By Joe Bowe and Jillian Corey
Our schema was that teaching in a building with students coming to campus makes it possible to control the learning environment and the tools students use for skill and knowledge acquisition. Much of this can be done in an organic and sometimes casual fashion that seems to provide a level playing field. But the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic changed the game and our ability as educators to continue to provide access to education in the manner we always had.
The new environment that we, along with our students and community members, found ourselves in was grossly inequitable for the access of education. The first major barrier to equity was access to learning tools, in our case that meant technology. Access can be multi-faceted: internet access and the quality of the access, functionality of equipment, competing demands for limited equipment/bandwidth within any one living situation, competing schedules of students within a home not attending the same schools. These were all in play, on any given day for every student.
The second barrier was the physical learning environment for the student. Being in a clean, well lit, and functional classroom with limited distractions is a major component of effective education. The learning environment was now out of our control entirely. The distractions in the learning environment were infinite. Parents, multiple classes happening simultaneously in the same room, cats, dogs…..
What to do? How do we make it equitable?
Big questions, complex answers and processes. Things needed to be rethought; in some cases redesigned, modified or dumped. Priorities and practices remade to reflect the reality of a remote learning environment. Redesigning a curriculum seems daunting, yet the goal is still the same – educating youth as best as possible. When students are not physically present in your room, then you adjust what ‘present’ means. When students cannot meet with you virtually at a time you assign, then you work with the students to find a time. Students (who, by the way, are much more comfortable with remote learning than adults; using phones, tablets, video game consoles, etc. all are part of their schema) know how to use technology. They are not afraid of it, they are as comfortable with a screen as they are with pen and paper. We, the adults are the ones who struggle the most. We did not have these tools during our learning years nor were we trained in their use. Directions for assignments need to be more explicit and detailed since there is a good chance the student is working on classwork at a different time than when you expect. Typically the scaffolding follows an order and is presented in chunks to the class as a whole. Scaffolding needs to be adjusted as students moving at different paces remotely don’t always have the correct help in front of them.
The pandemic stripped us all of the brick and mortar safe haven and shined a stark light on current practices surrounding equity and how they can be improved for the better. It demanded we think on the fly, adapt to challenges, consider the circumstances of others and perhaps most importantly, be present. Providing an equitable education for all students demands all of these things in a remote learning environment has resulted in a much more rigorous, intentional approach to reach our students.
Joe Bowe and Jillian Corey co-teach Humanities at the Manchester School of Technology – High School. They are contributors to Deeper Competency-Based Learning: Making Equitable, Student-Centered, Sustainable Shifts (Corwin, 2020).