Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, Dec 08, 2020

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Introduction

There were times when no one would have expected this, but as we enter the 2040s the school remains the centre of education and development in the community. In retrospect, we should have expected no other outcome. During the pandemics of the 20s we not only learned that we could provide most learning online, we also learned that we didn’t want to. It took a long time to develop from those early lessons to the vision of learning we’ve realized today, but most of the major changes were implemented by 2030. It then took another ten years to fully realize the benefits because, as we all know, education takes time. There are no short cuts.

And is wasn’t as though there were no challenges along the way. The last twenty years have been among the most difficult we have faced as a province and as a country. We faced illness and death, and that was just the beginning. Though the economy began to recover, the resulting rise in interest rates dealt a crushing blow to our public accounts. And the demands on government didn’t disappear. As you all know, climate change is well and truly with us now, and we’ve had to spend trillions supporting failing agriculture and industry, on energy conversion, and on disaster recovery. It has never been more important for people to be resilient and self-sufficient, and yet there never seemed to be enough money to make this happen.

And yet – here we are. We faced our future with open eyes and weren’t afraid to ask the hard questions. We looked at our education system from top to bottom, in all sectors – from pre-school to higher education to the workplace. We eliminated the distinction between student and non-student. We stopped thinking of school as a place and started thinking of it as an activity. We set meaningful learning goals, adapted to support the many needs of our diverse community. Our educators transitioned from content presenters to learning support specialists. And we emphasized equity throughout, to ensure the system did not perpetuate economic disadvantage felt by those in the most affected communities.

Now we are reaping the benefits. When quantum technology rewrote the book on computer programming in 2031, we were able to adapt. This year, we are adopting genetic logic as a major new approach in disease prevention with a series of self-support resources and tools. People know what to do when something new comes along, and government and industry offer the needed supports to make it happen. We’ve all benefited from better jobs in advanced industries, and people have been able to break new ground and innovate at any stage in their careers. And we’re happier, because we’ve been able to develop our knowledge and skills in things that interest us. We work, grow and play in our own communities, and at the centre of these communities are the places where we come together to learn, innovate and celebrate.

The Lessons

As we all know, when things shut down beginning in 2020 we had to adapt to working and learning from home. It was a hard time; a lot of people lost their jobs and a lot of companies went under. We made the rapid transition to what we called ‘remote learning’ and later, when we knew what we were dealing with, we were able to return to the classroom. The Plan – as we all came to call it – emerged from the lessons of these early years.

What were those lessons? For a while it seemed like every interest group and industry had its own take on what we should take away from that pandemic, but eventually we recognized some core ideas:

  • Any change will be hard at first. It was hard to jump right into remote learning, and it was hard to jump back into the new classroom environment. So we can’t directly compare the new thing with the old thing. We have to give ourselves some time to get used to it and for people to get good at it. 
     
  • Learning is social. Of course, we knew that already, but being apart underlined the idea that some of the important outcomes of learning are social. We don’t just learn as individuals, we learn as a community, and learning is about how we exchange ideas, conduct trade, and develop community networks with each other. 
     
  • Teaching is not a solitary profession. We already know teachers need buildings and facilities and support staff and computer networks and the rest. But now that they are working with advanced technology in both digital and in-person environments, they need to be constantly developing their skills, and they need a team supporting them. It’s like when we watch Newsfeed on CB-Stream: we may see only the presenters in our hololens, but we know there’s a team of people supporting them. 
     
  • We need live events. Sure, not everything needs to be live – there’s a lot we can get from vids and sims and the rest. But live events draw us in and challenge us. When we don’t know what’s going to happen, we are engaged in planning and anticipation. And live events have us interacting, even if indirectly with the people in the scene. It’s what we used to call ‘presence’, back in the day. 
     
  • Open media plays a key role. It’s not simply about saving money. We can’t learn – we can’t even communicate – without open media. We need an alphabet, we need words, we need data – and these need to be available for any of us to use without worrying about who owns it or how much it costs. We use open media to write the first draft of our experiences, the first draft of the lessons learned and the practices we should follow. That’s why we needed Zoom, and that’s why open textbooks became so essential. 
     
  • Quality matters, but is not guaranteed. It doesn’t matter how much we paid, or where it came from. We have to make our own judgements about quality, because of our different needs and circumstances. There was a lot of misinformation in the 20s; some of it came from Russia, some of it came from advocacy groups, some of it was advertising, and some of it came from our own governments. The development of trust networks, zero-knowledge proofs and crypto-addressing helped a lot, but we still have to be critically-minded. 
     
