We live in unprecedented times, but these lifestyle changes are quickly becoming the new normal. When elite university shuttered their doors to college students, it should have been a signal to K-12 education that these protective health measures would be here to stay.
Yet many districts weren’t prepared for the unfortunate reality that schools would have to close and students stay home. So many teachers and students are confronted with the reality of virtual learning for the foreseeable future.
And even after COVID-19 passes and it’s but another chapter in our history books, its effects on society — and education in particular — will remain.
Because it’s no secret that technology has slowly been re-shaping our everyday lives and it’s also no secret that education has been one of the slowest to respond to these changes.
Even with many schools going one-to-one — that is, one device per student to use every day in the classroom and at home — it hasn’t dramatically changed how the education looks.
In fact, I would argue that while schools may have embraced the tools, they haven’t embraced a new way of learning.
When I was a teacher, for example, my school never had a technology strategy. They let teachers continue teaching however they wanted, despite spending tens of thousands of dollars on fancy new devices. So, many teachers never adapted their ways of teaching to accommodate a more tech-driven lifestyle.
And my observations aren’t unique. A recent Education Week survey found the same results, that “fewer than one-third of America’s teachers said ed-tech innovations have changed their beliefs about what school should look like.”
And teachers aren’t the only resistors — many school leaders actively impede the work of trailblazing teachers who know that to stay relevant, they have to re-design their curriculum. They do this with technology policies and firewall restrictions literally handcuff teachers from advancing their students’ education. That’s not to say these things shouldn’t exist, but in many unfortunate cases they weren’t designed with teachers or students in mind.
And even though many unforeseen events have occurred before now, most schools never planned out a virtual education strategy to prepare for such an event as this.
And I’m not placing the blame solely on schools for their lack of preparation in such a circumstance as this. I recognize that schools face many barriers to modernizing education that lay outside of their control.
For example, many schools still cannot afford devices for their students, and that’s a completely different concern for our educational system.
I also want to highlight that in many urban and rural districts, students are still without internet access (affecting the poorest of districts, of course), which obviously interferes with a virtual school model and puts these students at a huge educational disadvantage.
And, lastly, I recognize that, despite these challenges, there are many inspiring educational leaders who are still working to re-shape education. And for those people I am grateful and applaud their efforts.
But the fact remains that for a majority of districts and also for local and state governments, the current state of forced closures and a shift to virtual schooling should serve as a huge wake up call.
Schools will see that more can and should be done to ensure that technology isn’t just a “cool tool.” Rather, virtual learning as an option for how children learn will quickly become the new normal.
So, how exactly will education change in the future to reflect this reality?
1. Teacher education programs will require virtual learning instruction methods
In a recent Gallup Education poll, the #1 answer for why some teachers may not use digital tools? Training.
“More than half of teachers — 56 percent — cited lack of training as a ‘significant’ or ‘extremely significant’ problem.”
I know this from my teaching experience, because many school leaders were themselves unfamiliar with technology and therefore never led with an educational technology strategy that supported teachers development.
Instead, some teachers simply “lifted and shifted” their curriculum. Meaning if they teach from the book in class, now they use an online textbook. If they give notes in class, then now students can type them out on their computers. No big changes to their curriculum.
And many teachers have tried to adopt new technologies and embed them into their curriculum. However, with so many options and so little time it’s a never-ending battle to keep up.
So what ends up happening is a piecemeal approach of teachers using a variety of tools for a variety of needs and this works okay when you’re in person in a classroom, but it becomes messy and cumbersome to manage when everyone is remote.
In the future, teacher education programs must prepare teachers for the reality of teaching in person and teaching virtually. Both are important for different reasons and there are different strategies for making each work successfully.
Teachers need to learn teaching methodologies like managing remote work, organizing virtual lessons, and curating engaging and easy-to-follow virtual content. These will be vital skills for future teachers to earn certification.
2. Schools will build in virtual learning time
One aspect of education that desperately needs to catch up to the modern life is the school schedule. It’s amazing to see that although entire nations have shut down, the economy can still run because a vast majority of work can now be done online.
Already in 2017, nearly 43% of Americans said that they spent at least some time working remotely. This ties in with the shift toward a “gig economy”, fueled by independent contractors able to connect and offer goods and services in a much cheaper and easier way thanks to technology.
