A Few Weeks Into Education’s New Normal

Notes from self-quarantine on the pandemic-accelerated digital shift in learning.

UNPACKING EDTECH | by Mark Gura

We’re a few weeks in now. That is, a few weeks back, the adoption of Social Distancing as the most viable approach to forestalling an impending pandemic resulted in the vast majority of schools closing campuses and mandating all teachers and students carry on in the best, virtual, remote-learning equivalent they could muster.

Since then, my personal ear-to-the-ground portal into reality—a cobbling together of various email inboxes, professional learning networks social media groups, and aggregations of web-based news—has been in a state of dangerous absolute overflow.

What’s ahead … though, is far more than simply staying afloat in the digital equivalent of the same old education…”

Time, I think, for a little unpacking, reflecting, and meaning making. And hey—as I’m in self-imposed quarantine at home and going nowhere—there’s a built-in cabin fever therapy appeal behind this exercise.

Let me offer some observations, ah-ha fueled forehead slaps, and hope.

Despite Unprepared Schools, Heroic Teachers

Thinking about the biggest big-bullet item, the digital shift itself, has to begin in appreciating the mountain of skills that most teachers had to get themselves up to speed on quick-study style. Things like: how to set up virtual classes in digital platforms, create digital assignments, collect, give feedback for and grade them.

With the greatest portion of this reflexively directed at establishing a shadow facsimile of the now former, familiar face-to-face version of teaching, they tackled how to communicate, establish accountability, and out of increased necessity, preserve and deepen relationships with students.

Thus, the vast rank and file of teachers and those tech-savvy all of a sudden important colleagues pressed into supporting them, wrestled with accessing, navigating, and in general competently ‘using’ resources that have long been available but not considered for their potential.

Yes, the situation revealed how caught-with-its-pants-down vulnerable the institution of School found itself. And in acknowledging that, I was heartened that the Chancellor of the NYC Department of Education tweeted yesterday that “Less than 2 weeks ago, our heroic educators began transforming instruction for 1.1M kids, bringing the nation’s largest public school system online. They rose to this challenge with grace, and our whole city is grateful for how they’ve learned to teach and lead remotely.”

The Far Bigger Question

But once the requisite supportive skills of finding needed links and buttons to click on, making appropriate choices of resource preferences, and entering required data in order to get started have been gotten down, a far bigger question and its overwhelmingly positive and inspiring implications remain: where are you going to steer this new starship, a vehicle capable of taking you and your students to learning opportunities unimaginable when traditional, pre-tech era instruction was established?

In the well-known Beatles song ‘Baby You’re a Rich Man’ – one comes across the line, “Now that you’ve found another key… what are you going to play?” I think this expresses well my insistence that while the foundation establishing ground that’s been covered so far be celebrated, it must also be seen as occupying that context. Edtech advocates have been pushing for deep tech integration across the curriculum for years now because technology offers not just the ‘cheap cookie’ of teaching and learning differently, but because the opportunity it brings is for teaching and learning that is richer, deeper, stickier, and more meaningful.

An Entire New World

There’s an entire new world of instructional approach and practice that many have yet to explore because doing so requires embracing the power of instructional technology to redefine the flow of student inquiry, information gathering, and reflective meaning making and communicating what’s been discovered and created.

It’s a new territory marked with the topographic features of project and problem based-learning, media authoring and authentic publishing, student voice and choice supported by the read/write web – of simulations and virtual excursions – of real world STEM engineering and STEAM-driven Arts Learning—and so much more.

I hope that once those navigating this body of practice for the first time get their sea legs—that is to say, become comfortable enough in it to get back to what instructional leaders have long counseled—that they reflect on what they’re doing and why and how it can best support young people in growing and developing into what and who they must.

So, yes, I heartily echo Chancellor Carranza’s sentiment that the teachers have been heroic in learning quickly and under the gun to set out on a crucial journey.

What’s ahead of them, though, is far more than simply staying afloat in the digital equivalent of the same old education; there’s an entire alternate universe of masterful teaching to be explored. Out there, educators may find riches beyond those understood previously if they don’t simply travel, but explore staying open to discovery at the service of their students.

Mark Gura is Editor-at-Large for EdTech Digest and author of The Edtech Advocate’s Guide to Leading Change in Schools (ISTE), and co-author of State of EdTech: The Minds Behind What’s Now and What’s Next. He taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. He spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, assisting over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system. In addition to his role at EdTech Digest, he is currently a professor at Touro College

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