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Schools after COVID-19: Seven Steps Towards a Productive Learning Revolution

by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis / Apr 24, 2020

7 Steps Toward a Productive Learning Revolution

This article focuses on K-12 education. Cope and Kalantzis also recently contributed to The New York Times article Will the Coronavirus Forever Alter the College Experience? and have written another article exploring the implications of COVID-19 for higher education. For more information about their “Seven Affordances” framework, visit here.

Of all the major areas of social life, K-12 schools have perhaps been least affected by the digital revolution. Even when students have laptops or tablets, the social and knowledge relations of learning have not changed much. Often, teachers still stand and talk from the front of the room. Curricula still shovel out content. Tests still check long term memory.

This is why, in many respects, the instantaneous universal transition to online teaching and learning during the COVID-19 crisis has been so painful. Because when educators try do the same old things online, the result much of the time is a step back. Most schools and most teachers are ill-prepared for the genuine and positive changes that are possible in the move online.

Much of what we see online is familiar, only worse. We have torturous Zoom sessions where the teacher talks at the students, and only the usual suspects get a chance to speak. Teachers email worksheets or scanned chapters from the textbook to the students and ask the parents to watch their kids do them. Or they hastily slot students into “learning management systems” like Canvas and Google Classroom, an unholy mix of the lock-step syllabus and digital content transmission.

All of this is destined to make learners, teachers, and parents react badly (and justifiably so) to the online education that has been thrust upon them by the COVID-19 crisis.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If the tools we were being forced to use were not so downright clumsy, we might discover that online learning can be refreshingly different from the old classroom. In fact, we may never want to go back.

In our research and development group at the University of Illinois, we have for some time now been building tools and researching pedagogical processes for online learning. Whether you are a teacher now working with students online, or a homeschooling parent, here are seven tips for better learning in an online environment. This is what we have learned about what we call “digital affordances” for enhanced teaching and learning.

Step 1: Turn Students into Active Learners

Bill Cope and Mary KalantzisThrow away tedious scanned textbooks and worksheets! There is plenty of credible content available on the web and in more engaging formats. You can point students to this, or better still, have them find it themselves—along the way learning to discern good sources from bad. The job of the teacher is becoming more and more content curation, not just content delivery, and your students can participate in the curation as well.

Abandon the deadly video lectures! Carefully used, Zoom can be good for discussion (more on that soon). But sitting in classes and listening to teacher talk, in-person or now video, has always been an absurdly low cognitive load. And more so for today’s students who, on their personal devices, have become habituated to designing their own information feeds and skipping through their messages. Record a video by all means, but break it into small parts and accept that control has been ceded to students for the listening—to skip the easy bits, to play at 2x speed, or to play the harder parts several times.

Next, position students as knowledge producers rather than knowledge consumers. Instead of telling them “read chapter 7”, suggest: “write or curate chapter 7”.

And finally, those Zoom discussions, where only one person can speak at a time, and only then after they have put up their digital hand. It’s the predictable few who speak while the many stay silent. This has always been a sub-optimal mode of interaction, but inexcusably so in the era of social media.

Have the online meetings, by all means, but break learners into small groups, insist that everyone interact in the chat, and distribute surveys to which everyone responds. But much of the time online discussion boards will be better than videoconferencing because everyone can be asked to contribute without wasting valuable time, there is more time to make a considered contribution, and it is easier and more comfortable for reticent learners to participate.

Step 2: Harness Collaborative Intelligence

One of the classical delivery modes for online learning is to watch the video or read the text, do the activity, then take the quiz. This is a recipe for social isolation, just me with my screen. During the COVID-19 crisis in China, learners nearly had the hated homework app DingTalk booted out of the Apple store by review-bombing it with terrible ratings.

The lesson of social media is the powerful “stickiness” of social connection and mutual recognition of each other’s presence. But harnessing social learning does involve challenging some old educational shibboleths.

Instead of hiding “my own work” for fear of being copied, and or falling prey to the anathema of plagiarism, have students work together in shared online projects. In a time of physical distancing, social learning is more important than ever.

Get students to peer-review each other’s work. Students learn by seeing strengths and weaknesses in others’ works-in-progress. They learn to give constructive feedback—not “wow, that’s great”, but “here’s a suggestion.” They learn to respect others’ perspectives and take them on board. They learn to acknowledge the contributions peers have made to their own learning.

Step 3: Allow Learner Differences to Shine

We call the first two of our seven tips, “changing the balance of agency,” where learners take greater responsibility for their learning and individual learning is balanced with social interaction. When the learners are not together in the physical classroom, this becomes more important than ever, and more possible in a digital learning environment.

One result of relaxing the constraints on learner agency, surprising at first, is that learner differences become visible and a refreshing resource for learning. We call this idea “productive diversity.” Here are some examples.

