How distance learning could change the education system for the better
When Sonoma County schools shut their doors March 16, it threw the region’s educators and school-age population into turmoil. Teachers, many of them with a modest grasp of technology, were forced to move instruction online. Guardians had to make accommodations for kids who could no longer leave the house for classes, and students had to adapt to a new way of processing information while isolated from their peers.
It has been the greatest disruption of the education system any of us have faced in our lifetimes.
As schools and families have found their footing, a question has emerged. It’s the same question that often forms in times of distress and upheaval: Can something good come of this?
A lot of those affected believe it’s possible. They are convinced this tear in the educational fabric can lead to a deeper appreciation of the system and the people who make it hum, to a clearer understanding of technology’s possibilities and limitations, to better preparedness for future calamities.
“We are in a time of uncertainty. And we all crave clarity,” Santa Rosa High School Principal Kimberly Clissold said. “As adults, we can’t always expect to have all the answers. But what I hope for myself, and what I hope for my teachers and all my staff members and my parents and my students, is that we remain open to listen and learn from one another. And at its heart, that is education.”
If nothing else, the closed campuses are giving districts and individual schools a reason to pause and reevaluate their mission. The move to distance learning has exposed flaws and inefficiencies. For Margie BradyLong, a math teacher at Maria Carrillo High School, that includes an overreliance on testing and other methods of assessment — measures that have been relaxed to some extent.
“We’ve lived underneath a bunch of constraints,” BradyLong said. “Right now, those have been lifted. We’re being asked to rethink what we’re teaching and why we’re teaching it. Those are really great questions.”
She acknowledges that schools currently don’t have the means to offer well-developed alternatives. But she believes this “timeout” can renew the discussion.
“I’m a huge optimist,” BradyLong said. “This is a pivot point. Things have changed.”
BradyLong is among the hundreds of local teachers who suddenly find themselves dependent on technology to carry out their curricula. Some of them have smoothly transitioned to the online classroom. Others have struggled to be effective.
BradyLong said her subject is especially hard to teach over the internet. Mathematical formulas don’t type out well. Yet she has found platforms that work for her, now and perhaps beyond. One of them allows her to project a slide and tell her students, “Graph this line.” She sends a copy to each kid, who takes a stab at graphing it. BradyLong can give them instant feedback.
“That’s been way more effective than whiteboards,” she said. “It makes me want to do that in the classroom. But if I don’t have a set of Chromebooks, I’m not gonna do it anymore.”
Teachers also are being reminded of the importance of their work colleagues. As part of a recent roundtable for Inside Higher Ed, UC Santa Cruz literature professor Jody Greene wrote that the “single genuinely revolutionary effect of the Great Remote Learning Hack of 2020” will be educators seeing their efforts as a collective activity.