Due to Covid-19, the 2020-21 school year has become a vehicle for student, parent, educator and administrative perspectives about safety. Based upon one’s appetite for risk and role in or outside of education, several options are available in most jurisdictions by virtue of:
a continuation of face-to-face instruction, modified as necessary through alternative scheduling, class arrangements and the availability and use of protective equipment, or
distance/remote learning that maintains existing structures, as best possible through online platforms, for students who choose to stay at home instead of physically attending school.
In response to the challenges associated with distance/remote learning, many communities are now seeing a rapid increase in the number of people willing to commit personal resources to find peace of mind through the organization of private learning pods. This demand represents a personal dissatisfaction of some parents with distance learning and belief of potentially unsafe conditions at school due to, among other things, concerns about class sizes, availability and use of protective equipment, and transportation.
There is also a legitimate concern from proponents of public education of the inequity and non-inclusive nature of private learning pods. It is felt that students from families of comparably less means will be compromised of access to similar learning opportunities, safety, and the necessary daily supervision that allows parents and caregivers to work. In some jurisdictions, the inclusive and equitable goal of public education itself is also considered to be at risk because some parents will inevitably seek to replace their public school support with privately organized alternatives.
What About Publicly Funded Learning Pods?
Under current arrangements most publicly funded educational systems cannot reasonably afford to match the student to teacher ratio of private learning pods - with one teacher supervising as few as 4 or 5 students full time. However, the potential for organizing publicly funded learning pods is often only viewed through the lens of our traditional education system structures. That is why distance learning is typically offered as a singular alternative for parents and students who don’t want to attend school physically.
When examined through the lens of personalized online learning, the operational constructs and organization of publicly funded learning pods become much more feasible and enticing. Educational systems can, in fact, be organized with a view to personalized service, and the demand for learning pods can be used to leverage this opportunity. It really comes down to how we interpret what a classroom is and the working relationship between student and teacher. The organization of publicly funded learning pods requires an interpretation of their structure, not in relation to traditional classrooms, but in relation to the interests and longitudinal capacity and growth of students as individuals.
Personalized online learning promotes the capacity of students to create their own learning pathways through individualized cross-curricular planning and real time information. Thus, the teacher’s role moves from being the one who designs and delivers the learning to being the person who teaches students how to design and evaluate their own learning. The constructs of this model, in comparison to traditional classrooms, require a different use of the time and expertise of teachers and support staff that can align well with the organization of learning pods.
Illustrative Example of the Operational Differences between
Distance Learning and Publicly Funded Learning Pods
In the illustrative example (left) above, one teacher and support staff overseeing a classroom of 25 students through distance learning are required to meet minimum instructional time to students. Maintaining student engagement in this model can be difficult because students, including those in primary grades, are often expected to meet for several hours a day in virtual classroom settings. Differentiated support, already a challenge in face-to-face classrooms, can be even more difficult for both adults and students in virtual settings. It is these realities that are causing the organization of private learning pods which, for all intents and purposes, maintain the same instructional model but with significantly smaller teacher to student ratios.
In the illustrative example (right) above, one teacher and support staff also oversee 25 students. But in this model the students are organized in 5 learning pods of between 4 and 6 students each. The work of the teacher and support staff is not guided by pre-determined time expectations, but upon a continual response to a gradual release of responsibility as students build their capacity for self-learning. The key to this model involves a deep understanding and alignment of student interests with curriculum and learning expectations. Students and teachers can bundle expectations in any way they want to, as long as they continually monitor and adjust in keeping with jurisdictional curriculum outcomes.
There is a common misperception that online personalization requires teachers to design a personalized plan for every student. In actuality, students who possess the necessary skills and disposition for online learning can design their own plan. Imagine building the capacity of students to make the link between different curriculum and expectations with a learning pathway they have chosen. Imagine students using the internet to reach out to other students with similar interests to collaborate together on projects of interest. Imagine students demonstrating their knowledge, skills and abilities in real-life authentic contexts that mean something to them.
Many parents and students are being asked to decide between face-to-face and distance learning for the 2020-21 school year. Of the parents and students requesting distance learning, any classroom, school or school district can find value in understanding the extent to which these students already believe they hold the capacity for online personalized learning. In doing so, opportunities can be created to improve the learning conditions of students who could accept more responsibility for self-directed learning. Additionally, there could be a deliberate focus on the wellness, skills and dispositions for personalized online learning of students that are not connecting well with distance learning. Publicly funded learning pods can provide an operational structure for this to happen. However, some information is required up front to initiate and guide this process.
The Student Online Readiness Tool (SORT)
To initiate the process of moving from distance to personalized online learning, classroom, school and district level systems need information to understand and apply student perspectives about their readiness for self-directed learning. There are seven research informed skills, abilities and dispositions that students need in order to be successful with this. They are:
Perseverance - hanging in there when thinks get tough,
Seeking Help - getting help from other people when necessary,
Communication - transferring your thoughts, ideas and feelings to other people,
Planning and Organization - thinking ahead about what needs to be done and how to do it,
Time Management - understanding how you use your time,
Independent (critical) thinking - looking at things in a way that helps find meaning, and
Tech proficiency - being able to use computers, devices and software in the best possible way.
The Student Online Readiness Tool (SORT) allows students, alone or with teachers, support staff, coaches or other members of the student’s personal and school community, to self-assess their readiness for personalized online learning based upon these skills, attributes and dispositions.
The SORT is free and available for anyone to use at Student Online Readiness Tool
Potential SORT Applications
The SORT is not a test or an answer to things. Instead, it acts as a vehicle for self-assessment that can initiate and help maintain a process of personal growth that can be aligned with educational outcomes. At a minimum, the SORT can help raise student awareness about whether online learning is a good fit for them. Should they wish, students can use a SORT report to share these perspectives with others in their personal and/or learning community. As a result, the SORT can have useful applications with mentors, coaches and community agencies that play such an important role in helping to develop the personal growth capacity of youth.
Education systems and community agencies may also wish to use customized versions the SORT so that student perspectives can be aggregated and assist their personalized service structures, staff development and other strategically informed action. These customized versions can be developed on request.
When Opportunity and the Unexpected Intersect
Our public education systems need reasonable and effective alternatives to the safety concerns of face-to-face instruction, and the student engagement issues of distance learning, during an unprecedented time of uncertainty.
Sometimes, not often, we can leverage unexpected events in a way that can advance previously unavailable opportunities. This is one of those occasions. Parental interest in private learning pods, and associated concerns about student equity and inclusion, are realities that needs to be addressed. As an alternative to distance learning, publicly funded learning pods can broaden our limited interpretation of education by aligning student agency with learning.
Let’s use this opportunity to do what is right for our children. Publicly funded learning pods can be structured to personalize student learning; to use their strengths and interests as the foundation for growth. This will have the added advantage of securing a vibrant future for public education as a whole.