Editor’s note: With this commentary, redefinED welcomes Julie Young as our newest guest blogger. Founding CEO and former president of Florida Virtual School, Young serves as vice president of education outreach and student services at Arizona State University and is managing director of Arizona State University’s Prep Academy and ASU Prep Digital.
As the world continues to work through the pandemic, teachers and students are back in school wading through the new realities of whatever “school” means these days. Among other things, the pandemic has certainly challenged any notions of a “typical” school model. Indeed, if there is any commonality among schools right now, it is that “typical” may no longer exist.
Where will things go from here?
As we wondered aloud about this, we landed on a few predictions, based on our view of the industry in this moment, and our look back at how trends in tech adoption have played out over the years. Here are a few thoughts:
The switch to tech-supported learning is permanent.
While our natural tendency to look at the past with nostalgia is strong, especially during such turbulent times, educators seem to agree that after this mass exodus to remote learning, things will never go back to exactly what they were. This is both good and bad.
On the negative side, no digital learning professional would have wished 2020 on any teacher. Instantly rolling into remote learning was truly a worst-case scenario. What ensued was more about patching holes and saving the ship than proactively building the ship in the harbor and preparing for launch. Teachers have heroically moved forward, but few will disagree with the idea that today’s version of remote learning is not a permanent landing spot.
Because of the rough transition, it’s not surprising that we have lost teachers in the process, especially those on the cusp of retirement or early in their careers. After weighing the frustrations versus the option to leave, some are opting for the exit, especially in light of the reality that once school is “normalized,” digital learning is highly likely to play a bigger role.
On the upside, some teachers who are willing to take on the task of learning both the tools and the strategies for working effectively within online environments have found the online or blended environment to be invigorating. One seasoned teacher told us recently that teaching online for the first time opened up a whole new world of learning to him, helping him to address his own stagnancy.
At our site-based locations, where classes are still largely remote, students and teachers alike are becoming accustomed to some of the new Web 2.0 tools they have adopted. As teachers use various online tools, they often find new ways to incorporate them into their instructional planning. Since many of the tools teachers are using are free or low cost, we expect the uptick in use of digitally supported learning tools is here to stay, even in brick and mortar schools.
Many students will stay online.
Right now, full-time online learning programs are seeing huge enrollments spikes. In fact, as the 2020 school year approached, here in the network of ASU Preparatory Schools, where ASU Prep Digital lives, we saw many parents hedging their bets – enrolling students in both site-based and the fully online school.
We expect that there will be some “leveling out” when parents have more options for a traditional face-to-face environment and want to go back to what is familiar. At the same time, we know there will be parents and students who may have formerly been averse to an online learning environment but are now seeing benefits that they don’t want to lose, particularly the greater sense of student agency.
Innovation and model experimentation will increase.
Now that teachers and administrators in traditional schools have had to build new models in the worst possible conditions, they will soon be able to take stock of their new knowledge and apply it in a much more proactive and strategic manner.
We expect to see more innovation arising from the pandemic once educators can catch their breath. Over the years, we have always found that when teachers have space to try something new, they become the best source of information on how to improve the innovation on behalf of students.
Alternative school ideas – ‘unschool,’ micro-schools, learning pods, homeschooling, ‘outschool’ – will continue to increase.
Years ago, homeschooling was considered a radical notion, a fringe idea for hippies or religious groups. Today, homeschool is mainstream, and similar ideas are taking form.
“Micro-schools,” which harken back to the one-room schoolhouse notion, were already seeing growth before the pandemic. Micro-schools could be seen as an alternative for those who like the creativity homeschools affords, but they either don’t want to teach their own kids or don’t have the option to do so.
Homeschooling and even “unschooling” models, where curriculum is determined by the student’s interests versus a pre-set curriculum, now have access to online material to enhance and support student learning.
The flexibility inherent in alternative programs like these may be something parents increasingly want to see. While having the kids at home is an untenable situation for some families, others have found themselves surprised by the joy of simply being able to watch their kids in the moment of discovery.
Which leads us to the last point.
Notions about how and when students progress will continue to change.
For some time now, we’ve seen signs that old ideas about how a student progresses through material and grade levels are changing.
At the college level, the trend toward incremental learning with shorter-term certifications and stackable credentials has taken hold. This “incremental learning” trend has moved into the high school and even lower grade levels, with students now able to receive badges and other forms of recognition for learning mastery.
We have always known that students don’t all progress at the same rate, and progression across disciplines and skill areas also varies from one student to the next. For years, though, the idea of building a K-20 learning environment where competency and mastery determine advancement versus age or grade levels was hard to imagine.
Today, digital content and data tools are making it easier to envision a time when students will work toward achieving more and more mastery along a competency pathway, versus a course or grade level. At ASU Prep Digital, we already offer glimpses of this model by pulling down college on/off pathways into the high school program.
Students can opt for in-course college paths to get college credit while still in high school. Our full-time students can potentially earn up to 48 college credits at no cost throughout their high school career at no cost to the families. ASU Prep Digital continually works with innovation centers throughout the university to identify university materials and assets that can be repurposed for learning and for college and career readiness for high school students.
The wholesale dive into remote learning was a worst-case scenario. With every crisis, though, innovations arise, and we expect the pandemic to yield a new cadre of newly equipped educators who are ready to implement new possibilities they wouldn’t have explored otherwise.