Christine Nasserghodsi has worked with international companies, schools, and government agencies in the United States, Europe, India, Africa, and the United Arab Emirates to develop high-impact leadership, learning, and organizational transformation programs. Christine is a partner at Mirai, a learning innovations consultancy, and a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania in organizational learning with a focus on leadership for innovation. In her previous roles as the Vice President for the TELLAL Institute (GEMS Education) and Head of Innovation Strategy for the Innovation, Research, and Development Department at GEMS Education, Christine was responsible for leading professional learning and development, educational research, and strategic partnerships for schools and corporate entities across the UAE. In this capacity, Christine developed Creating Communities of Innovation, a project run with Harvard University’s Project Zero focused on transforming schools through pedagogical, technological, and leadership innovation. Christine served as the GEMS Chair for the Learning Innovations Laboratory at Harvard University, was a Harvard University Project Zero Classroom faculty member, and is a board member at several leading schools.
There has been a greater change in education in the past four months than in the past fifty years. COVID-19 school closures, in most cases, happened in a matter of days and, in some cases, in a single day. What resulted was extraordinary. Students in parts of India accessed textbooks by QR code, while some were messaged learning playlists. Students in Nigeria attended radio classes while teachers led follow-up activities through messaging groups. The United Arab Emirates built a microsite with relevant, free resources for learning. Where students and teachers had internet and device access, schools went fully online in less than a week using free or freemium platforms like TEAMS and Google Classroom. Education technology companies have offered their products free-of-charge. New global online schools have sprung up – some with SMS as the primary medium of instruction, others with their own platforms and live teaching.
Of course, there were challenges. While working from home, parents had to take a high level of responsibility for their children’s learning, especially those with young children. Schools and parents struggled to support students with special education needs. Traditional assessment seemed all but impossible and many national exams were cancelled. Countries, regions, and schools struggled to meet the needs of students with limited or no access to devices or data. As a result, these students have lost months of schooling. Closures that were initially announced for two weeks to a month became term-long. Some private school operators faced or will face insolvency due to lack of fee payment. In countries that rely on the private sector to ensure that all students have access to school, the permanent closure of some private schools may result in a long-term dip in school enrollment.
The return to school will be more complex than closing school. First, it is clear from the diversity of re-opening strategies that there is no one blueprint. Germany reopened for senior students who must take three COVID-19 tests per week. Denmark reopened for primary students so that parents can return to work. Conversely, in Australia, a limited percentage of students from each grade attend each day (New York Times, May 10, 2020). While there may be no conclusive evidence on the best way to reopen, we know that students will need to maintain social distancing guidelines and are unlikely to attend school every day. Moreover, in the US, close to 60% of parents reported that they do not feel schools are ready to reopen and may continue to keep their children home for the foreseeable future (New York Times, June 6, 2020). As a result, conversations that were once about distance education have become about blended learning. And, unlike the rapid emergency response of distance learning, schools, states, and nations have the opportunity to thoughtfully consider and plan for the best possible delivery, despite ongoing uncertainty.
We, at Mirai Partners, have been working with schools on distance and blended learning since 2015. We responded to COVID-19 early by partnering with HP and the Learning Management System, Classera, to support schools and governments across the Middle East, India, and Africa with distance learning. In the process, we have helped improve the learning opportunities and outcomes of over 5 million students.
Here are our recommendations as you prepare to reopen your classrooms.
Start early. You do not need all of the answers to begin to plan for a range of scenarios. Establish a core team including representation from school leaders, parents, and teachers. Set success criteria for 2020-2021 and determine how this criterion can be achieved given a range of scenarios including a phased return to school and the possibility of additional closures.
A shift from a teaching mindset to a learning mindset. Do not think about teaching as the core function of a school; think about learning. Map the learning outcomes that your students will need to achieve over the course of the year and decide how these can be delivered across a range of platforms. Note what learning needs face-to-face interaction or on-premise resources, such as labs, and ensure that your students’ possibly limited time in school is used wisely.
Consider asking teachers who are effective in a live, distance learning classroom to deliver lessons to multiple classes. At the same time, teachers with underlying health issues can deliver small-group online interventions, while others may focus on building community by leading labs and practical assignments with those students present at school.
Assess your students and your program regularly. Many students have already lost four months or more of learning. According to research by McKinsey, students may lose over a year by the time they return to school full-time, creating learning inequities that could last a lifetime (June 1, 2020). As such, identifying and addressing learning gaps is paramount. Students should be assessed regularly so that interventions can be launched.
Focus on key milestones and transitions. Students who were reasonably independent and familiar with their academic targets and working expectations can choose projects which they can work on their own or in groups. Students, for example, transitioning from primary to secondary or into exam years may need more support. Parents of early childhood and younger primary students should be made aware of critical milestones, such as learning to read and be provided with specific targets and learning activities.
Understand the importance of literacy in a blended learning environment. Students with weaker literacy skills will struggle in a reading-intensive blended learning environment. First, screen students for reading difficulties using an assessment tool, such as Lexplore. Then, provide daily intervention to students reading below average and reassess in 1-3 month. Finally, use tools like Immersive Reader to allow students with reading difficulties to access the same content as their peers.
Build community. At Mirai, we have found that students attend school for opportunity and community. Opportunity may emerge from academic performance, but it can result from participating in competitions or internships. Likewise, the community is built by teachers in the classroom as well as the school at large. Endeavour to maintain traditions like birthday celebrations, concerts, and graduations whether or not students are present in school.
Ultimately, schools will need to create a new story with their students, staff and parents. Let it be one of resilience and hope, one of new opportunities and abundant care.