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The Next Normal

Principled provocations in education

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Cracks in the normal

By Carole Basile - Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Times of extreme stress reveal cracks in the normal that have been there all along. As our college has responded to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus, we have lived in and peered through the cracks in the normal. What have we seen? The brittleness of some of our assumptions and current practices in education? Paths to possible and promising learning futures?

We’ve seen the good, the bad and the possible.

Let’s start with the bad. Having been forced by the coronavirus to close schools, educators across the country and around the world have become familiar, in a very short time, with the current limitations of remote learning.

Chief among those limitations are issues of access and equity. Children and families without the requisite technology or Internet access are getting the short end of the stick. Learners in communities with underfunded schools are not receiving the same quality of remote instruction as learners in better funded schools, which have developed — and invested in — more online capabilities.

Even in schools that have managed to deliver relatively effective remote instruction, we’re seeing some of the perennial challenges we face in education become more acute. It’s hard enough to deliver individualized, personalized instruction in a one-teacher, one-classroom model. It’s harder still to do it if you’re one teacher trying to build and sustain rich learning relationships with a group of students via Zoom or Google Docs.

But technology is neither the core problem nor the core solution. The real problem is still the fact that we’re asking all teachers to do yet one more thing. Teaching remotely is a learned and learnable skill. So is lesson design for online delivery. So is digital pedagogy. Like teaching in person, teaching remotely can be done well … or not so well. It is a craft that can be taught, learned and improved.

Let’s move on to the good.

When the spring 2020 semester started, we had 646 teacher candidates working full-time in schools as residents. We had five days to figure how to: 1) keep our students safe; 2) provide them with meaningful clinical experiences that would allow them to graduate on time and earn our institutional recommendation for certification; and 3) create something that would be valuable to our school and district partners and to the pre-K–12 learners they serve.

In very short order, we built, tested and launched Sun Devil Learning Labs. It’s an online platform through which ASU teacher candidates deliver live streaming lessons, with supervision and coaching from ASU faculty, four days a week, to learners in pre-K through grade eight. ASU students develop their lessons and conduct them on the Zoom teleconferencing platform while end users view those lessons live on YouTube channels organized by grade level.

As of April 27, we’ve had over 13,000 lesson views on Sun Devil Learning Labs by learners and families. Our students have learned a lot about resilience, a lot about remote teaching and, yes, a lot about lesson planning. The faculty members who participated in this project learned a lot, as well.

Which brings us to the possible.

Nobody seriously argues that the forms of remote instruction that we and others have brought to pre-K–12 learners in the last two months are good enough for the long term. We all want to get back into schools and see one another again.

However, we think Sun Devil Learning Labs has helped us think about remote teaching — and about preparing educators to remotely teach — in ways that will be valuable once this pandemic passes. The hacks we’ve implemented under duress have broadened our perspective on what we could and should do with intentionality given more time to scope, design and implement remote learning approaches.

Here’s a potential use case: In Arizona, we have many rural communities that struggle to find enough qualified teachers to staff their schools. Finding science teachers is particularly difficult. In many rural communities, it is likely always to be difficult in the same way that finding doctors to live in rural areas is difficult. Just as telemedicine is a reasonable way to address some (not all) of the health challenges in rural communities, using technology to bring expertise into those schools via remote presence is a viable solution to some (not all) of the education challenges faced by rural communities. A biology expert appearing via Zoom or other platform could, with the help of educators on site, deliver either whole-group or small-group instruction with the ultimate aim being to provide deeper learning for students. This is not a new idea. But the work of scaling and implementing such ideas has been slow going.

One of the reasons it has been slow, I’m convinced, is that we have tackled the issue as a “learning technology” problem rather than a workforce problem. Today, the technology challenges are less daunting than the challenges presented by the fact that, too often and in too many learning environments, we ask each educator to be all things to all people at all times. The real challenge, as I have explored often in this blog, is how to design and deploy teams of adults with distributed expertise to best serve learners.

Some of those adults will be in the same physical space as learners. Others will be remote. Much of the future of teaching and learning will be tech-enabled, and we need to prepare professional educators to excel in that next learning environment.

Sun Devil Learning Labs has opened our thinking up to new ways of working with school partners to integrate tech-enabled learning into Next Education Workforce models, and to new ways of thinking about how we should prepare educators to succeed in that new environment.

We’ve always known there would be a significant tech-enabled dimension to the Next Education Workforce. Today, we are learning more about this under duress. But it will help us learn more by design in the future. The crack in the normal offers us all a glimpse into the possible.