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When does the classroom stop being in YOUR room?

Joe Schwartz - 1/9/2021

In March of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic began to take a firm foothold in the United States, it became overwhelmingly clear that teachers in the K-12 sector were caught off guard by their newfound responsibilities of teaching, monitoring, assessing and managing their students. The rules of the traditional classroom setting could not be applied in the virtual environments they now found themselves in.

The challenges of online learning with children ages 5-18 vary widely, but had some commonalities - a lack of adequate technology on both ends of the line; massive distractions created by a lack of a controlled environment; a lack of adequate teaching materials suited for at-distance learning; and reduced contact time imposed by school administrators. It just simply became a fact that while colleges and universities had been touting their online platforms for years and had sufficient means to provide a college-level education to students living in any geographic area, teachers in K-12 schools were left hanging by not being able to communicate with the students living in their own towns.

The Summer of 2020 was a race, with many districts scrambling to improve infrastructure - installing faster bandwidth on district servers, purchasing Chromebooks, tablets and laptops to provide as loaner technology for students who did not have adequate materials on their own, and investigating/purchasing new software platforms that could supplant the expensive textbooks that could now not be distributed. Many districts failed at these exercises and it became clear that administrators who had previously touted their padded resumes were now fumbling about like teenagers in the back seat of a dark parked car. Smaller districts may have had more limited resources but proved to be more nimble in their ability to pivot whwn a new challenge arose.

Thanks to the quick minds at behemoth tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Verizon, Amazon and Adobe, many teachers were saved by the quick rollout of new technologies and the slashing of subscription pricing that made a quick adaption to online a little bit smoother for some districts.

Still, as September rolled forward and schools adapted to life online, a new question emerged - "What do we do next?" What do we do if this happens again; what do we do when the students come back to school; What do we do to prepare future generations for educational situations that cannot be predicted?

I would hope that brighter minds than mine are already using Design Thinking processes to try and come up with a menu of solutions that K-12 schools will be able to use within the next decade, and can build upon for many decades to come. I imagine that the classroom of 2035 may exist within a virtual reality (VR) environment, where students in a district are at home wearing VR equipment that allows them to not only attend classes, but allows teachers to immerse the students in virtual environments that would be unimaginable even today. It's not that far of a leap to imagine the ability for a teacher to take an entire class of students inside the Great Pyramid, or on a virtual tour of the Library of Alexandria, or to travel down the stomach of a blue whale.

But a greater leap is one that is imaginable, but far less likely - especially in the United States. That is the possibility that students get to choose some of their classes, and they may not even be in their own school. Consider this - a typical high school student is required to have around 130 credits to graduate (standards vary by state). Within those credit requirements are course requirements for Language Arts, Math, Science, Technology, etc. But there are also Elective classes that are meant to cater to a students interests and help build them into a better person. If education during quarantine has shown us anything, it is that the classroom can be anywhere.

So why is it not within the realm of possibilities that a student in the bayous of Louisiana can't take a Russian language class being offered in a New York City high school? Or a student in Miami Beach can't take a course in Japanese culture from a high school in San Francisco? Quite frankly, it's territorialism. The States are in control of academic expectations and set their own terms. The Federal Department of Education sets guidelines and national standards, and then rolls them down to the States, who figure out how to implement them within the framework of their own rules.

It would be nearly impossible to get every State in the Union to agree to allow for an "Open High School", where students are allowed to take one class a semester online, and choose from a selection of offerings being served up by America's best teachers, in America's best schools. Colleges and Universities will allow students to transfer credits between them and high schools will as well for new students - but high schools are not equipped with the means to allow students to take a course asynchronously and apply those credits to their own graduation requirements.

The scary thing is - we already have a system in place to do this. Some high schools will allow students to attend vo-tech programs in the morning or afternoon, if the school doesn't offer the same courses. Students go to those classes live and in person and then spend the rest of the day in their academic classes back at their local high school. Some high schools have relationships with local colleges and universities and allow students to attend college courses during the day, as well. So why could an "Open High School" model not work? Because as with charter schools, it would divert public funds to another location and away from the local school district, thus depriving the local district of funds. It would create a system where schools would have to compete for online "eyeballs" like any other business trying to stay afloat.

The "Open High School" system could work and could accelerate learning in the United States and abroad by creating a shared network of dedicated educators - but until politics and money issues are addressed, it is an idea that will have to wait for future generations to tackle. We may just not be ready to share our toys just yet.

NEXT: Let the students think for themselves!

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