Towards the end of February 2020, my colleague Liz Katz said to me, “Every student is about to have a really bad online learning experience.” That prophetic statement turned out to be at least partially true. In the spring, most students and teachers had little to no prior practice with online instruction, and the result was an uneven and exhausting experience for both students and teachers. But we’ve seen the upside this fall: schools found out that teachers can shift their pedagogy, students can adapt to a different platform, and online learning can be part of what schools do going forward.
The most powerful piece of moving classes online is that it shines a light on the difference between curriculum and pedagogy. Although not entirely welcomed last spring, this was illuminating for administrators who had allowed “good teaching” to be defined by content expertise and the teaching of discipline-specific skills, with little attention paid to school-wide values, the evolution of academic maturity over time, or the transferability of what is taught in a particular course. Schools discovered that if they didn’t have a standard set of pedagogical values to complement their curricular scope and sequence or to align with and measure against their mission, then they couldn’t move to online learning efficiently. This was because they only had one way to teach and assess, and not enough ways to craft or measure deep learning.
Online learning strips away the packaging of what’s happening in classrooms. Schools knew teachers were passionate about their subject area and skilled at building relationships with students, but they didn’t know how ineffective their pedagogical approaches could be. Now they know: some teachers had been measuring what they taught, not what students had learned, and students had mastered the art of doing what teachers expected so that they could earn their As. Then COVID-19 hit and teachers suddenly found themselves online, having to intentionally design for learning because online they could only really measure change over time - how the students grew, what they can transfer to a novel scenario, what progress they have made towards mastery.
As they built online courses, teachers learned how to move away from content delivery and focus on pedagogy - the experiential side of school. Teachers actually already knew how to do this because they’ve coached your teams, run your clubs, and taken kids on service learning trips. They relied on those design skills to bring learning to life online. One Schoolhouse learned this same lesson when we started eleven years ago, and it’s part of why we think online teaching and learning are so important.
As schools ease back into hybrid learning and allow families to dream about the return to full time in-person schooling, let’s not let go of the instructive lesson from 2020: learning happened in novel and trackable ways because students and teachers adjusted pedagogically. This is worth celebrating and holding on to. The ability to design for online learning should become a foundational planning tool for teachers, not because schools need to be ready for the next pandemic or natural disaster, but because it improves learning outcomes.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)