Friends, the first thing I want to say to you is that you are in my thoughts. As I watch so many of you make heroic efforts to support your students and colleagues even as you worry about yourselves and your loved ones, I am inspired. My sister, who is both a teacher and a rabbi, has banned the phrase “social distancing” from her vocabulary, preferring to use the term “physical distancing.” She is right. Now is the time to be closing the social distance among us, not increasing it. That is exactly what so many of you are doing. You have inspired me to think more seriously about what e-Literate should be doing to help.
That’s what this post is about. Feedback, as always, is welcomed.
Immediate term: postponing a webinar
Right at this moment, the most useful thing I can think of to do is to stay out of your way. After discussing the situation with Standard of Proof webinar guests Tyton Partners, we agreed that this week is not a good time for the conversation we had planned to have. It’s unfortunate because their research has a direct bearing on how to better support the students who are most likely to be hurt in a sudden, unplanned transition to online education. But this week, many of you are either preparing for that transition, in the middle of it, or trying to deal with the immediate aftermath of it. You have more time-sensitive priorities at the moment, including self-care.
We will set a new date for the webinar once the dust settles and it becomes clear to us that more of you are in a position to have a constructive conversation about something other than your immediate responsibilities. I don’t think we’ll have to wait terribly long for this, but it won’t be in March.
The role of the Empirical Educator Project (EEP)
I have come to the conclusion that EEP can play a supporting role in this crisis. Therefore, it should. I am embarassed to admit that this wasn’t my idea. I got a text from a friend who is also an academic participant in the EEP network. When I didn’t catch on to his suggestion immediately, he found time to call me, after a full day of work, while he was cooking dinner for his family, to explain his thinking and urge me to consider the possibility.
Among other things, our response to COVID-19 is a collective action problem. But in education, there is an unusual amount of goodwill and agreement about our high-level collective responsibilities. The real problem is that there are costs to collaboration, and the coin in which those costs most often need to be paid is the one which educators are sorely lacking: time. The sector has considerable expertise on how to deal with this crisis as competently and humanely as possible under the circumstances, but it is not evenly distributed and it is not being distributed effectively at the moment.
I’ll give you one heartbreaking example. Some of the good folks in the POD network have taken precious time away from their crisis management at their own institutions to organize a list of information resources about remote teaching continuity plans that their respective institutions have put together so that their colleagues at institutions that don’t have such plans can benefit from them. About 200 institutions have contributed so far. Two hundred people who are directly responsible for helping their institutions make the transition right now took a moment out of their long, long days to share with their colleagues at other institutions. They are doing what they can. It is not their fault that the value of this information resource is severely limited. First, a lot of the people who need it aren’t going to know about it. It’s in a Google Sheet. One of a bazillion. Every time I tell people about it, they say, “Oh, is that the one that Bryan Alexander is organizing?”
(No, that one is here. It has over 250 contributions. I don’t know how much overlap there is between Bryan’s sheet and POD’s.)
Second, while the list is better than nothing, using it is far from easy. Some of the links are to resources that are behind a login. So they’re useless to outsiders at the moment. Others go to sites with varying amounts of information of varying quality covering varying topics. Somebody trying to make use of the resource in its current form would have to keep clicking through to web sites and sifting through them until they found what they needed. Maybe.
And yet, this is hardly the first situation that has called for a more organized response to helping fellow educators. Where was this level of effort for the universities in Puerto Rico during the hurricane, for example? Nor will this be the last such crisis. Both natural and human-created disasters disrupt the ability to support students somewhere in the world all the time. The pace of these disruptions is not going to slow down any time soon. The sector needs to become more resilient. We need to find ways of lowering the cost of educators helping each other so that we can achieve more impact with less educator burnout.
The Empirical Educator Project was designed to address this kind of collective action problem. Its founding hypothesis is that, while higher education is in the early stages of making the transition from a philosophical commitment to student success toward operational excellence at enabling it, this transition is being both slowed and deformed by ineffective sharing of actionable knowledge. This opens the door wider for both dangerous shortcuts and harmful opportunism. The problem we face with COVID-19 is the same, only accelerated. There is both opportunity and danger here. The opportunity is that the stress on our system is making the flaws more obvious and gives us a chance to optimize the system for the challenges of the present and future. The danger is that the imperative to act quickly will lead us to act unwisely. We need to both lower the cost of effective knowledge sharing and put some ethical guardrails in place.
