Distance learning has exploded onto the world stage like a firestorm. One second it was the last thing on anyone's mind, and suddenly it was a vivid reality students, parents and educators had to face.
The recent COVID-19 epidemic has thrown educational institutions at every level into a desperate and confusing state of affairs. No one was prepared. Schools are in a panic as to how to transition school sites for the coming fall semester. Colleges and universities are uncertain how to re-establish a coherent program that justifies high tuition costs. All of the current dilemmas evolve around the problems and issues of students being credited for course work, teachers finding completely different ways of offering effective instruction, and leadership redesigning procedures that affect attendance, learning materials, health and food services and an endless list of critical issues. All of the above must be resolved in an environment that promises only one thing, they will be underfunded starting now and well into the future.
The most basic issue is whether distance learning is a reliable, worthy instructional mode of delivery in the first place. The answer is simple. When it is good it is very, very good, and when it is bad it is horrid. Distance learning programs are being thrown together. There is a flawed attempt at creating a quasi-classroom program communicated online. The hardware is lacking, the software is missing, and the understanding of the elements critical to maintaining high standards is vague or even non-existent for those who have not spent time in preparation.
It is true all teachers teach. However, they do not teach the same levels or the same subjects. There are many modes of instructional delivery and teachers generally have a specific mode in which they are experts. Being a wonderful fifth grade instructor or a terrific high school science teacher is not the same as being able to deliver instruction online. In fairness, this transition cannot happen overnight. Extensive training is required, not because one mode is better than the other, but because it is very, very different. One of the greatest problems with the national response has been that teachers wanting to do the right thing did not have an opportunity to buy into the distance learning approach. Many, if not most, teachers could certainly master the delivery of distance learning. Given the circumstances, in approximately 30 days America rallied and did remarkably well in reaching out to students and their families.
Altus Schools, in California, never missed a day. They moved from a blended learning environment to a distance learning delivery overnight. The Altus blended learning model utilizes technology but is focused on the meeting of Altus teachers and students in award winning futuristic facilities. Closing 40 classrooms was painful, but the Altus teachers were trained and certified online instructors. Nationally, school districts tried to achieve this level of performance with little or no preparation. Altus teachers have spent years developing curriculum that engages young people and utilizes technology as a tool to enhance instruction. Our nation's classroom teachers were thrust into this new style of online teaching with limited training and a lack of resources and instructional materials.
Altus has spent 27 years mastering the art of online learning. The Charter School of San Diego, an Altus School, is the only k-12 school to ever receive the Presidential Malcolm Baldrige Award for quality and performance. There is a great deal to be said about the role this type of instruction will have in the evolution of public instruction. Done well, distance learning, supported by deeply committed teachers, can be a life changing opportunity for many. This is not a case of either/or. Learning options are undoubtedly a thing of the future. Students have different needs and different plans for their future. The greater the array of learning choices that students and their parents have, the better.
The COVID-19 crisis will eventually pass and students, their parents, and the public at large will be left with different impressions of what took place during these frantic and painful months. Some institutions will have discovered that online learning offers a great deal as they struggle to cope with their volatile, ambiguous, and complex futures. The economics of the times will have devastating effects on the secondary and post-secondary educational experience. Smartly done, distance learning will inevitably play a significant role in the future learning of every child. The hope is that as its influence spreads everyone will be aware that this magical, exciting tool offers an opportunity for students from every socio-economic level, residing in all urban and rural communities. They will have a chance to reach out and experience master teachers opening doors to math mastery, scientific research, real-time language development, live historical settings, and plays and concert performance from the best. They will meet motivating and exciting speakers and students just like themselves from all over the world.
At this very moment, engaging students is a major concern to all. Distance learning done well can do that. Given time, and patience, it is likely that inadvertently this difficult period has created radically new possibilities for educating learners of every age.
Mary Searcy Bixby, M.A., Founder of Altus Schools and widely recognized educational leader.
Tom R. Davis, Ed.D., Executive Director of Altus Institute, Educational Administrator and Executive Coach.
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