The New Normal

Our students have access to more information than ever, making teaching and learning more challenging. To keep up with this constant change, teachers in K–12 and post-secondary programs increasingly focus on research skills and problem solving across the curriculum. While it’s possible to teach these skills remotely, it’s difficult to compare Zoom breakout rooms with group work in a physical classroom, or virtual science experiments with work in a lab. Remote learning also makes it challenging to build and maintain relationships and teach students how to navigate the culture of college and workplace settings.

This New Normal has exacerbated digital and learning divides. High-speed internet access is now indispensable, though more than 40% of students in low-income US households lack consistent access to computers with internet. Students in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and other large school districts are given computing devices if they don’t have their own through programs like “Chicago Connected”, which helps. But it’s unclear how those devices will be maintained, or how families will have high-speed internet once funding for these programs runs out. Even with fast internet and a working device, “students need to be in classrooms that inspire them—spaces that are light, airy, and filled with examples of work that they aspire to do,” Rita Pin Ahrens, director of education policy for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, told The Atlantic.

Students also gain inspiration from the peers and adults who surround them during their learning. Families who can afford it are forming learning pods, hiring tutors and teachers for as much as $50,000 a year. CPS has opened “Child Learning Hubs” for select high-needs students in grades K–8, but even there the classroom supervisors can’t provide sufficient academic support. Neither option is sustainable long-term.

The pandemic also is widening divides on college campuses. Most colleges moved to virtual learning, shutting down their campuses to prevent spreading COVID. In response to college becoming virtual, six times more Black and Latinx students decided to take a leave of absence this year compared with last year, while only twice as many white students took time off. It’s unclear how many of these students will return.

Here is what to expect moving forward in the New Normal in education.

  • Learning Pods. There are growing options for families that can’t afford to hire their own teachers and don’t qualify for public services like Child Learning Hubs. Small businesses in and around Chicago have transformed gyms and coffee shops into safe spaces where students can continue remote learning with adult supervision. The North Shore YMCA has created learning pods with flexible pricing that resemble day camp, complete with STEM blocks and access to gymnastics and pool facilities. While the learning pod model isn’t ideal, we can expect that it will lead to long-term changes in how we define school. Distance learning empowers families to allow students to learn from anywhere and take advantage of the resources around them.

  • College Life. Hybrid and online college programs already were becoming popular before the pandemic began. In 2018, 47% of undergraduate students took degree programs online so they’d have more flexibility for other commitments. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 98% of undergrad programs have moved online. Online programs make college more accessible for students from historically underrepresented communities, but students are much less likely to complete online programs than in-person ones.

  • The key to student success in distance learning: relationships with each other and with their teachers.

  • 21st Century Skills. An organization of top companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Verizon recently identified that collaboration, flexibility and adaptability, information literacy, and problem solving are critical skills to prepare for jobs that don’t exist yet. Our New Normal in education is forcing students, families, and educators to build and use these skills more than ever. As the learning experience evolves, the education sector will continue to develop ways for students to become better problem solvers and for students and teachers to collaborate.

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The Conversation_