This is the seventh and last in a series of posts on online learning in the (k-12) school sector.
The fourth is: Online learning and (k-12) schools: 4. The role of parents
What went wrong?
There has clearly been a lot of unhappiness caused by the move to online learning in the k-12 sector, much more dissatisfaction, it appears, at least from the media, than in the post-secondary sector. This is despite the fact that, as we saw in the first post, there had been more than 20 years prior experience in using online learning in school systems (at least here in Canada). There are several reasons for this dissatisfaction.
First, there is no good solution available in a pandemic. You cannot operate as normal, and health and safety have to take precedence over educational (and, as we are learning the hard way) economic requirements. If a school has to close for health and safety reasons, whatever alternative is offered will fall short. This in itself is a measure of the value of a publicly funded school system open to all.
Second, parents were often put in a very difficult position, having to work from home, or worse, look for a job, while also being responsible at the same time for the care of their children. Many had to make the agonising decision about whether to take the risk of sending their children to school in areas where the infection was high, or going to work, especially if they were working in an essential service, and having to make arrangements for the supervision of their children at home.
Teachers too were also in a very stressful situation, with concerns for their own safety, and having to switch in many cases to a way of teaching for which they had not been adequately prepared.
Bur even allowing for all these mainly unavoidable reasons, many mistakes were made. Much more could have been done – and still needs to be done – to make online education work better for students and parents in the school system.
One major problem is the different levels of authority, from parents to individual teachers to school principals to school board administrators to Ministries of Education. Often along this chain of decision-making, expertise in online learning was either absent or ignored.
So here I am going to make some suggestions. I know that across the system, many of these suggestions were implemented very early on in the pandemic and others have been implemented more recently, but for many other jurisdictions, I hope they will come round to implementing these suggestions sooner rather than later.
Every school board needs a COOL person
In every school board or at the least in every government agency responsible for school education, you need a Chief Officer, Online Learning, or COOL for short. (The title of course can be different). This is someone with experience and expertise in online who should be at the (virtual) table whenever decisions are being made about online or remote or emergency learning. (It need not be their only responsibility but experience and expertise in online learning is essential.)
For instance, the Iowa City Community School District in August appointed a new Director of Online Learning with responsibility for managing online programs on an ongoing basis. The City found that as a result of Covid-19, there was ongoing demand for online learning as an option for many families, with 500 students expected to take online courses in the first year after Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
We would not expect decisions about health and safety to be made by someone without knowledge and expertise in health issues; why would we expect it to be different for online learning?
Online learning is not going away after Covid-19
The Iowa City news illustrates that that there will be a significant number of students and parents for whom online learning is or will be a preferred option. Online learning may not be for all the courses or programs, or for all the students, but there will continue to be at least some online learning post Covid-19. School boards – or in smaller states or provinces, the government – then need to have a way of designing and delivering quality online courses on an ongoing basis.
Design a specific curriculum/program for online learning
We saw in the third post in this series that changes need to be made in not only the mode of delivery but also the way teaching is designed and structured for online learning.
We have also seen that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to online learning is not appropriate. It needs to be adapted to the different abilities of children to work online at different ages. In the higher grades, more can be delivered online, but as the children get younger, online learning needs to be much more specifically targeted, which suggests a blended learning approach. This in turn needs courses designed so as to exploit the strengths and avoid the limitations of both in-person and online teaching.
In essence, each school board needs a plan for online learning. Which age grades and what kinds of subject areas will benefit most? Where should the focus be in developing online courses? What changes then need to be made in how the curriculum is designed and taught online? In particular, what activities can/should students do in-class and what at home (including non-screen activities)? How can students and parents who have difficulty accessing online learning be best supported? How much option should students or parents have in deciding whether to study at least part of their program online?
A COOL person will need to co-ordinate this, but it should also be based on a great deal of consultation with teachers, parents and school administrators. The development of an online strategy is not going to be a ‘once-off’ activity, but will need ongoing work and consultation.
What is clear is that online learning will continue to play an increasingly important role in school education, not just for emergencies, nor even for more flexible access, but because online learning can help develop the knowledge and skills that students will need in a digital age.
Train a nucleus of teachers with online expertise
Ideally, every initial training program for teachers, such as a Bachelor of Education, should contain at least one course on how and when to teach online. However in the short term, every school board should have a significant minority of in-service teachers with specific training in online teaching.
Online learning is not rocket science but it does involve a re-orientation and some specific guidelines for teachers. A school board should aim to have at least 30 per cent of its teachers with a minimum of ten hours training each in online learning, covering both elementary and secondary schools. Online courses or online components of a blended course should not be taught by teachers without this training.
Again, these goals, training plans, and requirements for training to teach online will need to be negotiated between school boards or government and teachers’ unions, but no teacher should be put in the position of having to teach online without prior training – and no child should have to learn online without a teacher qualified in online learning.
Provide standard, tested tools for online teaching
I was shocked (indeed, horrified) to learn that in many school boards, teachers were given no standard, system-wide technology for online teaching. We would not expect teachers to teach a class without desks, a blackboard or books; why would we expect them to teach online without the same essential technology support?
Every school board should have a license for a standard learning management system at least, and preferably a standard video conferencing system as well. Teachers should be trained to use that system if they are to teach online. It would be economically wise to negotiate this at state- or province-wide level with the companies providing such technologies.
This does not mean that teachers should not use other tools as well for online teaching, but for the students’ sake, the basic online teaching tools should be standard across the system, so that when they move between teachers they don’t have to adapt to a different technology.
Also, school boards need to look at their internal technology infrastructure, to ensure they will have enough equipment, bandwidth, and support for parents and children without technology access.
Parents need information and explanations about why online learning is being offered, and what the expectations are of parents if their children are expected to study at least partly online. A parental guide is essential, and of course parents should be consulted and involved in the development of any school board or system-wide strategy or plan for online learning.
Work to reduce the digital divide
There will still be between 10%-30% of families even in the most economically advanced countries that will have problems accessing the Internet for a variety of reasons. Every government at a national level needs to put in place strategies to reduce not just the digital divide but the other inequities that underpin this divide, but educational agencies need to give this issue special attention.
Just providing equipment or free Internet access is not enough; some parents in particular will need tech support and training just to get their kids up and working from home. Children in families without easy and low cost Internet access will increasingly be at a disadvantage in terms of their educational development.
The new normal
Schools, students, and parents will benefit from a wider use of online learning in the future, not to replace classroom teaching (except in emergencies), but to enable students to develop the knowledge and skills they will need in a digital age, and to provide some flexibility for both parents and students.
Every school board and/or ministry needs a plan for online, blended or digital learning, with a focus on the different requirements at different ages and in different subject areas. Above all, more teachers need to be trained not so much in online learning, but in how to use technology appropriately in their teaching, and how best to combine digital and classroom learning.
Over to you
This is the last in the series. Please use the comment box below for your observations, not just on this post but any other in the series as well.