Yet schools aren’t shifting the way they teach to reflect this new economy. Students still go from room to room, signaled by bells, and never have unstructured or virtual learning time throughout the day to experience the type of schedule that many working adults have.
Students need to learn how to manage their own schedule — the kind where every day is different, where you have flexibility in prioritizing your work and managing your own personal deadlines.
This is why some schools have implemented virtual learning time within the regular school day, but examples of this are few and far between.
It’s time that schools offer varying degrees of virtual learning formats from kindergarten through graduation so that students become accustomed to this from the beginning.
3. State standards will include virtual learning skills
One area that many schools have overlooked in adopting new technologies is teaching those technologies to the students. I remember all too well hearing teachers complain that their “tech-savvy” students weren’t as tech-savvy as they assumed.
Sure, students know how to create memes, use filters to edit their pictures and type shorthand disappearing messages for days on end (Snapstreaks are everything) — but using technology for academic purposes has to be purposefully taught.
Yet state curriculum hasn’t incorporated technology skills as a major focus for education. There is no consistent thread of what students should be able to do with technology to demonstrate their learning as part of every content area.
It doesn’t come as a shock then to hear statistics like,
“In a study of 140,000 classrooms in K-12 schools across 39 states, more than half showed no evidence of students using technology to gather, evaluate, or use information for learning. And in nearly two-thirds of the classrooms, students didn’t appear to use technology to solve problems or work collaboratively.” (Edsurge article)
Contrast that picture with LinkedIn’s top 10 hard skills for workplaces in 2020 and you’ll find skills like blockchain, cloud computing, user experience design, and video production.
As technology skills become more and more important to securing a job, curriculum standards must follow suit. For students to be successful after school, education will need to put mastery of technology skills front and center alongside learning more traditional subject matter content.
4. Standardized tests will change or disappear completely
When done well, standardized tests have a place in education. But when these tests and what they’re assessing aren’t keeping pace with the world at large, then what’s the point?
It’s hard to believe that testing students in a multiple choice format to prove they can memorize or apply content knowledge on a specific subject at surface level will be applicable to jobs of the future.
In the age of technology, mastery no longer means what it used to. Any answer is now a google search away, and yet teachers are forced to spend so much time getting students to memorize formulas and tables of information so they can have high test scores.
Instead of testing the what, standardized tests must focus on testing the how.
We know that technology is re-shaping the way we live and work and these changes are only accelerating. So, instead of trying to force education to keep up, to make schools adopt new curriculum and to pay testing companies to revamp their tests (which are exactly the same), it’s time for education to assess the skills that demonstrate students can learn on their own.
Referring again to LinkedIn’s list of top soft skills for the workplace, employers are looking for candidates who are creative, adaptable, collaborative, persuasive and emotionally-intelligent.
To prove that students are ready for the challenges of the working world, standardized tests should provide students the opportunity to demonstrate their growth in these skills.
Or, it’s entirely possible that these tests won’t be needed anymore at all. After all, several states have already cancelled state testing for the year. Now is an opportune time to conduct an experiment and study the effect that eliminating these tests has on student performance.
Will students be worse off next year without the ACT or their high school’s exit exam? I doubt it.
5. The stigma with online or virtual schooling will fade
Currently, virtual school is an option reserved for special circumstances — students in unique situations or with unique learning needs.
While virtual schooling has gained in popularity at the university level and K-12 levels, it hasn’t become a mainstream educational option.
And let me be clear: I’m not advocating that virtual school replace an in-person education. Learning is a social experience and therefore schools will always play a role in teaching students.
What I am saying is that in the future, more educational options will exist for students.
Virtual school now seems like a last-resort when traditional schooling isn’t an option. In the future, virtual school will be a natural fit alongside traditional classroom instruction.
Students will be able to design their own learning paths, tailor instruction to their needs, and use virtual schooling as a supplement when their school can’t provide the right education.
In this way, everyone will experience virtual schooling and there will be no more stigma associated with being an online student.
Just imagine: every student will take advantage of the ability to collaborate with students in another country, to learn from experts from around the world and to take classes on subjects of their choosing.
With technology, education is truly limitless. But schools haven’t promoted it as such yet. In the future, students will truly drive their educational experience and have endless possibilities for learning.
So, whether we like it or not, the new normal is here. Schools are going to have to adapt to keep up with the demands that a health pandemic has forced upon society. But, I would argue, these changes are here to stay.
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