Reimagining not Resuming Learning

There are several themes coming out of recent virtual conferences and articles. This year Schools that Can pivoted and made its annual forum an online event in May 2020. At one session around “Radical Changes in Educational Systems” Paul LeBlanc, the President of the University of Southern New Hampshire (SNHU), outlined how his university is rethinking the higher education experience with related changes in the cost structure. One of the keys for LeBlanc is to untether the academic and social experience of attending a higher education institution. SNHU and other universities have discovered that students do not want to pay for an online experience without the rituals and benefits of living on campus. SNHU has taken an innovative approach. They have offered the incoming class for 2020 reduced tuition in exchange for providing guidance and feedback on redesigning the learning experience at SNHU.

According to the SNHU website:

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the great uncertainty facing higher education, SNHU is accelerating its work to redefine the traditional campus-based learning model and provide more affordable, flexible, and accessible options for students and families…. We are bringing tuition down to approximately $10,000 per year for all new SNHU campus-based students.

As a result, SNHU will offer for Fall 2020 incoming freshmen:

  • An Innovation Scholarship that covers 100% of the first-year tuition (effectively making the start at SNHU tuition-free)
  • The ability to apply federal financial aid and non-SNHU scholarships to room and board costs if students choose to live on campus (room and board costs still apply)
  • A new lower annual tuition of approximately $10,000 per year to finish a degree (a 66% reduction in the current SNHU tuition rate)

Students will take their courses online, but they are still able to live on campus and participate in all campus clubs, activities, athletics, leadership development opportunities, and other vital coming-of-age experiences.

Hybrid seems to be the key for K-12 institutions as well. Stanley Thompson, the Senior Program Director for Education at the Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh, explained on the Schools that Can panel how his organization was launching the Pittsburgh Readiness Institute (PRI). The new venture originally was scheduled to start this summer, but the Coronavirus has altered the trajectory, but not the vision. According to Stan in an article from NextPittsburgh, ““When you were in math class or chemistry class, you might have dealt with a series of problems that teachers had assigned to you, and you asked yourself, ‘What’s the relevance of this?’”

The Pittsburgh Readiness Institute is focused on applying skills and concepts to real-world problems that will be relevant for today’s learners. The concept is designed around a partnership between education, industry, and the community. According to Stan, “For example, students could apply their chemistry expertise to a community with lead in its water, or in the paint in old houses. They could test water quality, engage with researchers on the issue, learn about mitigation strategies and devise a plan for solutions.”

Students will participate in a Learn and Earn model. They will receive a stipend for attending the institute and for the related work that they do with an industry partner. “They’re going to be paid to think, and to come up with solutions for some very real problems,” says Thompson. “They’re going to be paid to collaborate. They’re going to be paid to know the importance of coming up with a prototype.”

In the process, Thompson wants to get students thinking about questions such as Who am I? Who do I want to become? How do I get there? How do I continue to grow? How do I give back to my community? The PRI experience will help students to develop the skills, attitudes and values students need for a productive life at school, on the job and in society.

In an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments summarized the goals: “The idea with the readiness institute in pulling all of those elements together — including the perspective of industry and exposure to real-world problems and academic learning as part of this — is that this program is designed to help students navigate this critical transition from high school to either a job or to a learning path that will prepare them for that job.”

The New Normal

For many educational leaders during this pandemic there is no time to think about the future. The imperative for now is the struggle to meet the immediate needs for remote learning as we struggle through the COVID-19 crisis. However, planning for the future is one of the most critical needs during this time. Coronavirus has undermined our entire educational system. We are not meeting the needs of many students. Learners across the country (and world) cannot access necessary resources. Many students are falling behind and they will fall further and further behind as the crisis continues. Public policy has to be adjusted to meet this new reality. Systems need to be reexamined. This is actually the time to think about how we deliver, schedule, and assess learning in a K-20 world. To help me better frame these problems, I enlisted the help of some colleagues. I used some guiding questions and insights from KnowledgeWorks, research and findings from the RAND Corporation, examples of best practices from the Montour School District, and some of my own research with a focus on the Lindsay Unified Schools in California.

Setting the Stage

The past few years have seen a resurgence around the Whole Child Approach. During the era of No Child Left Behind, K-12 educational systems focused on the academic performance of students. Many educators realized that other factors were necessary before they could think about academic proficiency . Today research from people like Laura Hamilton from the Rand Corporation, provide wonderful evidence of what is necessary for student success. As part of the New Normal we need to focus more on relationships. According to Laura Hamilton, “Research demonstrates the value of developing these skills for short- and long-term academic achievement and other outcomes such as college enrollment and health. Moreover, research strongly indicates the need for students to feel safe and supported in order to learn. High-quality relationships — between staff and students, among students and among staff — are crucial for this development.”

