I have been doing a little opinionizing this week, and in an effort to underpin that with actual facts, I've done a bit of research and also a good deal of introspect examination based on my own experiences teaching for 25 years. In my 25th, I hope to keep racking up those years. My prospects of doing so, however, are looking less hopeful by the day this week. 

The new administration, which I supported with my vote and with my modest social media presence, is not helping. I think that is likely a result of its own pining to return to education "the way we've always done it" (the most harmful words in our cultural phrasebook, in my humble opinion). 

I wrote something: 

The Case for Real Virtual Learning

By Scott Merrick

January 23, 2021

The context in which I write is Covid-19 and its growing army of mutations, and the hold the pandemic has on how we learn and teach. Legions of politicians and pundits cry out for the re-opening of school buildings. The topic has become ridiculously political. Welcome to America in 2021, where an issue of life and death can be divisive.

It is time we stopped talking about "the way things were" and look these times square in the eyes. We must tell these times, and forcefully, that it they are not going to let our children down. We are not going to let our children down.

Before moving on, please take a look at the heat map image published by Nashville's WKRN on January 22, 2021 from https://www.wkrn.com/community/health/coronavirus/heatmaps-show-higher-concentration-of-covid-19-cases-in-downtown-nashville/

So. The stats go up and up and down and up and up and down and and down and up and down, but the facts are clear. Covid is here. The experts, from the President to the local health department, tell us that the pandemic is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Here is one optimistic (everything in place and functioning optimally) prediction:

“Let’s say we get 75 percent, 80 percent of the population vaccinated,” Fauci said. “If we do that, if we do it efficiently enough over the second quarter of 2021, by the time we get to the end of the summer, i.e., the third quarter, we may actually have enough herd immunity protecting our society that as we get to the end of 2021, we can approach very much some degree of normality that is close to where we were before.” [1]

The interpretation of Dr. Fauci’s statement is a bit elusive due to its subtlety. The effect of understanding it is inevitable: We cannot allow ourselves to so pine for “where we were before” that we fail to focus on improving the way things are. I repeat that the above is an optimistic prediction. What if the troubles that plague (sorry) vaccination roll-out in the United States persist? When can we realistically expect that we will “actually have enough herd immunity” to actually “approach very much some degree” (what does that even mean, really?) of “the way we have always done it?”

The responsibility of our educational leadership to focus on making things better given the realities we face, and which we will predictably face for at least a good long while, if not forever.

In doing so, we must stop characterizing student progress in the frame of what was. Among other things, we must rethink learning and establish realistic policies that both support progressive student learning and reward some of the non-academic learning children are gaining during this unique period in history. We cannot judge/assess students by how they were expected to progress in conditions which are no longer present. We must judge/assess student progress given the conditions which are. We absolutely must develop online learning environments which can, at a distance, encourage our children to learn, support them in their learning, and reward them for learning. We must stop focusing on what inapplicable data tells us about what they are “losing” and turn our complete focus on what we can help them learn.

Theresa Thayer Snyder, former superintendent of the Voorheesville district in upstate New York, wrote (and I really think these words belong here in their entirety, so please do read),

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

I am writing today about the children of this pandemic. After a lifetime of working among the young, I feel compelled to address the concerns that are being expressed by so many of my peers about the deficits the children will demonstrate when they finally return to school. My goodness, what a disconcerting thing to be concerned about in the face of a pandemic which is affecting millions of people around the country and the world. It speaks to one of my biggest fears for the children when they return. In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God. We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone! They simply do not apply. 

 

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history.

 

I sincerely plead with my colleagues, to surrender the artificial constructs that measure achievement and greet the children where they are, not where we think they “should be.” Greet them with art supplies and writing materials, and music and dance and so many other avenues to help them express what has happened to them in their lives during this horrific year. Greet them with stories and books that will help them make sense of an upside-down world. They missed you. They did not miss the test prep. They did not miss the worksheets. They did not miss the reading groups. They did not miss the homework. They missed you.

 

Resist the pressure from whatever ‘powers that be’ who are in a hurry to “fix” kids and make up for the “lost” time. The time was not lost, it was invested in surviving an historic period of time in their lives—in our lives. The children do not need to be fixed. They are not broken. They need to be heard. They need be given as many tools as we can provide to nurture resilience and help them adjust to a post pandemic world.

 

Being a teacher is an essential connection between what is and what can be. Please, let what can be demonstrate that our children have so much to share about the world they live in and in helping them make sense of what, for all of us has been unimaginable. This will help them– and us– achieve a lot more than can be measured by any assessment tool ever devised. Peace to all who work with the children![2]

 

This is a unique opportunity in human history.