Have students co-curate content. Learning about volcanoes or triangles? Have students research a volcano in favorite country or a familiar triangle-in-reality. The differences will give voice to their interests and identities. The knowledge they share will be distinctively their own.

Or have students give feedback on say, three others’ work, then the perspectives will be interestingly different and rich. In its particular way, this will often be better than the teacher’s cursory comment, facing the chore of marking a pile of the same work. And if the theory of “crowdsourcing” is correct, the sum of multiple peer reviews can be as smart as an expert review.

One last thing, instead of the teacher speaking to the middle of the class, boring some and confusing others, instead of every learner having to be on the same proverbial page, students can progress towards “mastery” objectives at their own pace.

Step 4: Make the Most of Digital Media

Ugh, those scribed pages! One scenario is wasting time to make a piece of work “look pretty.” Another is that the work doesn’t feel real because it’s on an untidy piece of paper.

Today, in web-based work we have the resource of multimodal meaning, where the page can look as good as any other on the web, and where we can include digital images, videos, audio, table, infographic and a host of other resources, all duly cited and linked, of course.

We call this phenomenon “multimodal meaning.” This is the new literacy of our times. Spaces for “web writing” such as blogs and wikis are accessible to all from a range of devices. So our next tip: get your students to use web tools to make what we term “multimodal knowledge representations.”

Step 5: Assess-As-You-Go

Traditional tests measure long term memory: a fact, a definition, a procedure correctly applied. (Definition of long-term: until the day of the test.)

For far too long, tests have been the tail that wags the educational dog. In the era of artificial intelligence, all that is destined to change. (Though unfortunately, not in the current generation of learning management systems, because they have not been instrumented for this possibility.)

Here’s a different scenario. A Grade 8 class of twenty-something students in rural Wisconsin is studying the Comedy of Errors in our experimental CGScholar (Common Ground Scholar) platform. By the end of their unit of work (about 3 weeks), they have interacted in online discussion and written a peer reviewed project, giving and receiving 1,172 pieces of actionable feedback and having their results analyzed based on nearly 150,000 tiny datapoints. Each learner can see their progress towards mastery as the petals grow in the colorful flower visualization (the “aster plot”), and on three measures: the knowledge they have acquired, the effort they have put in, and their help to each other or the collaborative contributions to the class.

No teacher could offer this much feedback, or analyze this much data this carefully. No tests could give so much immediate feedback to every learner.

Now learners and their teachers become not so focused on long term memory, but the actual knowledge work that learners have done. Today, the devices that we keep close to our bodies serve us as cognitive prostheses. We can look up far more knowledge than we could ever remember. Long-term memory is no longer the main or only goal of learning.

Also, the measure now is not just a small sample of a learner’s knowledge—the test at the end of the unit of work and when it is too late. It’s all the work you have done. Along the way, you are getting useful feedback, in small, actionable increments—peer, teacher, computer, and self-reflection.

We call software systems like this “learning analytics” and the assessment process “reflexive feedback.” This tip: look out for environments that support formative assessment.

The test is dead. Long live assessment!

Step 6: Have Your Learners Think about Their Thinking

One of the most powerful consequences of the five changes we have already mentioned, is a phenomenon we call “metacognition”—thinking is more effective when thinkers also think about their thinking. Here are several ways to do this.

Instead of a teacher or test-marker imposing their judgement from the outside, give learners rubrics in which they can measure themselves and each other. Have learners make posts, then comment constructively on each other’s posts. Have them discuss what a particular piece of learning is for, and the kind of “knowledge processes” that it requires.

Step 7: Learn that Learning is Everywhere

Traditional educational architectures had teachers and learners confined in space and time—the four walls of the classroom and the cells of the timetable. Now, by dint of today’s terrible circumstances and for the moment at least, we’ve been “liberated” from the first of these confinements. When teachers and learners go back to school, will things ever be the way they were before?

“Ubiquitous learning”—learning any time, any place—allows education to break out of its institutional confinements. For instance, not only is online discussion more inclusive of all learners, it doesn’t matter whether it happens in class or as work at home. And the “flipped classroom” idea is that recorded video lessons can be quite different from and in many respects better than the teacher lecture. So, our seventh tip: we’ve become flexible about space; now let’s become flexible about time as well.

In an ideal scenario, when schools finally go back, teachers and learners will have learned some different ways to teach and to learn that contribute to a much-needed revolution in education. The more depressing scenario is that they will have had such a bad time with online learning, that they will just go back.

Mary Kalantzis was Dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 2006 to 2016. Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis coordinate the online Learning Design and Leadership Program at Illinois and offer MOOCs exploring online learning. They are authors of New Learning (Cambridge University Press), e-Learning Ecologies (Routledge), and have created the CGScholar e-learning platform. More available at