  • Teaching is more than broadcasting. Again, this is something we already knew, but had to learn again when we went online in the 20s. We can still remember how bad those 8-hour days of video lectures were. The best learning used the computer where needed, but then got us away from the keyboard and doing something practical. And this was still true when we returned to the classroom. Suddenly we realized that we didn’t need to be stuck in a room in order to learn. 
     
  • Reading the room is harder. An experienced teacher can scan a classroom, observe how students are reacting, and change strategies on the fly to stimulate interest or attention. Online, it’s a lot more difficult to gauge reactions. So this needs to become a deliberate practice of asking directly for feedback and engaging in interactive exercises. And it turns out that reading the room is not enough. We need to make understanding our learners a major part of what we do. 
     
  • Assessment needs to be flexible. Moving online showed us just how dysfunctional traditional testing has become, and we realized we were depending more and more on surveillance, when we should have instead been offering counselling and feedback. Once students were able to create portfolios and show their work directly to employers, the push for stringent testing eased. 
     
  • We need structure, order and routines. Here were not talking about military discipline, but rather, a respite from uncertainty and precarious circumstances. When we were at home, we needed to learn how to balance our work with our play, rest and self-care. We needed to know when we would eat, where we would sleep, and to be able to plan our days and our futures. 
     
  • Inequities harm learning. In many ways, coming together to learn at school mitigated some of the worst impacts of poverty and disability, because we could all access books, teachers and time to study at school. A lot of us depended on school for internet access and a good meal. A lot of this support disappeared when we went online. People in need just vanished. We knew that this was a problem, but it took a long time to solve it. 
     
  • People have diverse needs. They come from different cultures, speak different languages, and have different abilities. Before the 2020s we designed for the mainstream and hoped that the rest could adapt. But a lot of difficult issues surfaced in those years, and we had to address built-in or systemic discrimination. We had to get past the idea that some people are ‘special needs’ and to adopt the attitude that everyone has special needs. 
     
  • We need to learn how to learn. This applies to both teachers and students. What we found was that many students who had been in school for ten years had no idea how to learn on their own. They didn’t know where to start, they didn’t know how to structure their work, and often, they weren’t motivated to try. If there was nobody there to teach them, then they simply wouldn’t try to learn. 
     
  • It’s not just school subjects. When we began looking at our learning needs on a society-wide basis, we realized that we couldn’t just focus on educational institutions like schools, colleges and universities. We needed to think beyond traditional ‘academic’ subjects. We needed to find ways to support in-home workers, people who were self-employed, and people trying to find a new career. 
     
  • Motivation matters. Educators have always known this, and have taken steps to keep students engaged in class. But when people are out of school and learning online, we don’t have the same tools. It’s harder to take attendance. We can’t force them to stare at the computer screen. People have to be interested and engaged in what they’re studying, which means they have to have a lot more say in what they’re doing and why it matters. 
     
  • Employ a range of strategies. We learned to develop ‘hybrid learning’, that is, learning that was at times based on digital tools and resources, and at other times interactive and in-person. We also learned not to have a teacher doing both of these at once, because the two methods are so different. But there was no need – by varying strategies, it’s possible to meet the different needs of people at different times and in different ways.

It was a lot to learn in such a short time. Some people argued that these were lessons that had been learned more gradually though the decades before 2020. No doubt a lot had been drawn from disciplines such as distance education and online learning. But we hadn’t really needed these until 2020; they were extras, a way of extending the educational system, and not core to it. This all changed when everybody went online, and then went back again.

A Short Reading List

·         OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19) Early lessons from the COVID-19 crisis

·         Tony Bates - 10 Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World from Covid-19 for Canadian universities and colleges

·         Learning Policy Institute - Restarting and Reinventing School

·         UNESCO - What have we learnt? Overview of findings from a survey of ministries of education on national responses to COVID-19

·         World Bank - How countries are using edtech (including online learning, radio, television, texting) to support access to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic

·         Brookings: Taking distance learning ‘offline’: Lessons learned from navigating the digital divide during COVID-19

·         Royal Society - Lessons learnt during COVID-19 lockdown

·         Lessons learned while creating an effective emergency remote learning environment for students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Peter J. Vollbrecht, Kirsten A. Porter-Stransky, and Wendy L. Lackey-Cornelison.

·         Damian Radcliffe. Lessons learned: 9 takeaways from teaching online during COVID-19: Tips for remote instruction developed in the past 10 weeks

·         McKinsey, What Now? Decisive actions to emerge stronger in the next normal.

·         Todd Stanley - Students Struggling in Virtual Classrooms Show a Glaring Problem in Our Schools

 

 

Mentions

- Lessons From The Pandemic, Dec 08, 2020


Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada
stephen@downes.ca

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Last Updated: Mar 31, 2021 01:36 a.m.