Many politicians do not agree. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee said just a few days ago:

“Here’s the bottom line: you can’t say “follow the science” and keep schools closed. 

You can’t say “I believe in public education” and keep schools closed. 

And you can’t say you’re putting the needs of students first and keep schools closed. 

Kids do better in school: we know that - parents know that.”[3]

 

Of course kids are perceived to do better “in school.” All the assessment measures are crafted with their presence in school, in person, as a foundation. They are by and large calculated by grading fill in the blank or multiple choice questions whose answers have most often been drilled into them by teachers who are fighting tooth and nail to keep their jobs. Those teachers are now learning new ways to teach in order to help students learn how to survive in the world. How about we focus on our new real world and see what we can do to help students cope with it.

How about we implement the “two tab test,” where students are encouraged to have a second browser tab open to the lesson while they take an online quiz or test. The very process of understanding a question enough to go into a lesson and find the answer is more intellectual contact with the information, and will help the retention of content learning, not hinder it. Stop playing “gotcha” with our struggling students and encourage them to learn the way anyone learns in the modern world. LET them google the answers.

Theresa Hatcher Snyder’s message, above, may be the most eloquent message that can be shared with parents, who, by the by, must be always considered in every single change we make to new ways of learning and teaching. Parents must be in this with us, more now than ever. Some have not adapted. I have talked to more than one super-frustrated parent who feels completely imposed upon by changes incumbent upon them due to distance learning. I will also report talking to several parents who are delighted by the opportunity to both spend more time with their children and participate in their learning pathways. No two families will have the same response, based on countless differences between lifestyles and attitudes. We must, however, give parents, indeed students, positive alternatives to their thinking, not pipe dreams about the old ways.

 

I say this: Until we understand that students and teachers are “in person” when we are teaching virtually, using digital means to be so, we will not be able to acknowledge and improve the potential opportunities the pandemic is forcing upon us. What? Opportunities?

 

Yes. There are opportunities. Think about this.

 

It is a staple of research into online learning. Study after study has found that there is no significant difference between face-to-face (in person) learning and distance (virtual) learning, including a recent study that conclude, once again, that

“The results of the study show there is no significant difference in performance between online and traditional classroom students with respect to modality, gender, or class rank in a science concepts course for non-STEM majors. Although there were sample size issues and study limitations, this assessment shows both online learners and classroom learners perform at the same level. This conclusion indicates teaching modality may not matter as much as other factors.”[4]

 

Why do I feel qualified to voice an opinion? In 2010, I left a productive 15-year teaching position at a premier Nashville independent K-12 school to research, create, and make accredited and sustainable the first public online school in Tennessee, MNPS Virtual School. You won't see me in the school's "V-School History" story online because my position was eliminated in 2017 and “virtually” all mention of my contributions to its relative success were eradicated. That's another story.

At that time, I obtained a job teaching computer skills in an inner city elementary school, which I did for a year, and then I moved to a middle school computer lab teaching role, where I very happily remain to this day. I love my colleagues, I love my students, and I loved going to school to work and teach every day when it was safe. I now love teaching from home, as imposed by the high rate of infection in my state and especially in my city. My advanced age is also a factor.

I am a product of public education, at least I was, up until the time I forsook my established career in food and beverage and enrolled in Vanderbilt University at age 40 to learn to become a teacher. I say to Governor Lee that I believe in public education, and that I oppose precipitous re-establishment of “the way we’ve always done things.” Many of us who are opposed to the rushed reopening of schools in physical buildings believe in public education. Stop flippantly discounting us by saying “We all know that.” What do I know is that teachers and schools can adapt to the new realities as we craft and implement new and effective ways to help our children both want to live through today and to envision hope for tomorrow. I also say to Governor Lee even one life lost in his rush to the old days will be a preventable tragedy he is choosing to allow.

We will not go forward by targeting “the way we’ve always done it” despite either the possibility of doing that safely nor all indications of the inappropriateness and ineffectiveness, nay danger, of doing so. This is my call to action:

1.       Face the reality that public schools in America had basic flaws long before the first case of Coronavirus hit its shores. Dr. Miquel Cardona, President Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Education, recently said, "There are no shortage of challenges ahead, no shortage of problems for us to solve," he said. "For too many students, public education in America has been a 'flor palida': a wilted rose, neglected, in need of care. We must be the master gardeners who cultivate it, who work every day to preserve its beauty and its purpose.[5]

2.      Establish think tanks that focus on ways to make distance learning more accessible, more engaging, more effective, and more relevant to all students and supporting those think tanks thinking ‘way out of the box, including 3D synchronous learning environments of the sort explored for years by global organizations like The International Society for Technology in Education’s Virtual Environments Network, OpenColleges, EduResearch Matters, Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education, and the list goes on. 

