The pandemic has ushered in a number of concurrent shifts in education. Here are the trends that are shaping the future of learning.
On March 17, 2020, Tom Rooney, superintendent of the Lindsay Unified School District in California, realized how quickly the pandemic was going to change the course of K–12 education. “That day Lindsay Unified went into a different mode of operation,” Rooney said in an interview. Because every learner in the district already had a take-home device and Wi-Fi access, an online curriculum, and experience with daily goal setting, they were able to make the shift to virtual instruction in a matter of days—everyone connected, everyone learning with a personalized plan.
Only a few hundred districts and charter networks in the United States had learning models and infrastructure robust enough to shift to a new mode of learning so quickly and efficiently. But in surprisingly short order, most schools were delivering some hybrid or online learning by the beginning of April. Throughout the pandemic, the Getting Smart team worked with public school districts in Kansas, Missouri, and Texas, as well as charter schools in six additional states to support hybrid, virtual, and return-to-school strategies and plans. During the year and a half that education systems spent in crisis operations, we observed some common themes unfold. Specifically, we found five pandemic-induced changes, five shifts already underway, and five implications for education in the coming years.
5 Pandemic Changes
The vast majority of U.S. school districts with less mature learning models than Lindsay Unified made a number of changes with surprising speed. These changes collectively represent a shift in sector capability resulting in more educator agility but less autonomy.
1. Device Access
Schools that didn’t have take-home devices for every learner quickly scrambled to find and distribute them. Most were Google Chrome books, with global shipments jumping from 17 million in 2019 to nearly 30 million in 2020 and a forecasted 40 million this year (Alsop, 2021).
2. Internet Access
After nearly all U.S. schools were wired by 2019, tech advocates declared victory. “The classroom connectivity gap is now closed,” the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway proclaimed. But the pandemic showed us that the weak link was home access. School closures revealed that one in five teens didn’t have reliable internet access at home—and neither did a surprising percentage of teachers (Auxier & Anderson, 2020). A combination of strategies—like distributed hotspots, provider discounts, and community partnerships—narrowed the gap, but home connectivity remains a challenge.
3. Enterprise Tech
The rapid shift to online and hybrid instruction forced most districts and networks that hadn’t made systemwide adoption of learning platforms and core applications to do so—and fast. This “enterprise software” approach has long been common in business, but in the spring of 2020, it became the norm in education as well. It resulted in broader and more consistent use of learning management systems (particularly Google Classroom, Canvas, and Schoology), adaptive learning apps (like i-Ready and DreamBox), and communication systems (including video conferencing apps such as Zoom and texting tools like Remind).
4. Hybrid and Online Learning
Districts and charter networks quickly enhanced or adopted blended learning protocols, procured digital instructional materials, and developed online and hybrid schedules. The good news is that most students had access to some learning relatively quickly; the bad news is that disadvantaged students were much more likely to be learning exclusively online during the pandemic. Given the lack of preparation for the shift to online learning, the weaker historical performance of online schools, and some of the family concerns or challenges associated with the choice of online learning, opportunity and achievement gaps likely widened (Parolin & Lee, 2021).
5. Team Teaching
The adoption of enterprise systems and blended learning strategies reduced individual teacher autonomy by limiting their choices of what to teach and what tools to use. For many, the pandemic signaled the end of teaching as individual contributors with relatively high degrees of freedom (within a grade level/course structure) and the beginning of team teaching with increased collaboration. Even in the places where the shift was orchestrated thoughtfully with teacher input and resulted in more coherence and effectiveness for learners, teaching as a team sport required some getting used to.
Make no mistake: The rapid transition to remote and hybrid learning during the pandemic had mixed results. For many, it failed to deliver the transformational experiences that ed-tech proponents had envisioned for widespread adoption of 1:1 learning. Because of resource disparities and inconsistencies in implementation, it likely led to heightened gaps in achievement and rich learning opportunities.
Altogether, however, these changes resulted in an updated instructional model (i.e., tools, materials, and protocols) that are focused on delivering (under extraordinarily difficult circumstances) what some call a guaranteed and viable curriculum—with more consistent and less idiosyncratic experiences. They are additions to the learning infrastructure that schools can now build on.
