Friday, March 13, 2020

Let’s put on a show….

Those of us of a certain age will remember TV reruns of the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals of the 1930s that got a lot of airtime in the 1960s as fillers for local TV stations looking for inexpensive content to air.  The plot always seemed to revolve around the need to show off the two young stars’ singing and dancing talents.  The heart of the movie revealed itself when Rooney flashed that mischievous smile he had and said something like, “My uncle has a barn we can use.  Let’s put on a show.”  The thin plot line then revolved around the rehearsals and performances that allowed Rooney and Garland to shine.

With all the talk of education moving to online formats in the current crisis, I’m reminded of those movies.  Get a barn, a group of kids, and then let them sing and dance their way into 90 minutes of entertaining frolic.  In this current circumstance, though, it’s, “We have online technology; let’s use it to teach.”  Well, just like a musical takes skills and an incredible amount of time and hard work to produce in the real world, just having a technology isn’t enough to replicate such a complex activity as learning and teaching.  In truth, it takes a lot of preparation and thought to move a course, at any level, into effective e-learning.  I worry that we’ve lost that truth in the demands to, “Let’s put on a show.”

In the past week, I’ve had a few discussions with teachers, and I’ve seen many more have discussions online, as people charged with educating children and adults are scrambling to figure out what to do as their institutions make a sudden move to online instruction.  That’s not to say that these teachers and institutions haven’t used e-learning in the past.  Most educators these days use a course management system to store content.  And many have used e-learning tools like video conferencing to connect their students to the wider world.  But it’s like putting on a musical.  We may have seen a barn, we may have seen a musical, and we may have some talent at signing and dancing.  But putting on a musical?  That requires mastering special skills that cover everything from stage design to directing to acting to marketing to a hundred other important tasks. 

K-12 schools and colleges that have been successful at moving into e-learning have hired good instructional designers to work with teachers.  Good instructional designers are amazing because they help educators rethink what they do to translate their intended impact into an electronic format.  They teach a way of thinking – they offer much more than the tools of e-learning.  That’s because teaching via e-learning is a learned skill that designers can help educators develop.  There are actually benefits to e-learning and there are ways that teachers can replicate the impacts they create in their face-to-face classrooms.  However, teachers generally don’t develop those skills innately.  They need support to develop the skills they need.

A school or college that expects that its teachers will succeed at translating what they do face to face into e-learning will quickly discover the importance of supporting that translation.  Unfortunately, there aren’t anywhere near the number of instructional designers available for the sudden change that schools and colleges are now undertaking.  So rather than looking like a polished MGM musical from the 30s, many of the current efforts, I fear, will look more like a local community talent show:  some highlights, but few stellar moments and even more frustrations for teachers and learners.

What to do?  For now, there’s not much to be done.  There are some schools and colleges that have a robust instructional design department, and they will provide the support that teachers need for the transition.  But this current crisis can be a wake up for educational leaders.  For the 25 years that I’ve been leading, teaching, researching, and developing e-learning, I’ve seen the “Let’s put on a show” model as dominant in discussions of educators outside of e-learning experts.  Educational leaders who hold the purse strings are satisfied to purchase the latest tools in the expectation that the tools are what’s required.  However, just like Judy and Mickey’s barn wouldn’t work in the real world, there needs to be a concurrent effort in the future to do more than just attempt a show.  Schools and colleges need to invest in a future that does more than puts a few assignments into an electronic format and expects learning to occur.  In addition to instructional designers, schools and colleges need to invest in ongoing, job-embedded, quality professional development and support for their teachers.  This moment, as emergencies often do, offers an opportunity to rethink how better to prepare for the future.