This is what EEP will try to help with.
Short-term: Improving the vendor response
Let’s be honest: While educators are going to try to do their best they can for their students, the likelihood that most students will lose educational quality this term is pretty much 100%. No EdTech magic will change that. There will be no miracle “vaccine” this month or next. Everyone will do what they can. The short-term priorities are preventing deaths from the disease and supporting each other, including but not limited to our students, in getting through the immediate economic and mental health consequences of the crisis. The majority of vendors would have very limited ability to help this term even if they come to the table with the purest of intentions and a near-perfect understanding of what is needed.
That said, there are good reasons to engage responsibly with vendors right now. For one thing, while some of them can’t help with the problems of this term, others can, in ways that might or might not have anything to do with products. A good friend of mine who is also the CEO of an EdTech company told me that he has smart employees who are sitting on the bench right now due to project delays caused by the crisis and would like to see them volunteering rather than sitting on their hands. Meanwhile, I’ve been having calls with a number of companies that are looking for guidance on how they can be more helpful. Also, even if a vendor can’t help with the problems of this term, there is time to organize a better response for next term, when there is a non-trivial chance that we will still be dealing with COVID-19 challenges. And even if we aren’t, we should be preparing for the next crisis as part of our response to this one.
Expanding the sponsorship base of EEP was always part of the plan. While I have been very careful in the early years to only accept sponsorship either from companies that have already demonstrated they are aligned with EEP’s goals and values or particular people at companies who I know and trust, my ultimate goal has always been to help a wide range of EdTech companies that want to be better servants to education learn how to do so (and be rewarded proportionately for good behavior). I have decided that the current situation calls for me to broaden the tent a little earlier than planned. If a company comes to me for support in learning how to be more helpful, if I perceive that they are coming to me with a baseline level of earnestness, and if I can see a way to help them do the right thing, then I will help them.
I’ll provide more detail on what “doing the right thing” means to me in the next section.
Medium-term: Fostering a resilience network
As I wrote in the previous section, we are likely to face continuing COVID-19 challenges in the next term and certain to face challenges from other crises into the indefinite future. While I mean no disrespect to the good people who are organizing the crisis response, we need to get further along than a bunch of separate Google Sheets floating in the ether. We need to get better at sharing effective practices and supporting policies and at distributing knowledge of such things more broadly. Where there are resource gaps, we need to identify what they are and advocate for filling those gaps as part of our coherent response plans. This is primarily about people, knowledge, and organization. The technology should be an enabler of practices that educators have reason to believe are effective. It is crucial but second-order. The first-order problem is the creation of a resilience network.
Right now, most educators I know are focused on the immediate problem and can’t spare much thought for next term, never mind the indefinite future. It’s all many of them can do to put their line in a spreadsheet or make a call to a friend who they think can help. But that will change—somewhat—and we need to be ready to make the most effective use possible of the work that will come with the after-action reviews and the prep for next term. I expect to engage the EEP network—and the wider academic world—in this conversation when they can come up for air.
In the meantime, as I talk to the vendors, my focus is going to be on supporting that network. I’m not interested in creating a laundry list of limited-time free offers (though I don’t pass blanket judgment on such offers either). Rather, I’m interested in finding ways that the vendors can support the academics in diffusing relevant knowledge more widely and supporting each other more effectively. For this reason, I will be mindful about offers to use platforms. I don’t eschew them by any means. Google Sheets is a platform, and it is better than having nothing at the moment. But I will be focused on using platforms when they support the network purpose and consider the tradeoffs carefully. Laura Czerniewicz has a good guest post on PhilonEdTech (POET) about her experience thinking through such tradeoffs from an academic perspective (among other relevant topics).
I know there is a wide range of feelings in the academic community and I don’t claim to have the best, one-size-fits-all answer. But I can play the role of an honest broker. My personal experience in the conversations I’m having with folks who work at EdTech companies right now is that they want to help. They feel that if they can, then they should. But it’s hard to figure out how to be helpful. If I can help to reduce the social distance between them and the people they want to support in this time of need, then I will. Some of that support will come in the form of help now, but a lot of it will be focused on preparing for the next round.
Educators need to lead on this, and they can’t do that effectively while also responding to the immediate crisis. Those of us who are not immediately engaged in addressing the crisis need to prepare to help those folks make the most of their efforts going forward.