5 Shifts Still in Progress
Despite the challenges of remote learning during a crisis, there were pockets of innovation as well as instructional wins. Behind the scenes, around the edges, and in the most capable schools, five positive shifts in education continued during COVID-19. Some of these trends accelerated, some were stymied, and some surfaced in new forms. Twenty years or more in the making, these shifts continue to provide the long-term direction for education innovation.
1. Beyond Narrow Conceptions of Achievement
Learning advocates have long been promoting the skills and dispositions required for success in the 21st century. In 1994, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) began advocating for schools to teach self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. In 2002, The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) summarized the higher-order competencies needed for success in today’s world including communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.
Continuing the work of P21 (now EdLeader21), the nonprofit Battelle for Kids encouraged school districts to develop a portrait of a graduate, and hundreds of districts hosted local conversations that resulted in updated student learning goals. Since 2001, another nonprofit, Turnaround for Children, has been advocating for whole child learning and development, as summarized in its Building Blocks for Learning framework. Likewise, ASCD, a pioneer of whole child education, collaborated with the CDC in 2014 to launch The Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model—a blueprint for schools, districts, and communities to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of their students and staff.
While standards-based reforms (English and math standards, end-of-year assessments, and accountability penalties) have monopolized sector focus for the last two decades, in May 2021, The School Superintendents Association (AASA) issued “An American Imperative: A New Vision of Public Schools.” The report recommends the adoption of whole child learning objectives and support and growth that aggregate a broad range of formative assessments.
These advocacy efforts and many others have encouraged K–12 schools to develop community agreements that embrace broader measures of success related to career and civic contribution.
For many, the pandemic signaled the end of teaching as individual contributors . . . and the beginning of team teaching.
2. Deep Learning Experiences
For 20 years, Michael Fullan has been the world’s most persistent and persuasive advocate for deep learning experiences. Prior to the pandemic, he was optimistic about global momentum for deep learning, and, while rich learning experiences were put on hold for many learners, Fullan thinks the pandemic may have shaken things up in ways that, in the long run, can be productive.
Recognizing the growing uncertainty and complexity in every aspect of life and work, more communities are adopting broader learning goals and with them project-based learning and design/maker experiences. In Kansas City, for example, more than 70 high schools are supporting deeper learning by leveraging community agreements to add client-connected projects, entrepreneurial experiences, and work-based learning to school curricula (Vander Ark, 2021).
3. Credentialed Learning
Employers increasingly recognize that course credits and degrees have been weak proxies for developed capabilities. As a result, several skills-based hiring initiatives were launched during the pandemic. For example, Western Governors University (which brought competency-based education to higher ed) and retail giant Walmart formed the Open Skills Network to empower learners and workers to “use skills as currency.”
Last fall, IBM extended its leadership in digital credentials with the launch of SkillsBuild, a digital platform where learners can develop, demonstrate, and share new skills. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft all offer similar learning and credentialing sites. In K–12 education, the pandemic increased interest in new strategies for credentialing learning. The Aurora Institute recently noted signs of progress, both in practice and policy, in 28 states in competency-based education—with a commitment to meeting learners where they are, providing the time and resources to achieve, and supporting authentic demonstrations of mastery (Levine, 2021).
For the last two years, juniors and seniors in North Texas schools have been able to build a digital record of their accomplishments and share it with groups of employers, scholarship providers, and postsecondary institutions (Vander Ark, 2019). This new blockchain-based “life transcript” has been used by more than 50,000 Texas students to share their records with 1,000 postsecondary institutions nationwide (Engelland, 2021).
Another promising development in helping learners tell their stories is the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a network of 400 innovative high schools collaborating on a transcript system that goes beyond courses and grades to share developed competencies.
Perhaps the most informative description of high school development dimensions that we’ve come across is the growth transcript used at One Stone, an innovative high school in Boise, Idaho. From the time they first enter the design studio to graduation, One Stone students and coaches track progress on 34 competencies in four categories (mindset, knowledge, creativity, and skills) with links to evidence and artifacts.
4. Meaningful Equity Work
Just as pandemic-related inequities were beginning to come to light, incidents of police brutality shocked the country into a racial reckoning. Schools, corporations, and civic institutions conducted equity audits and offered anti-bias training. New curriculum initiatives like Reconstruction’s “Unapologetically Black Education” were launched. In step, AASA adopted a “no learner marginalized” stance: “ALL children, families, and staff must be embraced, valued equally, and served with equity—regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic circumstance, or disability” (2021).
