). As there is currently no standard for preparing in-service or pre-service teachers for the unique demands of teaching in an online environment, they can present a challenge to new virtual course teachers (Hsi, 1999). The direct transference of good instructional practice in face-to-face settings does not always translate to good teaching in online environments (Davis & Roblyer, 2005). Therefore, it is important to acknowledge the different set of skills for teaching in online learning environments.

Redefining professional identities and teaching practices takes time. In the absence of embedded professional development, many teachers will only try to replicate existing course design and pedagogical practices when they move from face-to-face teaching to blended or online teaching (Bonk & Dennen, 2003). This replication of traditional methods will fail to exploit the dynamic nature of the technologically enhanced teaching and learning an online environment offers, leading to a very substandard experience for the learners. Adopting a technology-enhanced pedagogy approach would enable teachers to be activators of learning in an online context.

Ultimately, like most businesses, education communities need to develop and implement contingency planning into their operating models, synthesise existing research about online/distance and flexible education interventions both in crisis and non-crisis contexts, and contextualise these at the school level. So the next time an epidemic or crisis strikes, schools are better prepared to not only protect students and educators but, to also maintain ongoing delivery of quality education.

“It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.” (Sir Winston Churchill).

What we suggest

Quality online delivery of lessons should form a core part of business continuity. Therefore, governments and schools should be required to provide teachers with appropriate and ongoing training on the best pedagogical approaches for online teaching and learning experiences. Students and parents also need to be adequately prepared for learning in this way. Schools need to consider quality online delivery of schooling as a critical workplace safety issue that cannot be neglected. It should be viewed in the same light as the unavoidable fire drill events that evoke all kinds of emotions in all of us.

We all remember those summertime fire drills, when we are all too happy to down tools and have five minutes in the sunshine chatting. Then there are those rainy days that largely make us plod along outside in the cold and the rain, with little to no time to grab umbrellas or coats! Despite these mixed feelings or the time of year, we all recognise that fire drills are an essential event in every organisation’s calendar. So, we embrace it, in the full knowledge that it would be worthless at our moment of need, if we simply train our people, develop a fire drill policy and then lock it away in a safe place, without actually enacting regular practice and experience for everyone. In the same vein, we suggest the following:

1. Practice makes perfect!

The more familiar staff, students and parents are with online learning procedures, the higher the chance that they would be ready to continue with their education during any emergency. Embedding online teaching and learning as a core part of how schools deliver education throughout the year – not just during emergencies, will help to underpin the correct procedures, removing panic and uncertainty for all concerned. The ongoing experience this would provide would be invaluable, as it’s vital that everyone in the school community knows and understands what’s required through experience. So in the event of a real emergency, there is no panic and the business of learning, and educating our children continues with little to know hindrance.

2. Identify weak spots

No matter how thoroughly you organise, things will never go to plan. Embedding online teaching and learning as a core part of how schools deliver education throughout the year, presents the perfect opportunity to tighten up on rules and amend your risk assessment to ensure nothing unexpected occurs in the event of a real emergency.

Just like the legal requirement that your alarms are tested weekly to ensure they never fail in an emergency, enact your procedures regularly as it’s all too easy to overlook this.  Emergencies by their very nature, are unannounced and never have great timing, so test your scenarios to ensure your plans remain relevant and viable.

4. Ensure you can continue to fulfil your legal obligations

Of course, apart from every school’s duty of care, one of the most important reasons we suggest embedding online teaching and learning as a core part of how schools deliver education throughout the year is to help schools ensure they are able to comply with the law. According to legislation, schools are legally required to provide inclusive education, making sure all children and students, regardless of their abilities, are able to participate and reach their full potential in school. Schools must make sure students with disabilities are given the same opportunities as their peers to participate, learn and succeed throughout their education. Moving online without adequate consideration and accommodation for students with disabilities could see schools in breach of their obligations.

5. Does your learning community have everything they need?

Embedding online teaching and learning as a core part of how schools deliver education throughout the year would enable schools to identify school infrastructure needs, teacher professional development and personal infrastructure needs, student and family training, and home infrastructure gaps. All this would ensure equity gaps are continually assessed and appropriate accommodations are made to assist on an ongoing basis. Guaranteeing that any changes in your environment instigate a new risk assessment and an updated plan, and testing the new plan through your ongoing, embedded online teaching and learning practice is a perfect way to ensure you are getting things right.

Lastly, ignore all the noise

Keeping all your staff and students fully trained and embedding online teaching and learning as a core part of how your school delivers education throughout the year is the best way to ensure a quality online education that is effective at fulfilling its purpose. Our best advice to school leaders is to focus on people and processes first then pick the technology that best fits your situation. This will increase your chances of realising benefits for your school community and ensure great user experiences.

In the meantime, ignore all the noise and the opportunistic selling from technology companies who simply see the COVID-19 school crisis as their moment of advantage.

Read more and references

This article appeared in Medium and has been published here with permission. 

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