For the Montour School District it’s the relationships that start the process. According to Justin Aglio, the Direction of Innovation K-12 and Academic Achievement K-4, we need to focus on the “Who” during this time of the Coronavirus. Each morning students in K-4 begin their day with the Morning Announcements, an asynchronous version of what they had shown in their pre-pandemic classrooms. Justin and his team realized that they had to transform the Morning Announcements in order to engage their remote learners and make all students feel connected. Students need to know that their teachers and administrators care about them.  For instance, to start the remote learning project, students submitted photos of their favorite toys. The administrative team created a webpage to showcase the student responses. The morning announcements now are often more humorous or include national personalities, like Mark Cuban, who challenge the kids to come up with the most innovative ways to solve problems in their homes and life away from school. What’s critical is to get students to see that the New Normal still has elements of the past, especially the importance of the social and emotional elements that are the building blocks for learning. We need to make sure we start with the Who, the building block for developing a strong relationship between the learner and the educational community.

Yet, we also need to make some changes in how we think about learning. At districts like Montour or Lindsay Unified in California the transition to meeting the needs of individual learners didn’t start with the Coronavirus. Both districts enlisted their communities to define what should be their vision and their future with a focus on what they expected for each graduating student. Both districts also started down a path to Personalized Learning years ago. Students took ownership for their own learning. That’s the key for success. Once students see themselves as self-directed learners, they are ready to handle the uncertainty and challenges of times like we’re facing with the Coronavirus. At Montour every secondary student had a Personalized Learning Time (PLT) before the pandemic. Each student worked out their own schedule for how to use their daily PLT.

At Lindsay Unified all students were involved in a Performance Based System (PBS) that established a system of skills and dispositions that allowed students to continue on their path during the transition to the Coronavirus. Learners no longer advance through the system because of age or grade-level, rather, they are met at their developmental level and progress through required learning based on performance.

Thinking about the Future

For many school districts there was little planning and preparation for remote learning. However, for districts like Montour or Lindsay Unified in California, the move to remote learning was much easier since they had already put in place a Mission, Vision, Shared Values, and an instructional approach that incorporated Personalized Learning. They had looked at their future and made key institutional decisions that provided a framework for the transition to the New Normal. As part of a conversation with Jason Swanson from KnowledgeWorks, I discussed what should be the question for today. Here’s what we agreed upon: What Do You Want from the Future?

It’s no longer about Career and College Readiness. It’s really about making each day meaningful for every learner. Justin Aglio pointed out that we must prepare kids for each day’s challenge.

However, there are some major considerations about financing and the future of our educational institutions. Justin Aglio shared that his administrative team expects to see a 25% reduction in revenue for the coming year. Many businesses will not be able to contribute to the local economy. People may not be able to pay their real estate taxes. This will lead to a new set of questions about the priorities for expenditures. Will schools have the funds to purchase new equipment, new resources for the New Normal? Will schools be able to afford their current staffing?

In addition, schools have a new opportunity to think about how they deliver instruction, how they schedule learning activities, and how they evaluate student learning. Online learning will be part of our future. How do we make sure our educational staff is transforming the learning process using the best tools and resources? This will require many schools to think about online professional development. But if we don’t go back to the basic question looking at what we want for our Future, we will just automate existing processes and delivery systems. We won’t be ready for the New Normal where many of basic assumptions and archaic systems are in jeopardy.

What should be the best organizational structure for learning? It’s imperative that parents, students, educators and administrators sit down and examine the reality of the New Normal. This also includes how we think about demonstrating students’ understanding. For many districts ePortfolios were already part of the process. The New Normal will mandate not only digital means to share what students have learned, but new systems, like Blockchain, in order to share that information with post-secondary institutions and employers.

For schools to meet the challenges of the New Normal, here are four key questions to consider:

  • What Do You Want from the Future?
  • In what ways can we begin to change our learning institutions to better meet the needs of all learners?
  • In what ways do learners and the broader community think working will be different in the future? How might those changes impact learners’ aspirations?
  • In what ways can educational technology play a role in the post COVID-19 world?

Teaching Online in a Time of the Coronavirus

With all of the world moving to an online style of teaching and instruction, I’m worried how well our educators are designing their learning lessons. Recently I read an excellent article in the March 2020 ASCD Education Update, Six Teacher Moves for Deeper Learning.

For this article I’ve invited some of my educational colleagues to share how they’re redesigning learning to take advantage of the online platform that is their only choice right now for instruction. I think the key for any good instructional design is to have a framework that provides guidelines. I’ll take ideas from my colleagues and wrap them around the core principles that Monica R. Martinez and Dennis McGrath outline in their article focusing on Deeper Learning.

