Friday, July 30, 2021

About Systems Failures and a Pandemic

I’m annoyed.  Really annoyed.  I live in a community where, as of today, 92.3% of the population, 12 and older received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.  That’s the highest vaccination rate in our county.  We have an incredible volunteer medical and emergency response corps who put together a vaccination campaign that even attracted folks from outside the community to come here and be vaccinated.  Our small, independent pharmacy took a leading role in becoming a hub for vaccinations, and even my dentist’s office purchased a specialized freezer to become a vaccination site.  This is all one outcome of living in a community where large numbers of medical professionals and talented organizers live.  It’s an older population with a median age of 54 where a lot of experienced professionals – many of them retired – are available to organize and participate in making all this happen.  I’m grateful to these people.  My wife and I didn’t move here 24 years ago with the intention of someday living in a secure bubble that protected us from a pandemic.  We came for the forests and connection to the waters that surround us.  But, as it turns out, living here gives us resources that we couldn’t have anticipated – that’s confirmed by our community having the lowest COVID-19 infection rate in the region.  So why am I annoyed?


I’m annoyed because these privileges stop at the community’s edge.  The more ethnically/racially and economically diverse communities in my county have higher infection rates and lower vaccination rates than my community.  These other areas also don’t have a large cadre of volunteer medical professionals at the ready to educate them and to organize the medical services that a community like mine can muster.  It’s the same problem that the nation has always had.  Medical service has historically been available to those with resources.  Even in a pandemic where the impacts of no medical service cross geographic lines, the privileged get more services.  In truth, though, I am no more safe from the pandemic than the neighboring communities are.  In truth, I can’t live in a bubble.  When I have an appointment in a neighboring community, when I shop in another community, when someone in those neighboring communities comes to mine – we are all exposed to each other.  The effect of that borderless exposure becomes more real with reports of “breakthrough cases” among the already vaccinated like me – even if my risk for being infected is small.  It’s clear that the folly of the well-resourced being served and others continuing without those resources doesn’t serve anyone well.  That’s always been the case, and a pandemic just makes the interdependence more apparent. 


I’m also annoyed because of how the politicization of this pandemic has ensured that some areas of the state and nation choose not to take caution.  We have counties in our state where significant numbers of people see public health precautions as a political issue.  Significant numbers of people in these communities are convinced that putting on a mask, social distancing, avoiding crowds, and, ultimately, getting vaccinated are actions that that somehow connect to their personal liberty.  Certain politicians, television networks, religious leaders, and online media outlets fuel these ideas.  As a result, their followers choose to remain defiant to the virus, or they choose to remain ignorant of its impact; or they believe themselves protected from it; or they believe unreasoned conspiracies about vaccines, masks, and social distancing.  These people ignore the warnings of health professionals and the unfolding facts as over 600,000 of our citizens died and over 35 million were infected.  All of the current data suggest that these folks being convinced to be intransigent contributes to the pandemic’s spread and impact on all of us – as do the inequity of resources and the politicization of public health measures.  Seems to me that I have a right to be annoyed by this as much as I’m annoyed by the inequitable medical system that favors people who live in communities like mine. 


Finally, I’m annoyed that economic and political pressures forced an early end to public health and safety measures that were limiting the pandemic’s effect.  Those pressures have supported an anti-science approach where political and economic considerations have equal or more authority as scientific ones.  During a December, 2020 NPR interview, Dr. Fauci said, "I would say 50% would have to get vaccinated before you start to see an impact.  But I would say 75 to 85% would have to get vaccinated if you want to have that blanket of herd immunity."  Throughout December through February, as the vaccines were just starting to be reviewed for use, Dr. Fauci and other epidemiologists noted the importance of getting 75 to 85% of the population vaccinated.  The current federal administration and state administrations lowered that to a more pragmatic goal of 70% when it became clear that people were hesitant to be vaccinated.  Science gets put aside as leaders set about mollifying anti-science believers or their voting base or those with economic interests.  Now we’re being warned about another surge in cases.  I understand the economic forces, and I understand the political forces, but understanding doesn’t lessen my annoyance.


