An Unexpected Learning Curve: Education in the Pandemic
As the school year winds down, parents, teachers, and professors alike are breathing a sigh of relief. After classes suddenly changed to remote platforms, teachers and professors scrambled to adjust. Now, with summer approaching, educators are looking to the fall and wondering how much longer they will be delivering lessons on these platforms.
Marlon Cummings, Assistant Professor of Education and Director of the Interdisciplinary Leadership Doctorate Program at Governors State University, speaks from experience. He has taught students from middle school to college, and researched organizational leadership development, culturally responsive pedagogy, urban schools, urban teacher preparation, school reform, and educational policy reform. While the pandemic has changed schools and universities so vastly, Dr. Cummings views this as an opportunity for educators and institutions to grow.
“It’s going to take teachers getting out of their comfort zones, getting to know their students, thinking differently, and shaking it up,” Cummings said.
GSU Newsroom: Can you walk us through some of the downfalls of remote learning alternatives during the Pandemic?
Cummings: One of the main issues with remote learning is that it was suddenly mandatory, and teachers had to adjust to it without any preparations. It put a lot of pressure on teachers––K-12 to college––to switch their delivery. For some this meant switching up a method of teaching they were comfortable with, and for others it meant creating something new altogether. More than just changing the delivery, they had to change the content instruction, and how they care for students. You have different types of learners, and for some online learning is not conducive to their style of learning. Teachers are working hard to change while keeping students engaged.
For students, there’s an unevenness as to how people access the internet. There’s a misnomer that students don’t have the internet in low income areas, but that’s not always the issue. Sometimes it’s that everyone is at home, and their parents might be working, and they don’t have the bandwidth to work simultaneously. They might have a phone that they’re trying to complete schoolwork on but no desktop or laptop to do their work on. Many don’t have the technology for efficient online learning. Those are issues as well.
GSU Newsroom: How does this change impact students from low income areas?
Cummings: It impacts all vulnerable populations, and those with trauma across all age groups: low income, single parents, first-generation, those who barely had enough money to begin with, those dealing with language barriers, ESL, international students, anyone who comes with other challenges they had to overcome just to attend class. It will impact all of them.
For teachers, they know they have students who need extra support and now those students are in a space where they’re further away from that support.
I think one population we really need to consider and support are our students with children. If you have a child, and they’re no longer in school, and they won’t be in summer camp and there’s a good chance they won’t be in school in the fall, that means they are home and need their parent’s attention. We also have to consider parents with multiple age students who all have demands on their parent/s. The parent population is going to be challenged in unique ways. Organizations––schools, universities, agencies, etc.––need to consider how to adjust to that. Universities in particular need to understand that students and professors are working from home with kids. This population is feeling a heavy burden.
GSU Newsroom: There’s a lot of anxiety around online learning. What can teachers do to help with that?
Cummings: For teachers, you have to be more accessible, even more than you are now. Open yourself up, the more accessible you are to students, the less anxiety they will have. For professors and K-12 teachers, students need to feel some type of connection. If they can see the teacher logs on every day, even just for two minutes to offer words of encouragement, that’s helpful for students. It’s important that they see you. There’s a difference in conversation over the phone versus face-to-face, and videos are a nice way to connect with that. I teach an online doctorate program, and even before the pandemic I made a point of checking in with them through video. We’re in an online space, and they need their independence, but they don’t have to feel like they’re on an island.
For teacher’s anxiety about the switch in delivery, it’s a matter of adjustment. Schools and universities need to give teachers the resources they need and the anxiety should lessen. Tell them what to expect so they know what’s coming. How am I going to be evaluated? Based on the work I produce in this online space or are we pretending the last–– maybe by the end of this––18 months didn’t happen? As we move forward and we’re preparing, educational institutions have to prepare their faculty and staff for what may come: how will assessment and testing work, will we stay online or move to hybrid, etc.. Get best practices out now. In some respect, teachers should have additional funding such as a stipend for the additional work that has been and will continue to be necessary.
To better understand it, it’s similar to the problem we have at the national level where we don’t know where we’re going or how to get through it. You want to be reassured from leaders whether it’s the principals or the presidents: here is the information we have, here is what we are going to do and we’re in this together.
GSU Newsroom: Are there any positive elements to remote learning?
Cummings: For K-12 students, it has pushed parents to be actively involved in their child’s education. The teachers are reporting that they have talked to more parents than ever before and that’s great. Connection with parents is key so they can know what’s going on in their kid’s life. The parents also appreciate teachers and how hard they work too.
For instructors, we are becoming a lot more intentional about how we show care to students and how we communicate school culture. There’s the potential for those who normally don’t engage to promote their school’s culture because it’s easier and more comfortable to do that from home. We also can’t wait for our students to reach out to us, we have to reach out to them and let them know the school or university cares about them. We know the students’ stories, and by providing a space for culture we’re sending out a sense of pride. They have pride in their school because the school cares about them. The way you build a community is reaching out and being intentional about creating it.
Finally, we have the opportunity to reflect. Are there classes that students are responding to well online? How can we grow from this? We’re seeing the need for––and have the time for––better training and development for faculty. We need to beef up our technology. There are learning opportunities for all schools and universities.