Empower students as learners.

According to Martinez and McGrath, “Given the social and economic world they will be entering, today’s students need much less passive rule following and rote memorization, and much more guidance and support in becoming self-directed learners. A common practice that all the schools focus on is helping students take responsibility for their own learning and the learning of others. They do this through both their culture and pedagogy.”

What does that look like in an online world where students are home due to the Coronavirus? Melissa Unger, a K-2 STEAM teacher for the South Fayette School District, near Pittsburgh, and Elementary Tech Integrator, Anne Blake, have developed a series of Design Challenges using ordinary materials. The projects can be done with parents, care-givers, or even by the kids by themselves. How many kids turn to YouTube to learn something new? Melissa has tapped into a tool that most young learners already use on their phones, tablets, or computers.

Contextualize knowledge.

Martinez and McGrath follow the tradition of Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. We need to start by asking what are the Driving or Essential Questions. We need to think about how the learning is part of an interconnected fabric. We need our students to not just focus on facts, but the key ideas, relationships, and skills.

For instance, David Dulberger, an educator in the Frederick, Maryland County School District, is reaching out to his colleagues to share ways to improve the way they conduct formative assessment to document the key ideas, relationships or skills that students are learning . David has seen the success of using time-lapse video with students. David started letting students make time-lapse videos during indoor recess with a dry erase board. This eventually led to a realization that problem solving on a dry erase board + time-lapse video could equate to a great formative assessment. Why would this work during the Coronavirus Pandemic? Today almost all students have access to a phone where they can shoot and edit their own videos. The teachers just need to give the students a good example, like David has done.

What exactly is a silent solve video?

According to David, “A silent solve video requires students to demonstrate their thinking without any recorded narration. Students are welcome to talk out loud while making a video but the sound will not be captured when using time lapse. Jen Knox has started to use silent solve videos with her students. See an example by clicking here: Skyy’s Video”

Connect to Real World Experiences

When our students are in social isolation, how do we make them see the real world connection? Jill Tabis, a high school business education teacher and former colleague of mine at the Fox Chapel Area School District, reached out to people around her to do just that. I heard the call and used the opportunity to develop a video around Building an Entrepreneurial Mindset using my experience as an educational technology broker for the past nine years. Jill’s class will have a chance to pose questions for me and then I’ll follow up with a Zoom session to talk about their questions.

Inspire students by customizing learning experiences.

With all students at home, what can a teacher do to make each learning experience personal to the individual student? This doesn’t mean using an adaptive piece of software. It means thinking about projects that tap into personal interests or passions.

For instance, Melissa Unger challenges her online students to come up with their own solutions to the paper airplane flying challenge. Each student can test out new ideas, go online and research other options. This is one of the advantages of working in an online world.

Use tech to purposefully enhance rather than automate learning.

I’ve been a strong supporter of using technology to make students into creative producers. In my work for the Consortium of Schools Networked (CoSN), I helped to develop a paper on this topic three years ago. In the article Sylvia Martinez shared her insights, “What’s different now is the affordable, accessible and fun technology that fosters rigorous learning, Martinez says. “Today’s computational technology adds something that’s never before been available, which is putting computational power into students’ hands—programming through making devices that collect data, process data and interact with the world,” she says. “Physical computing—the interaction between the digital and the physical world—raises the bar. You aren’t able to say, ‘Oh, just making anything is good enough.’”

Birdbrain Technologies is one of the physical computing tools that Sylvia Martinez recommends. (And as a disclaimer – it’s one of my clients.) With teachers no longer in schools to tap into the Hummingbird Kit or Finch, Birdbrain is offering fun projects, live classes, and online courses to inspire deep and joyful learning for students, parents, and educators.  (Most of the workshops require a Hummingbird Kit, but there are some sessions that just use scrap materials.)

Teacher as “Learning Strategist”

Martinez and McGrath finish their set of principles by stating, “For teaching to enable powerful learning experiences like the ones described above, the teacher has to fluidly shift among a range of roles, including learning designer, facilitator, networker, and advisor who coaches, counsels, mentors, and tutors depending on what is most needed to promote student learning.”

What does this look like for the educators I’ve included in this article? Each educator had to look their target audience and create appropriate learning materials for the age of the audience, whether the materials were for a student or teachers. Short hands-on YouTube Design Challenges are perfect for young children, but not necessarily for a high school class. A 12 minute mini-lecture is not the best tool for young children, but when it brings a real world connection to high school students, it works well. Silent Solve videos are great tools for educators to use to discover that their students are really learning at home.