So is this just a rant, or do I have an idea of substance to offer here?  Maybe a little of both.  On the other side of this pandemic, when it does end, I like to hope that the lessons of an inequitable health system, the dangers of politicization of matters of social good, and the discounting of science will offer lessons for how we handle the next crisis.  I have this hope, but it’s a dim hope.  Given the issues above, I hear few people, and almost no leaders, discussing the fundamental flaws that led to the problems.  Instead, I hear conversations about the need for technical fixes to existing systems – like providing funding for one short-term solution or other – not the systemic causes we should be discussing. 


We’re faced, in this pandemic, with broken economic and political systems that created divisions and favoritism for some.  These systems poorly serve all but the very few who benefit from them.  These systems are intended to ensure their own perpetuity, yet they can’t continue in the models of failure that is their hallmark.  We’re also reaping the rewards of a decades-long anti-intellectualism that generated skepticism for even the most common-sense measures.  All of this is leading to a clash between perceptions and reality.  This clash will either reshape the fundamental ways in which the society operates, or it will generate little change that will eventually lead to a future clash. 


What to do?  It seems to me that the first task is to be aware that the failures during the pandemic were systemic.  If your car’s motor stops working, and you notice that the lights aren’t working, changing the headlights isn’t going to get the car moving again.  A dead motor is a system that needs to be fixed.  We need to look beyond what’s immediately visible to get at root causes.  In addressing the post-pandemic future, now is the time to discuss the systems that failed us.  What in our systems allows significant numbers of people in ethnic/racial groups and within certain economic groups to be less well served?  What in our political and social processes allows leaders to lie and manipulate their followers with impunity?  What caused suspicion of science to become so widespread?  These are the questions we should be discussing now as we examine the struggles of the past 18 months.  Answering these questions will determine the nation’s future.  Creating piecemeal technical fixes to those systems isn’t enough to ensure we can address the next crisis.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

And How Do We Learn…? Pandemic Lessons

When I began as a teacher, I thought that teaching was about having good ideas and convincing people of the goodness of those ideas.  First, let me apologize once again to those poor students who had me as a teacher in those first couple of years.  I wasn’t any worse than any of the peers who worked alongside me, but I had a lot to learn, and being no worse than the average isn’t what learners needed.  In the time since, experience has taught me that learning is a whole lot more complex than giving someone an idea.  I've seen folks get angry and bitter about that reality when the world doesn't understand the ideas they offer; but I choose to understand it as part of the human condition.  In truth, we don't learn from ideas as much as we learn from necessity and circumstances.  When I realized that as a teacher, I also realized the importance of three critical requisites for leaning to happen.  These three are:

  1. Establishing learning environments where people were engaged in solving real problems that mattered to them. 

  2. Building a tripartite relationship among the idea, the teacher, and learners. 

  3. Sequencing so that people begin engagement where they understand and continue through an engagement that keeps them stretching their knowledge. 


The pandemic is the perfect exemplar of how all this works.


To explain:  For 30 years, I’ve been pushing the idea that technology-mediated learning has benefits.  I came to that awareness through my experiences as a teacher and through primary research I’ve done to measure the impacts of technology-mediated learning.  I began using computers in my teaching in 1984 and evolved a set of activities that took advantage of technology-mediated learning from that point forward.  In my scholarship, I’m second author on what I believe to be the first, published controlled study that measured the effects of the Internet in K-12 classrooms[1] in 1997.  If having a good idea and being able to explain it were enough, I would’ve successfully convinced educators to develop technology-mediated learning years ago.  People tell me that I’m pretty competent at explaining things.


However, despite my interest, knowledge and experience, the response from most colleagues and educational systems to my insistence that technology can aid instruction has ranged from tepid to hostile.  When I was hired for what turned out to be the last university position where I worked for 10 years before retiring, I asked what the interest was in distance or hybrid learning.  Each person I asked, without exception, said that the institution had a long history of education that didn’t include any kind of distance-based learning.  No one was interested.  I took the job anyway because I figured that there were other reasons to work there – most significantly because it was one of only four professor positions that focused on adult education in my state.


For years in that position, I worked with other organizations to develop online and hybrid learning.  I also created some workshops and certificates that were organized or delivered through video conferencing, course management systems, and other technologies.  Educators in those sessions were always, at first, hesitant to participate.  With time, though, they found that the flexibility of participation when they could join sessions from wherever they were made up for any physical separation.  Also, we ensured that lessons were organized to be active learning environments that paralleled, and in some instances, exceeded the capacity of face-to-face instruction.  We also ensured that there were lots of opportunities for personal relationship building.  As a result, these were all successful at attracting and engaging learners.  Still, though, the response of the institution and colleagues where I worked was to minimize any benefits in favor of what they were comfortable doing.  Actually, that reaction was common among many people in education.  The response was something like, “That’s just not what we do.”


