SARAH HANSEN: Welcome to a special episode of Chalk Radio,
a podcast about inspired teaching at MIT
from MIT OpenCourseWare.
I'm your host Sarah Hansen.
In this episode, we want to share some insights
into the many ways we can transition
our traditional learning environments into remote ones.
We connected with someone whose work even
before the pandemic hit has been deeply focused on
how learning is changing.
Our conversation started off with what's
become a familiar sound for listeners with young ones
SPEAKER 2: [children playing, family talking].
SPEAKER 3: Well, it looks like, ...
SARAH HANSEN: Just so you know, you
might hear some more of this in the background
throughout the episode.
We're all doing the best we can working from home, right?
JUSTIN REICH: Hey, girls--
SPEAKER 2: Dance party.
SARAH HANSEN: Anyhow, let's jump right in.
JUSTIN REICH: I'm Justin Reich.
So I'm an assistant professor in Comparative Media Studies.
And I run a lab called the Teaching Systems Lab.
And the mission of the Teaching Systems Lab
is to design, implement, and research
the future of teacher learning.
And we try to figure out new ways for teachers
to learn in online and blended ways.
SARAH HANSEN: In his work, Justin partners
with teachers and instructors, curriculum designers, software
developers, researchers, and experts from across disciplines
to help teachers adapt to the changing world of learning.
Since the pandemic has shifted almost all teaching
to remote instruction, Justin's work
has adapted to the new needs of instructors.
JUSTIN REICH: I would say the bulk of my teaching energy
has gone into helping K-12 educators and education
policymakers across the country.
But most of my work has been trying
to provide some guidance for schools and school leaders
figuring out what distance learning can look like.
SARAH HANSEN: So for schools and teachers with little
or even no experience with online instruction,
where do they even begin to approach remote learning?
With so much changing each day, what
are the most important things educators
should be thinking about?
JUSTIN REICH: These are enormously complicated issues
to deal with while you're trying to feed millions more
meals to kids than you ever had before
in large districts or big urban school systems
while you're trying to help your entire faculty
transition almost instantaneously
into a new model of learning.
I mean, doing all of these things at the same time
is just immensely complicated.
So I would encourage people to keep it simple.
That's one principle.
A second principle is to really think
about how you can partner with students and in K12
with their families.
So the coronavirus feels like it's
something being done to us.
It feels like something that we have very little control over.
But our response to the coronavirus
can be something that we build together.
So I would encourage education leaders at every level from
college provosts to elementary school teachers to school
principals, superintendents -- whatever it is--
asking and partnering with everybody in the system
is a really important part of responding to remote learning.
What most emergency remote learning should look like
is kind of a package of asynchronous materials
that's coupled with lots of frequent check-ins.
SARAH HANSEN: Synchronous versus asynchronous teaching
or offering learning experiences at a specific time
versus providing students with the material
to engage with on their own time is
at the core of Justin's message for teachers.
JUSTIN REICH: So in lots of circumstances,
synchronous learning is not going to work for people.
It's hard for all of us to line up our schedules.
In K12 circumstances, you've got a teacher who's got a first
grader, a fourth grader, and a seventh grader who's trying
to teach her kids who are ninth graders,
but they have siblings or third graders and fourth graders
and 12th graders...
and trying to line up all those schedules so that people
can be synchronously in front of the one computer
that exists in a household or to use the amount of bandwidth
because your home only allows one synchronous video call
to happen at a time, it's just too complicated.
So for the most part, what educators
should be thinking of setting up is some kind of package
of curriculum that lasts about a week or two
maybe with some sort of daily guides of what people might
be doing each day recognizing that people might have
to do two days of work in one day
because they get busy with other stuff for another day,
or things like that and then providing
frequent points of check-in.
So a huge part of what motivates us as learners
is when we're getting feedback on what we're doing.
And this doesn't have to be based around grades or numbers
or other things like that.
Just "that was a great idea.
Keep that up.
Tell me more about that."
"Wow, it looks like you did more on this assignment
than anyone you've done before.
What else could you do with this?
How could you take this further?
It seems like you're interested in this."
SARAH HANSEN: Shifting so heavily
toward asynchronous teaching might feel strange at first.
But this one change may address in a small way
some of the equity issues school systems and individuals are
facing right now such as differing access
to dependable Wi-Fi.
JUSTIN REICH: There's no survey that
was done in advance of the pandemic that asked questions,
like, "do you have one device for each school-aged child
or learner in your home and a broadband connection
and a printer to be able to print things out?"
