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School’s Out Forever?

While Alice Cooper made the idea of having no class and no principals (principles? never been able to decide which word he was singing here) seem like an awfully good thing back in 1972, COVID-19 is putting a decidedly more depressing spin on this theme in 2020.

One of the biggest casualties of the pandemic has been the education system. Schools mostly shut down across North America in March, and many look set to remain out for the remainder of the regular school year. Those regions that have reopened schools have done so with social distancing rules and other strict regulations firmly in place to try and prevent community transmission of the coronavirus. Recess is even less fun than usual right now without British Bulldog.

And it of course remains an open question what our educational institutions will look like once September rolls around. Will the changes forced by C-19 be permanent? What does a post-pandemic public school classroom look like? How about a university lecture hall? Will we have plexiglass between desks and on lunchroom tables in the cafeteria? Class sizes cut in half to enforce social distancing? Everything about how we learn will look a lot different in September (if schools open in September, that is) than it did in March.

Just as we are seeing with the business world and the shift to working from home, schools are going to have to take more advantage of the current situation. All institutions from public schools to universities will need to embrace more flexible methods involving the internet and technology (virtual reality headsets alone could revolutionize how we learn, and even how we experience the world outside our homes) as a whole.

Teaching can’t be moved online simply by putting an instructor in front of a camera. Methodologies will need to shift. Instead of simply lecturing, giving reading assignments, porting existing class materials online, and, let’s face it, going through the motions (a long-standing tradition that allowed me to take some of my best-ever naps in university lecture halls), teachers will have to actively engage their students. There will have to be a certain amount of performance added to instruction, as simply moving over the content of real-life classes would be dreary and soul-crushing. Without the personal experience, this would amount to learning by rote and repetition, similar to the way that children memorized everything in the 19th century classroom. And I, for one, have no desire to sit in a virtual Little House on the Prairie classroom, as much as we all miss Michael Landon.

All of this will be jarring. But a shift to online education, even in part, offers tremendous opportunities, many of the sort that have already been seen in the great shift to remote work underway now. Just as employees have been able to work from home, more students will be able to learn from home. This will remove huge barriers to higher education when it comes to the overall cost and the hassle of needing to move to a new city to attend the school of your choice or commute to campus on a daily basis.

Schools themselves will also benefit. Every higher learning institution moving its courses online will be able to attract a greater number of students, due to the ability to enroll from virtually anywhere in the world. This will make higher education more competitive, even lead to a “Yelping” of classes that would force schools not to rest on their laurels and histories, but to provide improved teaching methods. Universities and colleges would also be able to expand their reach when it comes to hiring instructors, who could teach remotely from homes scattered across the globe.

An impact could also be felt in primary and secondary schools. Will more school boards allow parents the option to choose learning remotely for their children? This could shrink class sizes in the actual brick-and-mortar classrooms and allow for a more personal learning approach resembling home schooling. The benefits here could also be tremendous for special needs students.

Teaching has always been a communal experience at its heart. Learning together as a group, with an instructor in the room, has long been key to the entire educational experience. That likely will not go away any time soon. But just as with the remote work experiment underway now, COVID-19 is forcing us to consider new options that could well improve how we learn and also greatly benefit our societies overall.

Cheers!

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