As recent comments from local school board members suggest, many school officials are anxious to get all students back to the classroom full time.
The abrupt shutdown of school buildings and shift to distance learning for all a year ago was a monumental upheaval for all involved. Teachers consistently worked well into the night to hurriedly master new technologies and revamp their lessons for online delivery. The shift immediately exposed inequities in access to technology and high-speed internet connections for students. Parents scrambled for day care, took time off from work or quit entirely to guide their children’s studies, and those with multiple children in school had the challenge of scheduling computer access and dealing more frequently with multiple teachers. That’s just a short list of all the complications and disruptions caused by the wholesale shift to distance learning.
Which is why it’s not a surprise that most school officials in our region are anxious to put distance learning behind them and get back to teaching in-person. Yet, districts should not hastily distance themselves from the lessons to be learned from distance education. While no one would advocate for another wholesale switch, there’s a question all forward-thinking schools must consider: Is a 19th-century, agrarian-driven model of in-person education with summers off fully able to address the needs of a technologically-driven 21st-century workforce that is increasingly embracing the value of technology and working from a distance? Consider these statistics. The internet sector of the economy grew nine times faster than the economy as a whole from 2012 to 2018, and 14 times faster than the manufacturing sector.
What’s abundantly clear is that districts can’t slack off on getting appropriate technology into the hands of every student they serve. According to the law of accelerating returns, the pace of technological progress—especially information technology—speeds up exponentially over time. And that progress is going to change the way we all learn in the future. Indeed, once the current generation of students is out of the classroom and into the workplace, most of their training will take place remotely, even after the pandemic is fully in the rearview mirror. Distance learning isn’t going away. It’s only going to become a more important part of our lives in the future, and our schools should be preparing students to navigate that teaching model effectively.
When classes began last fall with a mix of in-person and distance learners, it wasn’t long before ISD 2142 teachers sent the message loud and clear that the arrangement wasn’t working. Administrators listened to their feedback, took a step back, and came up with a solid solution. Distance learners in a given grade level from multiple schools were placed in a separate class taught by one teacher at a specific school.
It’s actually a model that’s been in use around the country for many years at the secondary level. Multiple schools have banded together to offer new and varied courses through distance education that they could not offer on their own through in-person learning, and numerous schools in the North Country have stepped into that mix as well. Rather than simply abandoning remote teaching, schools in the region should continue working to perfect it, and explore new ways to utilize it to expand their students’ horizons.
The experience of distance learning argues for a critical examination of school curricula in a statewide system with a primary goal of delivering a workforce for the 21st-century economy. Should districts shift away, for example, from classes focused on office software packages and offer more courses through distance learning such as Smartphones 1, coding, and app development? In a world of multinational corporations and global connectivity, are there foreign language classes that can be offered within a multi-campus district or between districts via distance learning that will better position students for good jobs when they enter the workforce?
Even a basic review of the distance learning experience can yield valuable information about instructional design and delivery that will benefit in-person and distance learners alike.
We’re all ready to get back to some semblance of “normal,” but schools would do well to consider how distance learning can inform and play a role in a “new normal” for education that pools resources and offers students the best possible opportunities to prepare themselves for a 21st-century workplace that will undoubtedly look far different from today’s.