Editorial: Pandemic has silver lining for learning

April 22, 2020   |   By Wisconsin State Journal Editorial Board

Wisconsin State Journal

Online learning, with students and teachers collaborating on digital platforms, has been optional for the last decade at most public schools.

Not anymore.

With the coronavirus pandemic forcing K-12 schools and colleges to close their buildings and campuses to avoid spreading a potentially deadly disease, using distance technology to educate students is now required.

The abrupt yet necessary transition has been uncomfortable for those who cling to the traditional learning model of students seated in a classroom listening to a teacher.

But the demand for learning from home is forcing students, educators and parents across Wisconsin to dive head-first into the digital world. And in the long run, this should move our education systems forward.

Across society, in fact, workers in countless professions and fields are quickly having to adopt technologies they had avoided or didn’t know existed. How many people used Zoom video conferences before the governor issued a stay-at-home order to avoid the virus? Raise your hands. Anyone? 

Our State Journal editorial board just started meeting and podcasting on Zoom, rather than relying on clumsy conference calls.

It’s a new world, and we all need to be open and flexible so distance technology can benefit and improve what we do.

Many Madison schools already were using Google Classroom to submit homework and do projects. But the district had to dramatically expand its online offerings to more than 25,000 students in a matter of weeks. It wasn’t always smooth. Some students and staff have struggled to engage. Some families don’t have fast or any internet. The digital divide could exacerbate achievement gaps.

But classes are proceeding — with many of us impressed by what’s been possible, and how quickly our children can adapt and advance.

UW-Madison, which already incorporated technology into traditional classrooms, converted thousands of courses to online-only in just a week.

“In my world,” said Richard Halverson, a UW-Madison education professor, “there’s a lot of sadness and apprehension. But I’m looking at an emergence of an entirely new form of literacy for teachers and learners — technology-enabled learning literacy, which is kind of remarkable. It might be the next revolution in how we think about education.”

Halverson studies technology in education and wrote the 2018 book “Rethinking education in the age of technology” with Allan Collins.

Nobody, of course, wanted a pandemic to threaten people’s lives and stall our economy. But a silver lining to these difficult times could be the way the virus, in limiting our movement, has forced us to adopt — not just dabble with — technologies that were here all along.

It’s a big opportunity. Distance technology can customize our learning and help us be more efficient and effective in the global economy.

The digital classroom has its limits and won’t replace teachers or school buildings. Face-to-face human interaction is still best.

But the COVID-19 crisis is pushing the education world to embrace virtual learning, and the rest of society to communicate in new ways, all of which should improve our collective knowledge over time.

Halverson said he’s wondered for years when technology would become just everyday tools for learning, “and it looks like right now — the spring of 2020.”