As someone who has focused their careers on helping educators use online and blended learning to transform their classrooms, this pandemic has certainly provided the opportunity to do the work I love most. But let’s be honest. Just because most of us had no choice but to move learning to an online or mixed format doesn’t mean that this is the perfect environment for it.
Teachers move around online without feeling the confidence, willingness and support to teach effectively in this completely different way. Students cannot move freely around their classrooms or work in close contact with their peers due to social distancing. Many classrooms exist in a simultaneous model in which students who are at home follow a live stream of classroom activities at the school. And we all do this under a cloud of fear, exhaustion, and even anxiety that comes with living and working in a pandemic.
This is not how online and blended learning should look like. However, it could provide precisely the circumstances that will help us make real and lasting change in the future.
In a pre-COVID-19 world, it was not an easy task for any educator to completely change the look of teaching in their classroom. It’s not because we don’t want to do what’s right for children or because we refuse to change. It’s not because we don’t want to get involved in creative work. And that’s certainly not because we believe that education can’t get better than it is now. Change is scary. It is especially frightening when we consider that our mistakes can equal those of the students. This is a lot of pressure on teachers not to mess this up. If you see only moderate success in your classroom, it can be difficult to try something completely new that you don’t know will work.
Ben Orlin, author of Maths With Bad Drawings, once wrote, “Creativity is what happens when a ghost encounters an obstacle. It is the human process to find a way through, over, around or under. No obstacle, no creativity. ”
Teaching during a global pandemic has certainly created several barriers for educators. But within those limits, we had no choice but to innovate. This is the bright spot, the silver lining. There is hope of what education can and will look like when we are again at full capacity.
The creative solutions and new learning that take place continue to be a gift to all of us. We learn new skills, find creative ways to reach all students, and use online learning to meet the individual needs of our scientists. These skills change forever what is possible for us in the future.
When we know how to create learning opportunities for students anytime, anywhere, we essentially have the skills to clone ourselves in our future classrooms. We can personalize the lessons in small groups and at the same time continue learning while working independently. We can give students the flexibility to study at their own pace when lessons are no longer tied to a strict teacher schedule. We can create learning that works for all students, not just some.
That semester, I had a great conversation with a French teacher at a high school in my district. Brayton Mendenhall started the school year in a hybrid model, with half of his class being in-person while the other half working asynchronously from home. Knowing that he would only spend a limited amount of time with students, he felt it was important to think about which aspects of the curriculum and his day were most important in order to teach in person with students. He decided that the parts of his curriculum that dealt with speaking and listening skills were a priority for live teaching. Other elements of his curriculum should be taught using flexible online learning modules.
For a semester in this new format, Brayton was thrilling to tell me that he would never teach grammar live in his classroom again. Using online learning for this concept gives him more time to focus and listen to French directly with the students. Despite the limitations of this school year, its students are learning the language better than ever. The conditions imposed this year allowed creativity to flourish in a way that will forever change the look of learning in his classroom.
While this situation is not ideal for anyone in school right now – even those of us who specialize in online and blended learning for a living – there is much to hope for what this means for teaching and learning in the future.