3.      Research and encourage a focus on student motivation (currently hit-or-miss in my experience, and recognized as a crucial factor in online learning success). Hasnan Baber, a student at Woosong University in South Korea, studied undergraduate online education in both South Korea and India in the context of the recent move by “every educational institute towards online learning.” His study, focused on student perceived satisfaction with online learning and their learning outcomes in those two countries, concluded:  “Online learning has arisen as an alternative to traditional learning during the pandemic. Most students have experienced online classes for the first time. Variables such as interact(ion) in the online class, student motivation to participate in the online class, course structure, and instructor facilitation and knowledge are important determinants of perceived student learning and student satisfaction. Online student engagement is a stronger determinant of the perceived student learning outcome as online classes lack physical socialization. There is no significant difference in the learning outcome and satisfaction levels of students from either country. Future studies should be done to understand the role of technology acceptance in perceived learning and student satisfaction. Future studies should also focus on the factors which are critical from the point of view of students to accept this online learning during the pandemic COVID19”.[i][6]

4.      Review every single educational policy and both revise those and come up with new ones that face realities. State legislatures need to be held accountable by educators, not the other way around.

5.      Challenge the massive commercial entities that dominate the educational market to help hone virtual learning delivery. You know who you are. You do not deserve to profit by digitizing your insanely priced textbooks and making virtual learning all about plowing through them and completing multiple choice tests.

6.      Acknowledge the diversity of our school populations and craft learning options that truly nurture the learning of all students.

7.      Celebrate the positive changes imposed upon us by the pandemic and building upon them

In closing, for the moment, I just want to restate and rephrase. Sorry, it’s a teacher thing.

We do not need to be putting effort into returning to brick and mortar (a common description used by distance learning proponents to distinguish virtual from “real”) schools. We must turn our complete focus and all of our creative energies to making online learning and teaching work in new and measurably effective ways for all of our students. To continue to strive backward is lunacy.

Let us bypass the moon references and share the 2nd and 3rd dictionary meanings of that word:

2wild foolishness extravagant folly

3a foolish act[7]

It is also a life-threatening act. Speak up to your administrations and your politicians if you agree.

Thank you, and stay safe and well.



[1] Powell, A. (2020, December 11). Anthony Fauci offers a timeline for ending COVID-19 pandemic. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/12/anthony-fauci-offers-a-timeline-for-ending-covid-19-pandemic/

[2] Teresa Thayer Snyder: What Shall We Do About the Children After the Pandemic. (2020, December 08). Retrieved January 23, 2021, from https://dianeravitch.net/2020/12/12/teresa-thayer-snyder-what-shall-we-do-about-the-children-after-the-pandemic/

[3] Mangrum, N. (2021, January 20). Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee pushes for all schools to return in-person as legislature begins special session. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2021/01/19/tennessee-gov-bill-lee-pushes-all-person-learning-special-session-starts/4208007001/

[4] Paul, J., & Jefferson, F. (2019, October 15). A Comparative Analysis of Student Performance in an Online vs. Face-to-Face Environmental Science Course From 2009 to 2016. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcomp.2019.00007/full

[5] Miguel Cardona, Biden's Pick for Education Secretary, Stares Down a Long To-Do List. (2020, December 30). Retrieved January 23, 2021, from https://www.usnews.com/news/education-news/articles/2020-12-30/miguel-cardona-bidens-pick-for-education-secretary-stares-down-a-long-to-do-list

[6] Citation | Hasnan Baber (2020). Determinants of Students’ Perceived Learning Outcome and Satisfaction in Online Learning during the Pandemic of COVID19. Journal of Education and eLearning Research, 7(3): 285-292. History: Received: 6 August 2020 Revised: 12 August 2020 Accepted: 18 August 2020 Published: 24 August 2020 Licensed: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License Publisher: Asian Online Journal Publishing Group Funding: This study will receive support from Woosong Academic Research Funding 2020 Competing Interests: The author declares that there are no conflicts of interests regarding the publication of this paper. Transparency: The author confirms that the manuscript is an honest, accurate, and transparent account of the study was reported; that no vital features of the study have been omitted; and that any discrepancies from the study as planned have been explained. Ethical: This study follows all ethical practices during writing.

[7] Lunacy. (1996). Retrieved January 23, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lunacy


Scott Merrick is a 26 year veteran of Elementary and Middle School teaching in both private and public school settings. He is the recipient of the Making IT Happen award from the International Society for Technology in Education and the father of two wonderful humans. All social media and other means of contacting him may be accessed anytime at https://about.me/scottmerrick. His blog is scottmerrickdotnet at https://scottmerrick.net.


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