Mapping the K12 Distance Learning Journey – Phase 3

May 27, 2020

Last week, the principal of our elementary school announced to our ten‐inch by seven‐inch digital classroom that “school is officially closed” for the summer. Normally, that big moment is preceded by field days, farewell performances, and end‐of‐year teacher conferences. This year, it just landed as a joyful edict. Put your distance learning devices down. We survived our two‐month experiment. It’s over.

Is it? In the same written communication that celebrated the end of the school year, our headmaster communicated that work was officially underway for planning for alternative deliveries in the event that Coronavirus interrupted our school year once again. He assured families that the goal is to open in August. However, plans would be in place to adapt in case we saw another surge.

Two months ago, I called on teachers and administrators not to waste this opportunity to reimagine the classroom of the 21st century in light of the realities of COVID‐19. Some districts, like our public school system in Knoxville, went down the path of using the crisis to approve funding for a more robust one‐to‐one technology solution by spending $7m on laptops. Now, the focus has to be on securing adequate wireless coverage so that the computers can be used. Here’s my advice, though, after spending twenty years rethinking how adults learn in a distance environment. Don’t solely settle for a technology solution. Instead, recognize that only the human difference can serve as the catalyst to ensure your physical classroom and technologically enhanced platforms can succeed whether in crisis or in calm.

Here are the crucial ways that the initiative and energy of faculty made the difference rather than simply relying on technology:

Consistency: One of the defining features of our children’s distance learning this spring was the expectation that there were defined times and methods for each of them to interact with their teachers. The predictability and regularity of the interactions created a desire to get assignments done and to ensure that learning still occurred. If assignments or projects had been simply archived or posted onto a platform, my sense is that our children would have been more apt to bypass the work or to disengage. In the same way that no one likes to disappoint a teacher in the classroom, students feel compelled to act if teachers create consistency in interaction.

Community: Don’t tell my children this, but I would have been satisfied with our distance learning experience for the simple fact that our teachers “forced” community during this isolated time. I walked into plenty of virtual show and tell sessions or impromptu sing alongs, but I also overheard students really pouring their hearts out to teachers and peers about the difficulty of this time. It will be years before we understand the true emotional toll COVID‐19 has taken on this generation of students. However, many teachers were able to make the seamless transition from instructor to empathetic counselor without a secondary degree. This will only be enhanced with upskilling and preparation for alternative delivery.

Creativity: When I first thought about the opportunity to redefine the classroom because of COVID‐19, I knew our teachers would rise to the occasion if schools just got out of the way. Our children’s teachers used TikToks, shark tank pitches, virtual field trips, online theater performances, Cecil B. DeMille‐like video projects, Cahoots, interactive quizzes, author interviews, mindfulness sessions, and everything in between to engage students around the content. Now, it’s time to give teachers the same freedom to be as creative with the cadence and method of delivery. Don’t settle for the argument that teachers can’t figure out how to reach their students simply because they don’t have computers. Use telephones. Use the US mail. Use those old fashioned textbooks. Just allow teachers to come up with ideas for reaching their students. I have never been more sure of their ability to deliver no matter the circumstance.

Let me say something I’ve said often during this year. Our distance learning journey wasn’t perfect. There’s a lot more we can do. However, don’t settle for a simple technology solution when we should be investing in teachers’ tenacity to answer the question of how we reach every child during a crisis.

In our community, school is officially closed for the summer. However, come August, the school that reopens will be fundamentally different. It’s not the Coronavirus that has transformed how my kids learned. It’s the consistency and creativity of teachers that are redefining how we live as a learning community.

John Tolsma is President of Knowledge Launch, a learning media agency focused on corporate education.