In this 35-minute podcast, host Elizabeth Crofoot, Senior Economist at the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board (CED), interviews Dr. Mark Milliron, the SVP and Executive Dean of the WGU Teachers College. The focus of the discussion is on the role remote learning can play in reimagining more equitable and resilient education system. This fascinating conversation runs a broad course touching on many important and timely topics, so we’ve highlighted just a few for you below with approximate time stamps.
Mark Milliron: “I actually think policymakers and educational leaders at this time really have to confront conflation. There is a brutal conflation between the emergency remote learning we experienced as the pandemic took hold, and the 20 plus years of experience with digital resources to provide online and hybrid learning. There is an entire body of literature and incredible expertise in doing online and hybrid learning well, and that was not the predominant experience most people recently had in K12 and higher ed environments. What they ended up with was a lot of good-hearted, well-intentioned people who tried to use whatever resources they could to make whatever they could happen, but unfortunately it didn’t work really well for some people.”
Mark goes on to talk about how the reality is online education, done correctly, can be powerfully effective and now is the time to take what we know from two decades of expertise as well as the inventive practices forced by the pandemic and make some new playbooks for education.
MM: “I do think the pandemic was a powerful moment to take a beat. People ended up having to dive into some empathy around what their students were going through in a way they hadn't in the past. There’s been a lot of “one best way-ism” in in the world of education where people think there's one best way to teach and reach students. What we know is there are a lot of good ways. Anya Kamenetz, education correspondent for NPR, has done a really good job of documenting that for many learners, remote learning options actually turned into something that was kind of a Godsend for a host of reasons. That remote learning option helped them blossom. But learning in just one way doesn't fit everybody, so we learned to take a beat, listen to who these learners are, and figure out the options that would make the most sense for them.
MM: “One of the principles we have to remember is that quality education is not a canned set of courses in a sequence. Quality education is a family of experiences and supports that are intentionally designed and effectively delivered to help a set of learners master competencies, master skills, and master learning at a high level. One of the things we’ve learned at Western Governors University is the idea of “one by one” - you have to meet students where they are. You have to get clear about what you're trying to help students learn, and then have an array of resources that can help them get there. So, at WGU, we have faculty who are completely focused on mentoring that student across the learning journey. We have other faculty totally focused on discrete instruction of different learning resources and different learning topics. And, we have faculty who are specialists at evaluation and provide rich feedback to those students. We have additional faculty who are all about the supports - especially around key moments in that student’s life. We have this whole team called the Environmental Barriers Team that help when we have pandemics, wildfires and the other things we’re experiencing.
MM: One of the secrets about education is some of the biggest challenges have nothing to do with academics, and instead have to do with the fact that life is happening for that student. One of the things we’ve learned from the pandemic is there are a lot of tools that can help you at scale. When we add in digital architectures, we realize we can weave in a whole array of resources that will help them with the experiences on the educational journey to be more effective. I think, hopefully, that the pandemic has opened people’s eyes to this. We can do parent-teacher conferences leveraging digital technology to provide more access, so people aren’t tied to driving at specific times. In higher ed, we’ve found students come to faculty office hours more because they can do it remotely. One of the things we know in the world of education is that in the family of experiences we're trying to intentionally design, we want to use all the appropriate resources at our disposal. Of course, there are amazing face-to-face resources, but there are also amazing online and blended resources, and we're always at our best when we're not preaching about a modality, but we're actually thinking about ‘what is the outcome, and is it actually working for that student?’
MM: “I think this is a digital equity conversation, and WGU has been at the forefront of this dialogue about trying to make sure we help our rural communities, and our Internet deserts, and inner-city communities so they can all develop this access. It's one of the reasons we've been big champions of the public policy work around creating digital infrastructure starting back in the early 2000s. Now, we're at a stage where getting on the Internet isn't necessarily the challenge, it actually has to do with the kind of bandwidth we’re talking about and if people have access to everything from video streaming to Zoom or Teams, and the other kinds of infrastructure pieces. What we’ve learned is if you have a solid digital infrastructure, you have more options, you have more information, you have more access to opportunity."
MM: “Education leaders are having to think are having to think about different things. It used to be buildings and budgets were the big things, but now we're realizing you have to have a learning management system infrastructure so you can do course delivery and support. You need a strong student information system that allows you to have multiple assessment strategies and connection strategies with your support systems. That realization has led to some larger dialogues around our schools. Do they have IT infrastructure for the 20th century? For the longest time our infrastructure has been built based on creating buildings in communities. I'm going to be a little bit tongue in cheek here but we kind of operate an industrial factory model on an agrarian calendar trying to meet the needs of the information age, and we need infrastructure that allows us to take advantage of the digital resources at our fingertips.”
If you want to use online or hybrid learning use it for one of these three big uses: use it to connect students to amazing content, context, and community. There is a world of resources at our fingertips, and you can bring in all kinds of AR/VR. You can bring learning to life. Good example, we use Mursion, a VR software where we put our students into this simulated environment so they can experience a diversity challenge or a behavioral challenge in a fail-safe environment. Think about it as a continuum.
MM: “The good news is, we can leverage these (digital) resources to help with both access and attainment. If you go to a conference, the grant makers for education from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Trellis Foundation are committed to this kind of work. What you're going to see is focused people, focused on access. and focused on attainment. What you'll see is that you can't just do one without the other. You have to let people have access to different kinds of educational opportunities and then help them finish what they start, which by the way means if we do this right, we can actually lean into this in a way where we can be learning scientists and understand what works for whom and in what way. We can make sure we're bringing the right resource to the right person at the right time in the right way, and that will help us to help more diverse learners.”