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The sudden transition to virtual classroom instruction has been one of the most significant COVID-19-related disruptions. The education system has had to scramble to adopt distance learning technology and techniques. And while organizations have been transitioning to e-learning over the past several years, many companies—including BMO—had to make adjustments to their own employee training programs.
In our latest episode of The Road to Recovery: Expert Conversations, host Eric Boles spoke with three experts at the forefront of these developments about how the pandemic has changed the nature of educational instruction, and what it means for schools, organizations and companies moving forward. Our panelists for the discussion were:
Following is a summary of their conversation. (Click here to read a transcript of the video.)
The Impact of School Closures on Educators
When the pandemic hit in March, the transition to virtual learning platforms made it clear that some schools, teachers and students were more prepared than others. As a college professor, Pope’s experience was similar to that of K-12 teachers.
“It felt like jumping out of a plane at 15,000 feet, and you didn’t know if the parachute was going to open,” Pope said. “Depending on how you taught your class, you were either prepared or you were trying to figure out over the weekend how to prepare.”
Much of the discussion around education in this new environment is focused on technology. As Silber pointed out, if you had stepped into a K-12 classroom about 20 years ago, it probably would have looked similar to a classroom from 100 years ago.
"If you had stepped into a K-12 classroom about 20 years ago, it probably would have looked similar to a classroom from 100 years ago.”—Jeff Silber
But the U.S. has since spent billions of dollars on making sure schools have internet access and the necessary computing tools, which has brought a more dynamic experience to certain subjects. Adaptive learning, for example, allows for more customized instruction. “It’s a much more personalized and interactive than when I was a kid,” Silber said.
That said, many school districts found themselves facing a number of issues regarding virtual learning, particularly student access to technology for remote learning.
“Only about 85% of U.S. households have internet access,” Silber said. “And even if you do have internet access, do you have the hardware to access the internet? Many families do not. A lot of school districts that had the money were providing iPads and laptops to students, but a lot of times there weren’t enough and students had to share.”
Teachers and parents also felt the impact. Even teachers who were comfortable with technology found online instruction challenging. And a lot of parents had to fill in the gaps.
Designing Flexible Curricula
Because so many decisions still need to be made—and because the nature of COVID-19 makes the situation inherently fluid—all of the panelists agreed that curricula will have to be designed with flexibility in mind. For Jeneroux, that means rethinking how BMO designs its employee education courses.
“It’s like Lego blocks—small bursts of things that can be assembled and disassembled to meet the needs of the business and our employees, so we can be much more nimble,” she said. “That includes e-books, animated shorts, video and short-burst classes. Making sure things are mobile so they can be played on a phone and not just a computer.”
"It’s like Lego blocks—small bursts of things that can be assembled and disassembled to meet the needs of the business and our employees, so we can be much more nimble."—Gina Jeneroux
For Pope, flexibility means focusing less on the academic discipline itself and more on engagement. That includes engaging students on a personal level.
Pope starts her classes with one-on-one sessions with each student. She also distributes a survey to assess what type of technology each student has access to. Since the pandemic hit, she’s added more personal questions—such as whether a family member has had COVID-19—to better gauge how a student’s circumstance could affect their academic performance.
“I need to understand the mental health of the learner so I can develop a curriculum that wraps around whatever their current situation is,” Pope said. “It is pulling on our heartstrings in a different way. We have to focus on the human being in a different way we didn’t do before. I feel like a much better educator now due to the pandemic, because I had to be more reflective in the way that I was communicating.”
“I need to understand the mental health of the learner so I can develop a curriculum that wraps around whatever their current situation is. We have to focus on the human being in a different way we didn’t do before."—Kelly Richmond Pope
The Human Factor
Pope touched on an aspect that sometimes gets lost amid all the discussions around technology and teaching techniques. That is, it’s important to keep in mind what effect these issues have beyond the classroom. For example, how do you evaluate employee productivity when many parents find themselves working at home with children who are themselves being educated remotely?
“Our first focus was making sure people had the support they needed,” Jeneroux said. “We provided additional days off if people needed them to be able to manage through the uncertainty of trying to get their kids set up and focus on education.”
Jeneroux also pointed out the importance of managing to objectives. “It doesn’t matter as much exactly when people do the work they need to be doing. If the best time to do something is 10 at night to meet a deliverable, that’s fine. More than anything, we need to be continue to be flexible in this environment because there’s still a lot of uncertainty, and we need to make sure we’re setting up people for success to do their work well.”
Amid that uncertainty, Pope and Jeneroux stressed the importance of providing as much consistency as possible.
“I ensured [my students] that this is the same class I would offer if it were face to face,” Pope said. “So we have speakers, now they just Zoom in. I’m accessible—here’s my email, here’s my phone number. I wanted to assure them that it was the same class, just a different format.”
“Once you chart a course, you don’t want to add uncertainty to the learning process,” Jeneroux said. “So it’s making sure that people know what they can rely on and what you’re able to provide. Some things right out of the gate, we said we’re pausing on this. Other things we would give clear dates on when decisions would be made on programs.”
The Next Steps
As the debate currently rages about how to progress for the fall semester, Pope’s strategy was to prepare for all virtual instruction. So when DePaul University announced that most of its fall classes were going to be virtual, she was ready.
“If you had always planned to be virtual, then to switch back to face-to-face is easier than the other way,” she said. “I had planned to go virtual, but I’m not sure if everyone took that approach. In school districts around the country, if you were waiting for that determination of face-to-face [instruction] and then the light switch goes off that you’re going to go online, you’re back in that scared mode again. The fall may look very similar to the spring, with these emergency triage-type environments. It’s a scary place right now for educators.”
As we move forward, Silber outlined the issues that need to be addressed to make the best out of whatever decisions school districts need to make. “Access to technology—we need better planning,” he said. “In my school district, our local library is opening up to make sure that students who don’t have internet access can come to the library and get access. Faculty training: we’ve seen a lot of districts proactively training faculty. And parents, we’re not expected to be teachers, but we are expected to help. It’s vital that parents are involved with everything going on."
Be sure to learn more about our future episodes here.
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Kelly Richmond Pope is an Associate Professor in the School of Accountancy and MIS at DePaul University and co-founder of Red Flag Mania, Inc. Dr. Pope’s re...(..)View Full Profile >
Gina Jeneroux is a business-focused professional who is on a mission to change how people learn, and how they prepare for the future – starting now. Th...(..)View Full Profile >
Jeff is a senior analyst in BMO Capital Markets Equity Research, covering the business services, industrial services and education sectors, including the staffing...(..)View Full Profile >
Eric is a noted global expert in talent development, business strategy, change management, cultural transformation and peak performance. Eric impacts...(..)View Full Profile >
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