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A Brave New World: Supporting Today’s Educators and Learners

by Tom Hanlon / Apr 21, 2020

Brave New World lead

COVID-19 has ushered in a new world for educators—one in which the College of Education has assumed a strong leadership role.

COVID-19 has, at least temporarily, changed the face of education. And the face-to-face of education.

With the declaration by Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker that K-12 public schools in Illinois needed to move to remote learning effective April 1, school districts and teachers have had to scramble to get remote learning curricula, plans, and models in place. The College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign stepped immediately to the fore, coming to the aid of teachers with its LearnAway website (see Website Launches for Educators Teaching Birth Through 12th Grade).

“Our College was prepared in ways to triage this situation not only really quickly, but also to aid and assist others who needed help, like the K-12 public education system,” says Christopher Span, associate dean for graduate programs in the College and professor in Education Policy, Organization and Leadership. “We got the LearnAway website up so quickly because we didn’t have to triage internally.”

Collaborating to Meet the Challenges

“Now the question becomes how do we work in collaboration to build an epistemic community to where we are working to answer some of the grand challenges around remote learning in the state of Illinois and the nation,” he says. “Whether it’s preparation of teachers or working with parents, or it’s working with social workers and counseling psychologists around the new stresses that come with COVID-19. We’ve been handling questions now around bereavement and death in ways that we never imagined having our children think about.”

Christopher SpanSpan advocates for all three schools in the University of Illinois system—at Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Springfield—to work together to remedy the challenges impacting educators and stakeholders across the state.

“You need to have a small party of folks who are thinking through the day-to-day issues and making sure we’re putting out the fires,” he says. “But you equally need a small group of people thinking through, ‘Okay, what’s next, and how do we start building capacity to tend to some of the stressors that we’re seeing.”

Conversations, Span says, are taking place among various state universities. “We’re trying to identify the people who see this as an opportunity for the professional development of teachers in the field, as an opportunity to rethink teacher education programs across the state, and as an opportunity to engage our state legislators and the Illinois State Board of Education to really understand the importance of having flexibility and adaptability in the way we can offer learning to children,” Span says.

Changing the Face of Teacher Preparation

That need for adaptability extends beyond how learning is offered, notes Nancy Latham, executive director of the Council on Teacher Education for the College of Education. The COVID-19 pandemic has “forever changed the face of teacher preparation,” she says. “And not just teacher preparation, but preparation for school social workers and school psychologists. They’re all trying to figure out how to work in a remote learning environment. So, as we look at teacher preparation moving forward, we teach future educators how to plan and implement instruction, how to evaluate learners and assess instruction, how to reflect on their own practices, not just in the context of face-to-face. Everything has to be both ways. For our teacher candidates, this is a moment of great opportunity.”

Span agrees. “We need to do a better job of ensuring that we train individuals who are going to teach or be administrators to not only engage in the face-to-face, but in the remote and online as well,” he says. “So, how do we shift and adjust our teacher education programs to ensure we are educating our future teaching force so that they can reach their highest potential as educators, regardless of setting and circumstance?”

Nancy LathamThat setting for student learning, for over 300 years, has been in school buildings. Now, a teacher with 30 students is engaging those students in their dwelling places, through technology. It’s likely that no K-12 teacher ever envisioned her- or himself teaching anywhere else than a school building. Yet, most teachers have been sheltering in place since the end of March, teaching their students remotely.

“Teachers are in new territory,” Latham says. “It will be interesting to interview them after this year. I think teachers will feel that they’ve probably never known and had a relationship with a group of learners and their families as deeply as they’ve had with this group. And I’d bet most parents would reciprocate that.”

Latham notes that she’s seen many humorous postings on social media, with some parents saying teachers should make $1 million. “I think a lot of parents have gained a bit more respect and understanding for teachers,” she says.

The pandemic has also brought parents and children closer together in the kids’ education, she adds. “Parents are deeply embedded in it,” she says. “And our learners are embedded in their parent’s work, because in many cases they’re all at home. Conversations can take place that otherwise probably wouldn’t have happened before. So many positives can come out of that.”

Dealing With the Inequities in Education

Still, some negatives for teachers and learners have arisen from the pandemic, as Latham is quick to point out. “This challenge is further exposing inequities that already exist—not that teachers didn’t know they existed, and didn’t deal with those inequities daily, but this has made them painfully obvious.”

Lisa Monda-AmayaOne of those inequities surrounds equal access to technology. “Not all students have access to online learning,” says Lisa Monda-Amaya, associate dean for undergraduate programs. “There’s a concern about how teachers are going to be able to reach those students. There’s also a concern about students with disabilities, how they’re going to be able to access content. Another significant concern has to do with how students with severe disabilities are gaining access to appropriate services.”

