Remote Learning: Is the World Ready?

Over the past few months, COVID-19 has changed the landscape of how students learn. From Beijing to New York, schools everywhere have made the jump from face to face instruction to teaching remotely online. However, this move has created tension amongst educators. Some of my teacher friends have felt inadequately trained to use the technology, or they didn’t have sufficient time to develop an online curriculum for their students. Thus, I wonder with this pandemic, were schools adequately prepared to have their students learn remotely?

Before I answer this question, I like to make a distinction between using technology and teaching with technology. Dr. Ruben Puentedura, a leader in pedagogy transformation using technology, explains that teachers merely substitute their classroom practice when using digital tools. That is, many teachers viewed technology as a means to enhance an existing classroom task. For instance, the word processor is a substitute for writing with paper and pencil. Where technology becomes transformational is when it redefines a new way of teaching. For example, a new teaching strategy for students’ to write blogs to an Internet audience redefines paper and pencil compositions that are just read by the teacher.

Online activities that directly replicate classroom activities do not work. The online environment is entirely different than regular face to face interactions. For one thing, online learning provides flexibility for when to learn. And the ability for students to interact asynchronously with their teachers is an essential redefining characteristic of online learning. Asynchronous teaching and learning require a transformation in thinking away from traditional school practices. For teachers to make this sudden shift to online pedagogy seems impossible without any resources.

However, what if I said the world already has over ten years of experience and resources for asynchronous online learning? Since 2008, MOOC or Mass Open Online Course System has existed and was used primarily in universities and colleges. Employing traditional teaching methods, professors would provide online video lectures. Also, MOOC offered a community for students to provide discussion and feedback. Hence, David Fiegold from Rutgers University likens MOOC as “the new textbook” that gives students the flexibility to learn from each other at their own pace. This model is ideal for students and teachers practicing social distancing and having different teaching/ learning schedules.

Furthermore, there are numerous curriculum resources such as Khan Academy and CK-12 Foundation that provide free learning materials to anybody online. Today we have a massive wealth of MOOC knowledge, expertise, and support from the Internet. Indeed we cannot argue that we lack the model for redefining online pedagogy. Yet today, online schooling remains a challenge to the average teacher and student. Why is that?

The problem is online learning has yet to be part of our teaching norm. Regular schooling does not have elements of MOOC in its program. Such aspects as asynchronous communication and collaboration are new skills for students. Hence teachers and students are not equipped with th competencies needed for remote learning.

So the Diffusion of Innovation might hint why MOOC never became standard practice in every American classroom. Everett Rogers, credited for this theory, explains the process of adoption as a series of stages to which the general population accepts an innovation. The theory states there is a chasm between early adopters to early majority adopters. And it is this chasm that early adopters must influence to reach general population acceptance.

Indeed MOOC has had early adopters by the abundance of online courses we have. But somehow, it just never crossed the gap to regular brick and mortar schools. Was MOOC too complicated? Did MOOC only serve the university/ college niche? Whatever may be the reason, asynchronous learning never caught on as regular practice in our schools. So the world was least prepared for the pandemic when we had to switch into this way of learning. If only MOOC were a regular part of schooling, we wouldn’t be scrambling to get everyone on board.

The COVID-19 situation in our schools is an opportunity to reset innovation adoption. We are forced into this mode not by choice but by need. Perhaps, this is the catalyst needed to push early adopters to the general population. If we can learn from how MOOC failed to be part of a regular system, we have the chance be better prepared. Using MOOCs and its abundance of online resources need to be part of our regular schooling experience, even when we do return to normality. So when we encounter another crisis, we won’t need to worry about being ready–we just are.

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