Make Schools More Human By Using Technology | John Watson | 4 Min Read

This blog post is republished from the Digital Learning Collaborative blog – February 11, 2021.

“Make schools more human by using technology” seems like either A) an oxymoron, or B) an example of the old saying that when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In other words, of course, the Digital Learning Collaborative would think that the way to make schools “more human” is by using more tech.

But as I was reading an article with that title, originally published in December in the New York Times, two thoughts kept going through my head. One was that the column was raising more problems than solutions. The second was that we see solutions to the problems raised, being applied by hybrid schools—especially those that have added digital learning to improve the student experience in non-digital ways.

Make Schools More Human: The pandemic showed us that education was broken. It also showed us how to fix it” opens with a fairly standard—and accurate—critique of much pandemic-induced remote learning.

“There is little doubt that going to school is, on average, better for students [than remote learning]. They are frequently tuning out of virtual learning. In higher poverty communities, older students are working to help make ends meet or have simply disappeared from the school rolls. What parents have seen streamed into their living rooms often reflects uninspired curriculums and pedagogy. Students think much of what they are learning is irrelevant and disconnected from their identities and the world around them.”

Fair enough, especially given that the writer acknowledges that some students have found remote learning to be better than traditional school.

The column then goes on to explore what might be different when schools return:

“It’s looking as though all schools should be able to open fully in the fall. The pandemic — and the pause in institutionalized schooling — has helped us to see what should change when that happens.

The first lesson that the pandemic has revealed is the limits of one-size-fits-all schooling…When we reopen schools, could we do so in a way that creates different kinds of opportunities for all kinds of students — introverts and extroverts, fast processors and reflective thinkers?”

“Opportunities for all kinds of students”—this is exactly what forward-thinking states, districts, and schools are creating. Whether it’s the relatively small percentage of students who are well served by fully online schools, or the increasing number of hybrid schools that combine online learning with onsite instruction, these options exist precisely to provide such opportunities. To the extent that districts are adding such options—and we are hearing from quite a few that are adding new options for students—this is a silver lining in the gray cloud of the pandemic.

The column delves into a second area in which hybrid schools are already implementing what the author suggests:

“Classrooms that are thriving during the pandemic are the ones where teachers have built strong relationships and warm communities, whereas those that focus on compliance are really struggling without the compulsion that physical school provides.”

Again, his column is on target in identifying a problem, and he acknowledges that some teachers have built the relationships that have helped students thrive. But the next step in this analysis is determining how do schools create the conditions in which relationships can thrive—as opposed to relying entirely on individual teachers working within the constraints of school schedules, state assessments, etc? We have seen precisely this approach in schools as different as Crossroads Flex in North Carolina, and The Village High School in Colorado. These schools (both of which are district schools, not charters), prioritize making sure that each student has someone in a very close mentor/advising/champion role, in part by shifting some instruction to online, freeing time for teachers and other adults.

One final example:

“Another part of making schools more human is having them start later; some studies show that teenagers’ mental health actually improved last spring, and researchers think one of the most likely explanations is that the students got more sleep.”

The idea that early school start times create problems for students is not new, but despite strong evidence that later start times would help, various impediments have kept most schools from pushing start times to be significantly later. But some mainstream schools, recognizing that some students are more impacted than others, allow students to take an online course on their own time, and start the school day during the second period or even later. Hybrid schools take this approach a step further. The Village in Colorado starts its required onsite time at 9:30 am, allowing students to work online earlier or later in the day.

The New York Times article author is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and as such appears to be firmly within the establishment of public education. His column raises several excellent points about educational problems and post-pandemic opportunities. I hope he may also be aware of the schools that have been addressing these issues, and solving these problems, even before the pandemic hit.

John Watson

As Evergreen’s founder and primary researcher, John Watson is responsible for conducting, writing, and presenting research as well as providing testimony on digital learning matters to state boards of education, legislatures, and charter school commissions. He has extensive knowledge and experience based on his two decades working in online learning and education technology. This background has afforded him a wide-reaching network across the spectrum of education professionals, policymakers, and subject matter experts as well as the ability to provide insightful, dimensional analysis and recommendations. After earning his MBA and a MS in natural resource policy at the University of Michigan, John went to work for one of the first Learning Management System companies, eCollege, in early 1998. He launched eCollege’s K-12 division, called eClassroom, and managed eClassroom’s research and business development. This experience was the springboard for John’s independent consulting in environmental policy and education which evolved into what Evergreen Education Group is today. John is deeply moved by stories of students and teachers who have been positively impacted by technology in classrooms, online courses, and innovative schools. He strives to tell these stories accurately and to clearly explain the challenges inherent with digital learning in order to bring an honest, balanced perspective to Evergreen’s insight and recommendations. His ability to approach research and relationships with consideration for bias and hierarchy makes him a natural connector between information and people. John has presented and led panel discussions at numerous conferences and convenings. In addition to his research for Evergreen, John writes regularly about various issues related to digital learning and is a contributing author of the Handbook of Research on K-12 Online and Blended Learning. His and Evergreen’s work has been cited in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Education Week, and eSchool News, and he has also appeared on NBC Nightly News.

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