The fax machines of education | 2 Min Read

January 28, 2021 – John Watson

Back in the summer, the New York Times ran an article whose title explained a key problem with the health care response to COVID-19:

Bottleneck for U.S. Coronavirus Response: The Fax Machine

Before public health officials can manage the pandemic, they must deal with a broken data system that sends incomplete results in formats they can’t easily use.

Opening paragraph:

Public health officials in Houston are struggling to keep up with one of the nation’s largest coronavirus outbreaks. They are desperate to trace cases and quarantine patients before they spread the virus to others. But first, they must negotiate with the office fax machine. 

The story goes on to provide accounts of fax machines spitting out a thousand pages with incomplete information, as well as the need for Washington State to bring in “25 members of the National Guard to assist with manual data entry for results not reported electronically.”

There are parallels to education that have been evident throughout the response to the pandemic, and may be even more clear as districts consider long-term changes for fall 2021 and beyond.  

When we picture the U.S. health care system in response to COVID-19, we think of doctors, nurses, ICUs, testing, vaccines, etc. We know that the system has been challenged everywhere, and overwhelmed in some places. But we tend to think of the problems as being due to the challenges of a new virus, not primarily because of antiquated systems. But as the Times article explains, antiquated systems are a major part of the problem.

We’re now seeing a similar dynamic in education. I’ve written that I’m somewhat skeptical about long-term innovations in education coming from pandemic-induced changes. But I’m also not entirely consistent on this issue. I’ve had several conversations with superintendents and cabinet-level district leaders who are being very thoughtful about long-term innovations, even as they have to maintain focus on the continued near-term challenges.

Will they succeed in shifting the system? It’s too early to tell. But it’s clear that in order to be successful, they have to navigate the fax machines of education.

What are these? Accountability requirements. Funding systems. State assessments. Employment contracts…and many more.

All of these things serve a purpose. None are as clearly outdated as fax machines. But these and other policies and procedure are likely to hinder the implementation of long-term changes.

I hope I’m wrong, and that a year from now we’re talking about all the adaptations that have flourished in school year 2021-22, driven by the requirements of the pandemic, and the new focus on inequities, as well as the many roles that schools play in society, beyond education.

I hope the fax machines of education don’t get in the way.

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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