This deep equity work isn’t done—rather, it’s just getting started in many schools and communities. “DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] is not a one-off, not an addition—it’s embedded deep into the fabric of what we’re doing,” said Superintendent Luvelle Brown of the Ithaca City School District in New York (Getting Smart, 2021).
It’s unquestionably challenging work: “You cannot have conversations about DEI and anti-racism and be comfortable,” said Brown. But it can be invitational, “Calling people in rather than calling them out—welcoming folks, inviting folks, and supporting folks on their journey.”
5. New Learning Models
Even during the pandemic, innovative educators continued to create nano-schools and micro-schools and start new schools and after-school programs—all engaging youth in community-connected project-based learning. Some of these are equity-focused, and some seek to close the opportunity gap.
While most school districts will likely snap back to traditional operations this fall, I anticipate an additional half-million students will remain in new learning models, including co-learning and homeschooling, online schools with cooperative supports, and private micro-schools.
5 Implications for This Year and Beyond
With the pandemic-learning infrastructure in place and the five positive shifts underway, we suggest five implications for education leaders at the beginning of this new school year.
1. Be Learner-Centered
After a year and a half of worrying about systems and safety, the new school year offers an opportunity to reconnect with and focus on learners.
In an interview with Digital Promise, Lindsay Superintendent Tom Rooney shared an important lesson from the pandemic: “Always keep the needs of learners at the center of all decisions and actions,” he said. “Never allow anything to be an excuse for why we cannot give learners what they need. Be uncompromisingly learner-centered, no matter what” (Nguyen, 2021).
2. Onboard Talent
There is likely going to be an influx of new teachers this year (and you may well still be hiring). Given the new digital infrastructure and broader learning goals many districts are adopting, these new staff members will need more on-boarding than ever before—with collaboration and agility skill-building and a greater emphasis on equity.
If administrators want new (and veteran) teachers to use design thinking strategies like empathy research and ideation with learners, they must model the desired behaviors and approaches in professional learning experiences. Likewise, if administrators want teachers to support social-emotional skill building with learners, they must put relationships at the center of their own work. Try facilitating something like “compass circles,” which bring small groups of students and staff together to support one another’s personal development.
3. Say Yes to LX
As superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools, Pamela Moran leads with a bias toward yes—toward supporting and empowering educators seeking to create rich learning experiences (LX) for and with students. (Watch Pam’s TEDx Talk on “Hacking Schools: Getting Ourselves to Yes.”) School and system leaders can distribute leadership and encourage more iterative development by finding a way to support deeper learning experiences this school year.
“The challenge of getting past ‘yeah but’ to ‘what if’ can be pretty difficult,” admitted Moran. But “If a young person or a teacher comes to you with an idea . . . just say yes.”
4. New Agreements
With new pandemic provisioned infrastructure, new teaching capabilities, and new sparks of innovation, there is a unique opportunity for districts to launch community conversations that result in updated learning goals (e.g., portrait of a graduate) and new learning models (e.g., project-based units or new academies). Small improvements require quick internal agreements, but big innovations necessitating more investment and involving more risk require broader agreements (Vander Ark, 2018).
5. Advocate for What’s Next
The pandemic recovery presents an opportunity to move beyond the old framework of standards-based reform. Leaders can advocate for what good learning looks like and policies that support it—in particular, measurement systems and protocols that could replace current regimes of standardized testing. The next national policy framework will emerge from state and local leadership—it’s a formative time to be an educator and your voice matters.
If administrators want teachers to support social-emotional skill building with learners, they must put relationships at the center of their own work. Try facilitating something like “compass circles,” which bring small groups of students and staff together to support one another’s personal development.
Putting Learners at the Center
We begin this school year with the promise of new capabilities, both new skills, and new tools, having been tested in ways that we could not have imagined. While most students had some sense of continuity during school closures, opportunity and achievement gaps widened because of the hasty way solutions were cobbled together under the old standards-based framework of grade-level proficiency in basic skills. We can start, however, to reverse these accelerating inequities with intentional leadership, community-connected ecosystems of learning, and by putting learners at the center of every decision.