Like, we actually don't know how well families
are equipped for this pandemic.
But it's pretty clear that a lot of our low-income housing
is in broadband deserts or isn't networked in.
I mean, there's lots of people in urban environments
who in their typical daily lives can
get by with having one mobile broadband device
in their house, and that's plenty.
But now if you've got three school-aged kids at home,
your demands have just increased substantially.
But I think partnering with students,
I think, really thinking about, who
are the most vulnerable learners in our community?
There are some people who come from affluent well-equipped
And they're able to weather this crisis in a very different way
than if you're going back into a poverty-impacted place that
is really feeling the effects of the recession
and the coronavirus.
I think the students that aren't reaching out--
I think the ones that are not doing well,
I think we always had this responsibility.
But I think during a pandemic, we
have a special responsibility to reach out to those students
and say, "how can I help you with this?
How can I keep you on track?"
SARAH HANSEN: And helping students
stay on track is another big part of the puzzle
for a lot of educators out there, especially
for classes that form the foundations for later learning.
JUSTIN REICH: I mean, I think the other thing
that universities and other places need to do
is be strategic about what it is that we want
students to be able to learn.
So if you were to go across the OCW catalog,
I think you would find at least two types of courses.
One type of course is where to study a discipline you
sample from a canon.
So literature is the most obvious example of this.
But I think it appears in STEM classes and other places
If you were to take a Shakespeare class at MIT,
you wouldn't read all of Shakespeare's work.
You would read some selected sample of that work.
And we would probably be willing to say
we read Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night
and a couple of sonnets before we left.
And we were going to do that much work again
in the fourth quarter.
But actually, this time, we're just going to read Henry the V.
And we'll do it a little bit more slowly.
And that'll be fine.
That is a less of a sampling of the canon
that we would have done previously.
But it's a perfectly reasonable sampling of the canon.
We'll give you your emergency pass grade.
Everything is fine.
There are other courses in which there's
a sequential building of material of understanding
in which subsequent courses depend upon that sampling
So our Introduction to Statistics Class,
it's not suitable to say to a student, ah,
we're just going to do half of multiple regression.
And we're just not going to teach you the other half
or figure it out on their own.
I mean, one of the things that I think at the department
level or other levels people need to do
is to say there's some courses that we strategically reduced.
And those young people will be fine for the rest
of their lives.
We don't have to worry about it.
There are other courses that we had to strategically reduce
in a pandemic.
But we've got to figure out how we support students
in learning that material so they don't show up
at Intermediate Statistics in the fall
without the preparation that they need
to be successful and still, the sort of lingering
effects of the pandemic.
So that's a kind of strategic question.
It's probably best resolved at the department level--
something along the lines of, who are the students
in our core classes that we think missed learning materials
that they really are going to need?
And how are we going to supplement over the summer
or right when people come back in August or in the fall
or whatever the new model looks like to identify
the areas in which it's not OK to just strategically reduce.
But instead, we got to figure out
how we help people get the learning that they
need to be successful in subsequent courses.
SARAH HANSEN: When I asked Justin
about putting new teaching approaches into practice
and developing materials to support educators
during COVID-19, we got to talking about education
From the system as a whole to each individual participant,
there's such a wide range of needs and no one prescription
for addressing them all.
And in a time when teachers should
be focusing on partnering with students and families
and identifying how to strategically
reduce and recover content area material,
open educational resources may have an important role to play.
JUSTIN REICH: Students differ so much from place to place.
One of the things that I'm seeing
is that a lot of big districts are
creating sample lessons, sample schedules--
those kinds of things.
But my initial evidence is that a lot of teachers
aren't using them, not necessarily because they're
bad or wrong, but just because they,
like, aren't right for where their kids are right now.
And so a lot of teachers feel the need
to be basically inventing their own new distance learning
curriculum as they're learning a whole series of new practices
and co-inventing them with their students
and finding the forty percent of their kids
who aren't answering emails or responding to phone calls
and facilitating their own kids' instruction at home.
I mean, I think that's something that people really
need to keep in mind.
But I would say that if schools are facing waves
of closure in the fall or other kinds of challenges like this,
I would really encourage people to say,
even though it's not exactly the way I would want to teach it,
there may be a better comparative advantage
for faculty members to focus on that check-in,
that facilitation role rather than trying
to generate original content by video without a studio
and without all the other resources that we need,
or consider doing less of that, consider saying, "oh,
in my solid state chemistry course,
I can find these MIT OpenCourseWare videos.