Until the pandemic.  When states forced education institutions to close their doors because of the pandemic, schools had to find ways to deliver instruction to students at a distance.  They suddenly needed to learn to use technologies they hadn’t previously considered.  From the educators I talked to in kindergarten through graduate schools and from Seattle to Riyadh, teachers needed to develop systems and skills that would rapidly replace face-to-face instruction.  Teachers and systems scrambled to build distanced-based instruction.  As I noted in March, 2020, that’s no easy task. However, since that challenging beginning, educators learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.  Their efforts were sometimes successful and sometimes unsuccessful, but educators I encountered began looking at technologically mediated models differently.  That extended into personal lives and professional meetings as video conferencing and webcasting often became the only choice when considering connections to others.  Instead of “that’s not what we do,” people began to understand, “this is now how we can connect”; and, even more importantly, many educators began to see the potential benefits of how these technologies can positively impact their work. 


During the past 18 months, I helped to evaluate a statewide professional development project for K-12 teachers in 140 teams around Washington state.  The project was conceived as a traditional professional development project, but it began just as the state enforced pandemic rules.  The project designers made rapid changes and adapted.  The year-end evaluation of the project this year had some surprising outcomes.  One of them is the lack of complaints from educators about having to adjust to online education.  Some of the teams even identified positive benefits.  They attributed much of that to the project coordinators who provided distance-based, customized supports to the teams and developed the relationships needed to create that customization.  The technologies used (video conferencing, online modules, and a course management system) supported those targeted customizations.  Because the project’s content focused on helping these educators address a real need, it engaged them and helped them to learn and begin applying new ideas.  By all measures, the project worked well to meet its aims. 


Don’t miss the point, here.  My point isn’t that technology is better, or that the pandemic had positive benefits, or that I was ahead of or behind anyone.  The point is an answer to the question asked by this essay’s title:  “How do we learn?”  We learn from necessity and circumstances that are based in our real needs.  We learn by developing that tripartite relationship among the instructor, the learner, and the content.  We learn through a sequencing of experiences that takes us from what we know to what we need to know.  During the pandemic, educators, as evidenced by the project I mentioned above where we evaluated their experiences, seem to be discovering new ideas that they would’ve otherwise dismissed.  It’s these factors that create the moment in which we can learn. 


This lesson on how we learn seems to be a lesson worth keeping, and it offers opportunity for us to examine what we think learning and teaching should be.  Rather than seeing education as simply the transmission of ideas, maybe we should think of it as the engagement with ideas.  The adaptations that global education systems made during the pandemic should help us realize the importance of that engagement, the importance of ensuring that learning and teaching are about more than relaying information.  How do we learn?  We learn, as education systems did over the past 18 months, by solving problems, addressing needs that are real to us, and by connecting to those ideas that solve our problems.  If that’s how we learn, then school and schooling should look differently. 


This challenges much about what we think of education.  If we learn through personal engagement with ideas that address our needs, then how we measure learning should focus on that engagement as much as the knowledge and skills.  If that tripartite relationship among teacher, subject, and student is critical, then we need to prepare teachers to create and maintain that relationship – and what we define as “good teaching” should be based on teachers’ abilities to do so.  If creating opportunities for sequenced, relevant and meaningful learning is important, then educational systems need to emphasize that as much as they emphasize the knowledge which should be an outcome of that.


Given I believe this, I don’t expect that the educational system will change itself after a few people read this essay.  After all, what’s here are more abstract ideas that I argue above don’t lead to learning.  However, abstract ideas can have a place in helping people to wonder what might be possible.  I hope this is a spark to think back on our own learning over the past 18 months and to see if the ideas here resonate with those experiences.  If you do see a resonance, then perhaps you’ll start an exploration within your sphere of influence, as a community member, as a parent, as a teacher, as a leader to discover how the ways in which you learn can be applied to the places where you, your children, and your community are educated. 

[1] Follansbee, S., Hughes, B. ,Pisha, B, & Stahl, S. (1997). Can online communications improve student performance? ERS Spectrum Journal of Research and Information,15(1), 15-26