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Capitalizing on requisite seismic shifts in education: Cultivating the empowerment of the learner

Imagine….a world being swept by a pandemic of unprecedented proportions. The surge and contagion of the illness force nations and local governments to levy isolation and shut down non-essential business and activities. Citizens urged to keep to their homes and operate via technology as a connection to society. A reality where schools close for an indefinite period of time. Not just “one” school, not just schools in a particular region, but nationally and globally, a coordinated physical shut down is carried out of primary, secondary, and post-secondary educational institutions. No students on the majority of campuses anywhere. Teachers and learners are all relegated to remote learning, with most institutions attempting to deliver instruction via both synchronous and asynchronous virtual technologies. No bells, no schedules, no mandated and proctored assessments, nor credit/clock hour requirements to attend to. How would parents and caregivers manage? How would teachers and professors respond? How would students continue to learn? How does the unemployed workforce retool for what comes next?

Oh, wait this is our current reality. Catalysts that we never could conceive of have now entered the landscape. Hundreds of thousands of students and faculty have entered the online space (Lederman, 2020) in a “black swan” inflection point that is “not only enormously disruptive but also paradigm changing” (Blumenstyk, 2020). While much could be written as to whether the quality is good and the processes will support widespread student success, the point still remains that many K-12 and higher education institutions that insisted that their model was the right and only model for directing learners has fundamentally and permanently shifted. That’s not to say that the tilted axis under us will not right itself. I am hopeful that such a resilient populace will rebound after the profound effects of the deadly COVID-19 epidemic has passed; however, it may be very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle and perhaps this pestilent agent will give way to positive learning outcomes.

The learning has just shifted globally from an industrialized transmission of knowledge to the empowerment of the individual learner. In a society that has cultivated a hierarchical model of teaching where the student listens, follows instructions, and waits to receive information, learners who are compliant are successful. Success in this environment begets another generation of learners that complete assignments as they are told, demonstrate fleeting “knowing” through the regurgitation of facts on exams, which is propagated by those who too were successful in this model. But now what? Individuals might be in their homes waiting to be told what to do next, but I would assert that this is not likely. Many are charting a course as agents of their own learning, whether they are parents guiding children or adults establishing new pathways. Could this be the impetus toward the rising of the learner? Is this finally the time to value, support, encourage, and structure the individual, personalized, self-directed learning options as part of and not segmented from formalized academic processes?

As faculty and teachers transition from the comfort of their physical pulpits, they virtually continue to play critical roles. They are as important to learner self-direction as our physical distancing is to reducing the spread of COVID-19. Lifelines and resources need to be incorporated into learners’ daily routine and plans. Focusing on personalized connections can be more important than content delivery in supporting the success of students (Rubin, 2020). Teachers are not, however, able to operate under traditional classroom management and other learner control mechanisms to dictate, require, and assume responsibility for learner outcomes. “Learning at home cannot be standardized” and the “consensus advice” appears to be to integrate a small bit of formal with experiential activities (Childress, 2020).

The institutions, teachers/faculty/trainers, learners, and community are all attempting to find ways from their distinct vantage point to limit wasted time and capitalize on technology opportunities to provide a sense of purpose, productivity, and future workforce readiness. “Hopefully, these phases of trouble shooting can provide universities, professors and students the opportunity to practice adaptability, patience and resilience.” (Iwai, 2020). There are more questions than answers at this point that shift the liability for learner success from the school or teacher to the learner and society. Why society? There is a social element to this musing that could provide an opportunity to mitigate the digital divide and high-speed internet access.

I would be remiss to not address the equity of the current academic virtual transition and physical shutdown. Learning for all. Regardless of age, economic status, community internet access, technology availability, race/ethnicity, gender, or any other demographic variable, all are faced with finding their learning way through the next few months. Larry Brilliant notes in an interview with Levy (2020):

This is a really unprecedented and difficult time that will test us. When we do get through it, maybe like the Second World War, it will cause us to reexamine what has caused the fractional division we have in this country. The virus is an equal opportunity infector. And it’s probably the way we would be better if we saw ourselves that way, which is much more alike than different.

Let me underscore: “This virus is an equal opportunity infector.” The responsive actions should recognize and provide for the lacking infrastructure that is required to allow all, despite the variables noted above, to have some control over their learning future. Broadband, technology access, virtual mentors, and other very personalized services will be needed. It is no longer enough to send those in lower income or rural conditions to libraries, community centers, or other locations where people would have normally congregated. Such physical congregation will not be possible for an indefinite period of time. The target audience that needs additional service and unique solutions is not young students nor recently employed adults; rather, it is both of these and every learner along the continuum--all.

Beyond the reporting, political posturing, and hand wringing in this very serious situation, there is the opportunity as a community to engage in serious dialogue about what this situation means for learners that now must be agentic, facilitators of knowledge, and institutions of learning (at all levels). Be certain, it is not online learning that will act as the stimulant in this situation. Online learning had been alive and well long before; rather, it is the whole alteration of previously held assumptions, systems, and personal identities. Terra firma has fallen away and it will take all of our efforts to redesign, rebuild and deliver new models. Ask the questions, rethink the unthinkable, shed the previously held assumptions of what “school” looks like and let’s rebuild the learning capital that will be required to bring us to the future. This is not science fiction or a what-if tabletop exercise. This is now the world we live in. So let’s craft the new reality together.

Blumenstyk, G. (2020, 11 March). Why Coronavirus looks like a ‘black swan’ moment for higher ed. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Childress, S. (2020, 20 March). 40 Million students in 4 days. How is the shift to learning at home going? Forbes. Retrieved from

Iwai, Y. (2020. 13 March). Online Learning during the COVID-19 Pandemic What do we gain and what do we lose when classrooms go virtual? Retrieved from Online Learning during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Scientific American, Retrieved from

Lederman, D. (2020, 18 March). Will Shift to Remote Teaching Be Boon or Bane for Online Learning? Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Levy, S. (2020, 19 March). We can do this-The doctor who helped defeat smallpox explains what’s coming: We can beat the novel conoravirus-but fist, we need lots of testing. Wired, Science. Retrieved from

Rubin, S. [@ShawnCRubin]. (2020, March 22). While it can be tempting to focus on content in your distance learning assignments and instructional videos, what matters more is creating structures for personalized touchpoints with your students." -- solid advice in this @Kareemfarah23 post #FuseRI @HighlanderInst. Retrieved from

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