Educator and researcher Ian O'Byrne said one of the greatest innovations in education due to the pandemic is the ability for parents to be involved in classes | Photo by Ruta Smith

 ‘Normal Wasn’t Working’

Education has undergone dramatic change since the onset of the pandemic, but with national, state and local leaders calling for a swift return to business as usual, those leading in the classroom fear that some of the most beneficial innovations may be on the way out.

Despite their rocky implementation at the beginning of the school year, many classroom changes may be able to make a permanent difference for the better in education. 

“My biggest concern is that we should have learned something from this,” said College of Charleston literacy educator and researcher Ian O’Byrne. “A lot of my colleagues are ready for post-COVID, but I don’t like the discussion of how we get back to normal. Normal wasn’t working for a lot of people.”

O’Byrne studies ways in which people, specifically educators and students, use the internet and other online technologies for communication and learning. He had been waiting for an opportunity to put that research into practice, but like anyone else, he couldn’t have predicted the severity of the pandemic.

“We knew this was going to come eventually,” he said. “Obviously, we didn’t predict COVID, but you look at every other field and how they adapt and change over time, and for the most part, K-12 and higher education really hasn’t changed. It was only a matter of time.”

Meanwhile, students entering and leaving the classrooms have been adapting to rapidly changing times for decades, Charleston Teacher Alliance director Jody Stallings noted.

“We anticipated so many problems with kids having issues figuring out the new technology — how to find the content or materials,” Stallings said. “One of the things we discovered was that they are actually quite adept.

“I never had any technology in my class at all, never issued an iPad or Chromebook, because I felt that if I had to train them on that, it would take more time away from learning,” he said. “But, I discovered that it really isn’t that way. They can have it done faster than I can explain how to do it the old-fashioned way.”

Stallings

Stallings said early on in the pandemic, there were a lot of options for technological adaptation for education, but few teachers really knew exactly how to use it. But, the urgency to adapt quickly revealed potential uses.

Homebound students who in the past would need facilitators to bring them work assigned by usual teachers, and online and hybrid learning has increased parent participation in the learning process.

“We see opportunities for parents and guardians in the home to be more connected to the school,” O’Byrne said. “I get the opportunity to sit and work with my children and peer into other families’ homes through the Zoom window, and I can see other families trying to be there to support their children. We’ve been required to be more flexible and integrated and immersed in what’s happening in K-12.”

These are just a few of the innovations that some fear may go by the wayside as the world returns to normal.

“The rhetoric of normal is overshadowing anything good that we have done and that has happened,” said Berkeley County Schools teacher Trever Etminan. “And, the rhetoric of the vaccine is sort of echoing so loudly that we can’t hear the voices from within the classroom saying maybe we need to reevaluate.

“This whole pandemic has provided us with an infinite number of opportunities to change and make things better, to look critically at what we’re doing and why we are doing it the way we’re doing it,” he said.

Etminan

Arriving at successful solutions wasn’t a smooth ride, teachers admit. Some of the techniques that were put in place may be better left in the past. 

“There were attempts to use learning management systems like Google Classrooms to supply a curriculum to kids who weren’t in front of you,” Stallings said. “We discovered that that doesn’t work very well. What we don’t want to see two years from now is that there’s 30 kids looking at their screen with a teacher in the back. That’s probably not the future.”

Other resources used in schools will need more time to determine their long-term effectiveness or for people to explore other options.

“For the most part, Zoom wasn’t something we used before, and now, it’s infrastructure in this country. That’s scary,” O’Byrne said. “It’s one of those things where, in the beginning, we had concerns, but there weren’t many tools that were far better.”

Other elements will most likely be permanent fixtures. “We see connectivity to the internet as important if not more important than textbooks now,” O’Byrne said. “From the perspective of [open educational resources], this is a boon.” 

Moving forward, while some of the innovations that came about during the pandemic should stick around, Etminan said it’s important to look critically at what has been implemented, and determine if those changes were out of necessity, or a desire to change things for the better.