Commentary: Online schooling can be rigorous and engaging

Originally published in the Albany Times Union - June 16, 2020

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's call to "reimagine" K-12 education was quickly met with reactions ranging from excitement to fierce opposition by the keepers of the current system, as well as some ambivalence by burned-out parents who are less concerned with changing the status quo than returning to anything other than what they experienced these past few months.

That's understandable. But even as states are starting to reopen, the return to a pre-pandemic "normal" is just not realistic — at least not until we have widely available testing as well as a vaccine.

Still, a different school year need not be a dystopic one. The real fears teachers have expressed regarding so-called "distance learning" — losing their jobs, students isolated, and even more technology blunders — don't have to become a reality. I know. After three decades in New York's public schools, I have seen what quality brick-and-mortar schools are capable of, and in my recent career I have seen the successes of high-functioning online education platforms and teachers.

The right way to reimagine K-12 education is not to throw away what works, but to bring together the best of both worlds to better serve educators and students. We can do this if leaders take quick, thoughtful and immediate action.

As they plan for fall, leaders must plan to help teachers take advantage of the learning tools the internet has to offer. The internet is rife with content, which means that rather than act as content specialists, teachers should be trained on how to become content guides. As such, teachers create educational experiences that show students how to discern poor content from valuable content. They make virtual learning project-based and community-building, showing students how to manipulate content, make connections across subjects, solve problems, and, in turn, create new knowledge — a situation that mimics today's virtual work environment.

This approach also addresses the unfortunate issue so many teachers had with keeping kids engaged. However, this wasn't because students weren't interested in learning online. After all, online is where their generation lives.

The problem was the circumstances under which this shift happened. No one — not districts, teachers, families nor students — was ready for "school while distancing." As a result, what was provided was emergency remote instruction, a triage model of delivery in which traditional approaches were copied and pasted onto online platforms that aren't suited for doing things the same way as before. What we experienced wasn't anywhere close to "good" virtual learning.

In good virtual teaching environments, teachers are provided with opportunities to learn the online instruction practices that work: Practices like virtual project-based learning — a highly effective instructional method that teaches academic concepts in context — and one-on-one interactions with students to ensure accountability and progress.

Great teaching can happen online, and it's possible for it to be just as — if not more — engaging, collaborative, and inspiring than in-classroom learning. It's also quite possible that online learning will be parents', students' and teachers' best option come September. Even if the doors open, there will be some students and teachers who won't want or be able to show up due to health concerns.

Therefore, no matter what the outlook seems to be right now, there must be a plan in place to deliver modern virtual learning. We can't be caught off guard again, and the schools that do plan to open should embrace this opportunity to deliver a time-tested model of virtual learning that works: one that ensures that every student in America has the chance to learn, and that if school buildings shutter again, education will continue.

Will this fall probably look different from what many teachers, parents, and students are used to? Yes. Will it require a significant amount of hard work and preparation? Yes. Will it all be worth it? Absolutely yes. I am eager to help my fellow New Yorkers get it right.

Pat Michel is a former New York teacher, principal, superintendent and BOCES superintendent, and is currently vice president of career readiness program design at K12, a for-profit education company that sells online schooling and curricula.

To learn more about Destinations Career Academy, visit https://www.destinationsacademy.com/

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