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September 6, 2021

A ‘New Possible’ in Education

Op-Ed published in Real Education exploring the road ahead for education

This article by Dr. Mark David Milliron, SVP of WGU and Executive Dean of the Teachers College, originally appeared in Real Education here on August 25, 2021

As we look back on the last year and a half of education, it’s easy to see what a uniquely challenging time this has been for students and teachers. According to a recent McKinsey & Company report, as the 2020-21 school year began, just 40 percent of K-12 students were in districts that offered any in-person instruction. Students faced multiple schedule changes, were assigned new teachers midyear, and often struggled with remote learning that left them feeling frustrated or despairing.

As we struggle to recover, school districts, administrators, and educators are at a crossroads. Many can’t simply resume pre-pandemic instruction and classroom time or replace what was there before with what was cobbled together during the emergency of the pandemic. There is no getting “back to normal” after a year and a half of COVID confusion and upheaval in education. We’ve been through too much.

We need to work together to envision a new and better way forward in education. Indeed, the U.S. education sector is facing one of its most significant tests ever; to pass it, we must resist reactionary traditionalism and instead confront confusion and learn together so that we can reimagine the road ahead.

Confront Confusion

First, we must address the confusion that has resulted as schools were vacated and dedicated teachers and leaders were forced to invent a different mode of delivery and support on the fly. Many adopted an emergency strategy for remote learning, and we applaud them. However, there is a world of difference between emergency remote learning and the highly engaging, high-quality digital learning and support found in the best online and blended-learning programs that talented education professionals have been developing and delivering for the last 20 years.

Young student on a computer for an online class

Confusing emergency remote learning with the best of digital learning is like equating a life raft with a luxury liner. They both float, and they both may get you to shore, but the experience for those aboard will be vastly different. This problematic conflation confuses our conversations and pushes people back into a reactive “get back to normal” mindset instead of looking forward to what might be possible by blending the best learning models in the months and years ahead.

Learn Together

We need to look to what we know about what works and what doesn’t in in-person, online, and blended learning. Organizations like Western Governors University, Quality Matters, and the Aurora Institute, along with many regional institutions that have done extensive work with school districts and community organizations, have been continuously refining this practice for decades. We saw some incredibly inventive and effective innovations from those who experimented successfully during the pandemic with gradeless assessment, new learning and engagement strategies, and inventive outreach to close the digital divide. It’s time to reflect on and leverage what we have learned – both over a long history of quality online and blended education and from the inspiring innovations of teachers and leaders responding to the COVID crisis.

Reimagine the Road Ahead

Teacher leading an online class

We can use this time to rethink and reimagine our teaching and leading, as well as our education policies and practices. By coming together to envision what is possible, working together to design what we want, and bringing forward all we have learned over the last year and a half, we have a real opportunity to emerge better and stronger than we were before the crisis.

Most important, oversimplified arguments about in-class instruction versus online – or traditional versus remote learning models – need to be tabled so that we can engage in more practical and less polarizing conversations that free us to take advantage of the tools and techniques at our fingertips. Now is the time to commit to exploring and working together to build out a “new possible” in education.

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