And six of the 10 lectures are great.
And I'm going to only record four for the period
that we have to miss in the fall" or other kinds of things
I mean, I think one of the things that we've discovered
is that faculty find it very difficult to identify
whole online courses that they like to just take and sort
of use as textbooks.
But it strikes me that a pandemic is exactly
the sort of time in which people might want to employ
that kind of thinking.
SARAH HANSEN: One of the most important factors
in determining our best way forward
is looking at how we actually measure
the success of remote learning.
Who do we look to for guidance and models
of what is best right now?
It's not as simple as it might seem.
JUSTIN REICH: So we just did this report
about the remote learning guidance offered
by all 50 states.
And one of the cautions that we have in the report
is there are good reasons to believe that lots of teachers
are not doing what this says, that educational systems are
what we call loosely coupled.
So there are tightly-coupled systems
in our society like the military.
If a general in the military says everyone's hair should
be shorter than x inches, then within weeks,
there would be hundreds of thousands
of soldiers around the world whose hair is shorter
than those number of inches.
Teaching is not like that.
Education policymakers, leaders all the time make edicts.
And teachers sift through them.
And they apply them as they see fit in their own context
for a variety of reasons.
And because of the incredible granularity of teaching,
in a lot of cases, we just don't know
what's happening at the classroom level.
I think most of the places that we
say are doing a good job of remote learning,
their primary characteristic is that they are affluent.
One way you can do a good job of remote learning
is have a bunch of kids in stable homes
with broadband internet connections
who each have their own device.
And if those conditions exist, then you
will have a thing that looks a lot like good learning.
If those conditions don't exist, regardless of the heroic effort
of teachers, you'll have things that look
like less effective learning.
The way that my colleague Tressie McMillan Cottom
said this is like the number one thing
that education has to reduce inequality is the school.
The school is the thing that we've lost.
And there's not a mechanism to like, rapidly
make up those sort of equalizing forces.
So that's a long way of saying that I don't think
I know of places that I would say, wow,
these folks are doing a really great job addressing this.
I think one measure that people are using to define a good job
is who can do things most quickly?
Who can get the thing that looks closest
to what school looked like before up and running
I'm not convinced at the end of this
that that will end up being a good proxy for better.
SARAH HANSEN: And in the end, it seems
like better learning while we are at home simply
looks different than what we're used to.
And the more we can embrace that,
the better off we as parents, students, and educators may be.
JUSTIN REICH: I've encouraged both families and educators
to, if possible, not put too much stock in trying
to recreate school at home.
There are lots of things that schools
can do in their local environments that
can be really hard to replicate in a home environment.
But there's lots of learning that can happen at home.
And what we need to do as best we can,
cultivate and celebrate that learning.
I was interviewed recently by a reporter
from The Arctic Sounder, which is the newspaper of the north
slope of Alaska--
very bad connectivity up there.
And so remote learning is not going
to look like what it looks like in an affluent Boston suburb.
And what a lot of teachers there were saying is, like, look,
this is a great time for families
to strengthen their connection to traditional Inupiaq values.
This is a great time for kids to learn how to cook and bake
and sew and bead and repair snow machines
and do all the kinds of learning that can happen really
well at home.
So I think to families out there that
are sort of struggling during this period,
it is totally normal to struggle during a pandemic.
If you feel like this is hard and is anxiety-provoking,
that is normal and lots of people feel that way.
And I think our goals--
we can't put too much pressure on ourselves
about keeping up and staying up and things
like that-- think about what can you
do to maximize the learning and the resilience that
happens right now?
And if part of what we do to do that is
like teach our kids new chores, if it's
time for those nine and 10-year-olds
to start doing their first load of laundry,
or their six or seven-year-olds to do
their first sink of dishes, like,
that's great learning too that we
can do really well at the home.
And we can probably do some reading and some math
and some social studies and science along the way too.
And some of that relates to the first piece of advice
that I offered before, which is let's partner
with our learners.
And if those learners happen to be our own kids, so much
the better to be partnering with them.
SARAH HANSEN: If you're interested in learning more
about teaching remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic,
check out Justin's WBUR On Point interview
where he talks about how colleges and universities are
teaching students virtually.
We've provided a link to that in our show notes.
Justin also hosts Teach Lab, a new podcast that explores
the art and craft of teaching.
Several of the show's recent episodes
focus on teaching during COVID-19.
That link can be found in the show notes as well.
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Until next time, please stay safe.
I'm Sarah Hansen from MIT OpenCourseWare.