April 19, 2021

The Paradox of Pandemic Education: We Changed Everything to Be Mostly the Same. Can Connected Learning Offer a New Way Forward?

Categories: Digital Learning, Edtech
Two teen girls working on computers at desk

The efforts of teachers and other educators to completely transform our educational system over the past year have been nothing short of heroic. Since the earliest days of school shutdowns, teachers have developed new curricula, invented new routines for technology-mediated learning, and distributed meals, computers, and hotspots. Even schools with very limited experience teaching with technology before the pandemic transitioned to full online and hybrid models very rapidly.

This transformation took place with staggering speed and scale, but at the same time, it is enveloped in a paradox. In many respects, educators invented a new system of remote schooling that borrowed nearly all of its structural and instructional elements from traditional in-person instruction. Teachers lectured from their home office webcams instead of from a lectern, students submitted digital worksheets into learning management systems rather than turning in their paper equivalent, and schools largely maintained the same structure of 52 minute class periods. To be sure, there were innovations in every place—more study breaks, different assignment types, more family connections, more one-on-one meetings—and there were places with greater innovations—schools that switched from eight year-long classes to four classes per semester, or middle schools that dramatically increased the role of homeroom teachers so that students had a more central point of contact. But, generally speaking, schools used video conferencing and learning management systems to recreate schools as they existed before the pandemic.

For educators interested in forging a new direction for the future of schools, this paradox offers mixed guidance: we know that schools are capable of very rapid, very substantial change, and we also see how powerful the forces of conservatism are in our schools. This conservatism shouldn’t necessarily surprise us. In a recently-published book, Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education, I review the recent history of large-scale learning technologies like massive open online courses (MOOCs), adaptive tutors, and peer-guided learning networks like Scratch. In that history, I find that one of the oldest patterns in education technology still holds: when educators obtain access to new technologies, their first instinct is almost always to use those new technologies to extend existing practice; to do whatever they had been doing before more efficiently, or just digitally.

While U.S. schools may have chosen a conservative path, our students have changed quite a bit over the past year. With Neema Avashia, Chris Buttimer, and Jal Mehta, we’ve started a project called Imagining September, where we are helping teachers facilitate conversations with their students to reflect on this past year and imagine the next. When students reflect on this past year, they talk about several important kinds of changes in the way they have experienced school. First, their bodies are far less policed at home than at school. It turns out that if they wear a sweatshirt—even one with an attached head-covering or “hood”—they can still learn! It turns out that students prefer a learning environment where they can choose to urinate any time their bladders are full, or eat whenever their stomachs are hungry. As my colleague Jal Mehta says, we have shown that there is very little relationship between the depth of a seat cushion and the depth of learning.

This autonomy extends beyond young people’s bodies as well. More than ever before in the history of U.S. education, this year of schooling required students to develop more skills around independent, self-directed learning, and youth rose to the occasion. Of course, many students found the demands of remote learning incredibly difficult—everyone is having a different pandemic. But many students are rightly very proud of how they have organized themselves and maintained their studies largely independently.

Many national organizations have defined the challenge of the current moment as one of “learning loss.” In this formulation, the diagnosis is that students have failed to make as much progress against standards-aligned curricula as happens during a typical school year. The presumed treatment for this diagnosis is a combination of summer school, remedial courses, and tutoring. Young people, however, see this moment very differently.

Over the past month, we’ve invited teachers across the country to talk with their students about their experiences from the past year and their hopes for next year (you can invite your own students to participate in these conversations with this Imagining September guide). Teachers have sent us notes from their conversations, and a common theme that emerged is that many young people do not recognize this framing of learning loss. From the students’ perspective, they have done the work. There is loss to be sure: missed teams and clubs, friendships atrophying, a sense of isolation, and family members who have died.

When we ask young people about what they want fixed, they don’t talk about plugging in their education with the bits of curriculum that they missed from this past year. They talk about fixing the long standing inequities that have plagued their schools for decades. They talk about preserving the autonomy and comfort that they found in a year learning from home. They talk about finding ways to reforge the human connections that have withered from a year of isolation. (You can listen in on several of these conversations at the Have You Heard podcast). For schools that want to build back better from the pandemic, these ideas about the future offer a very different starting point for reform than the story of learning loss.

The connected learning community has so much to share with schools that want to pursue a vision of the future of schools that is organized around students’ humanity, the need for healing, and the urgency of rebuilding community. Young people are looking for experiences that are grounded in community and shared purpose and that build on the new skills in technology-mediated learning that they have developed over this year. Schools have made great strides in forging stronger links between school and home, and those links can continue to grow to support openly networked learning. We are at a moment where there is a unique alignment between what youth are demanding; what youth, families, and educators have been developing to make remote learning work; and what connected learning can offer.

We are also at a moment where people are tired. Educators, in particular, are exhausted. There are very few teachers who are going to be up for the task of completely reinventing schools again this fall, and the call of the familiar will be compelling as schools open back up. For those of us who imagine new possibilities of education, the next paradox we face is that there will be a hunger for the kinds of changes that young people are describing combined with a deep sense of fatigue. In these kinds of conditions, the challenge will be to maintain a sense of urgency while giving folks time to rest and recuperate.

One pathway to balance these competing demands is through reflection. Use the summer to reflect with colleagues and young people about the past year. Grieve what we have lost. Celebrate the tremendous resilience that young people have shown. Ask two important questions: What great new ideas from pandemic remote learning should be amplified moving forward? What are the kinds of things that we stopped doing during the pandemic that could be “hospiced” and permanently sunset from our educational systems?

We can ask these kinds of questions through the summer and fall, and as the world shifts to a new normal, make increasing efforts to tie reflection to action. As the lull of routine begins to settle in, we can remind ourselves and our colleagues that when we felt a sense of urgency, we made major changes to make schooling work for our students. After some well-deserved rest, we can make those kinds of changes again.

Justin Reich is the Mitsui Career Development Professor of Digital Media at MIT, the director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, and the author of Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education from Harvard University Press.