Remote learning, says Span, “has become the great exacerbator of the inequalities we have in society.” He mentions a school district in Chicago that had to have 100,000 devices distributed to students. “There are 400,000 kids in Chicago Public Schools, and that tells me that at least 25 percent require some kind of device to aid and assist them in their learning in the wake of COVID-19.” And he points out that even if you have a device, “that doesn’t necessarily mean you have the other kinds of things that need to go with it—the connectivity to engage in remote learning, a structure to understand what it means, some type of facilitation between the teacher and the school district to enhance that learning.”

Educators need to spend a lot of time around these problems, Span says, “not just in the wake of a future pandemic, but just a need to aid and facilitate education, to make sure teachers are prepared to engage students regardless of their setting—and not just the face-to-face one we have held near and dear for the past three-and-a-half centuries.”

Another challenge that Latham points out is the structure in which remote learning takes place.

“We can come up with creative remote learning strategies, but they are received very differently in various households,” she says. “You might have a household where there are two parents, and one is working and one can help with the schooling and enhance it. Or you might have two parents in the home, perhaps, but they are both working intense hours themselves and trying to figure out how to balance this. This is an ask a family has never felt before.”

To try to circumvent this situation, many teachers are personalizing and customizing the learning. “If we can bring learning resources and ideas and applications together for them and at least make that part easier and let them be the experts on their learners, we can let them use their energies toward that customization,” Latham says. That’s our goal with the LearnAway website.”

Three Buckets for Educators

Data have shown that there are three levels of severity for people who are infected with COVID-19. “Eighty percent will have mild symptoms,” Span says. “Twenty percent will be hospitalized. And within that 20 percent, two to four percent will die. You can’t treat the three different buckets the same way.”

In the same way, he says, you can’t treat school districts the same way. “Some people are starting off in the 80 percent bucket,” he says. “With a little assistance, they’re going to be able to make it through. Some are in the 20 percent bucket, and they’ll need a little more attention to get them to the point where they can do what they want. And then we have that two to four percent who we’re going to have to put a lot of energy around to make sure they walk away from this situation and not be totally engulfed by it.

“That’s the way I think about the role of educators in this process. We need a tailored way, a surgical way, to understand how to nuance those considerations to achieve the right outcomes. And that’s only going to happen with collective engagement.”

A Shift in Education

Monda-Amaya sees the pandemic causing a shift in education. “We see this as an opportunity to make a shift where teachers may have to be very creative in using online resources more and accessing different tools to be able to do their lessons,” she says. “I think there’s going to be a bit of a shift in how classrooms look, even when we go back to face-to-face settings.”

For that shift to happen in the classroom, it also has to take place in teacher education programs, she adds.

“I think everybody is recognizing that there’s a need to be able to prepare teachers regarding remote instruction,” she notes. “We don’t know what things will look like yet, but there will probably be a shift in making sure remote learning instruction is part of a teacher’s education program.

“Teachers will have to think differently about the way technology is being accessed by students in their classrooms, and how they are going to use technology to teach content—and help students access content in very different ways.”

Span believes remote learning will become more prominent in the future of education.

“It’s unfortunate it took a pandemic for us to get to this point,” he says, “but in some ways we can see where remote learning can become the great equalizer of educational opportunities. It can give children more access to resources and to opportunities.”

Evolving How We Think About Education

Span’s 14-year-old son, for one, likes this new model of instruction. “We still make him get up and go through the ritual as if he were going to school,” Span says. “The other day, he said, ‘You know, I’ve come to appreciate this. I can get my work done without any interruption, at my own pace. And I know I can ask you guys some questions, or contact my teachers. But I don’t have to deal with the elements of school that I don’t like, such as wasted time, or fitting into certain expectations.’

“Now, he’s intrinsically motivated, but he was pointing out that he had adapted to a model, and if that model was going to be part of the future, he could live with it. I think our most adaptive community in all of these conversations is our youth.”

Latham sees good arising from what educators and learners are going through now.

“This is an incredibly challenging time, but it’s also an incredible opportunity,” she says. “I hope what we see come out of this is a deeper than ever connection between families and schools, between homes and classrooms. And we keep that going as we move back to face-to-face instruction.”

COVID-19 has forced educators to think differently about many aspects of the teaching and learning process. Different thinking can lead to new and better ways to approach and overcome challenges. It can lead to innovation that elevates and enhances an entire field.

“This pandemic has forced us to think of modification,” Span says. “Hopefully, it’s evolving how we think about public education.”