I have organized my last two posts into the beginning of a series, which allows me to create a running table of contents on the relevant blog posts. This post is the third in a series focused on the creation of an education resilience network that can respond more effectively in times of crisis, whether the crisis is a pandemic, a hurricane, a war, or some other disaster that disrupts the normal functioning of educational institutions. I will have at least one announcement to make regarding the formation of such a network very soon. In the meantime, I will be using this series to lay out a vision for what such a network could look like and how it could function. In the context of the current COVID-19 crisis, my goal is to organize a better response for next term while providing some tips to the people and organizations that are working on an immediate response regarding how to increase their impact (e.g., putting an explicit and permissive license for re-use on any resources that are intended as donations or contributions to the community).
As a community, we're learning a lot about what a good (or bad) disaster response looks like by watching our governments and health systems. The logistical challenges are daunting. We have to produce good information resources for everyone, like what hygiene measures work and how to practice social distancing (or how to use a web conference system or develop a rhythm for working in an online class). We have to make sure the information about such effective practices is accurate and gets to everyone. We also need to get more specialized information to caregivers, like how to protect themselves and prevent disease transmission in hospitals (or how to create an effective online lesson). Then there's information that needs to go to people who run care-giving institutions, like how to get test kits (or access to increased online teaching infrastructure). All of this needs to be accomplished consistently, accurately, and efficiently to reach everyone who needs accurate and useful knowledge. Some of that knowledge, like proper hand-washing technique (or how to create an effective instructional video) has a long shelf-life, while other knowledge, like how healthcare workers (or educators) should respond to local needs based on changes in available resources and supplies, is continually evolving.
Beyond creating and distributing information resources that are helpful—and combatting the spread of misinformation that is harmful—we also have to identify and distribute other resources. Help, either in the form of consultative expertise or supplemental front-line workers, is a crucial one. We need to match available resources with current needs quickly and effectively, all while providing some means for vetting the help to make sure that the people, however well-intentioned they may be, are qualified to offer help. And then there are non-informational resources, whether they are N95 masks or web conference accounts. Some of these will be new resources that people need for the first time, while others will be providing financial relief to prevent the loss of ongoing access to current resources.
How well we respond to the current crisis can make an enormous difference that differentially impacts more vulnerable populations. In an epidemic, the homeless, prisoners, and people without health insurance are among those who are least likely to be protected by our existing response mechanisms. Likewise, we know that first-generation students are more likely to struggle in online education programs even when those programs are carefully designed and not thrown together in haste. Our response to the current crisis can also put us in either a better or a worse position after the immediate crisis has passed. We can pass emergency economic legislation that protects workers and preserves jobs, or we can pass legislation that enables companies to use bailout money for stock buybacks and executive bonuses. Likewise, we can engage with educators on how to serve their students more effectively online, or we can just start spending money on a whole lot of Zoom accounts and robot tutors when the free offers run out.
I don't intend to denigrate the efforts or good intentions of anyone's current response to the COVID-19 situation when I write this, but if our crisis response capability does not evolve past Google Sheets, webinars, and limited-time free product offers, then we are going to fail to support the people with the greatest need during this extended crisis while also failing to learn how to respond better to the next one.
In this blog post, I'm going to write about the different kinds of resources for which we need to develop a supply chain in an education resilience network. In the next post, I will write about the challenges of creating, vetting, and distributing those resources.
By content, I mean information that can be broadcast one-to-many rather than person-to-person expertise sharing. This encompasses a vast array of information resources targetted at distinct but overlapping audiences, including (but not limited to) the following:
- Curriculum-specific information, like how to teach your dance class online
- Technical information, like how to post an announcement in your LMS
- Learning design information, like how to make better use of formative assessments in an online context
- Policy information, like guidelines for what instructors can and cannot expect their students to be able to do during the crisis
- Logistical information, like where to seek help for particular kinds of problems
These resources can be either durable or not and either general or context-specific. Different characteristics call for different responses:
Example: How-to info on making an effective instructional video
Example: List of offers of free help
Example: Institutional teaching continuity policy handbook
Example: Updates on institutional crisis response
We should be mindful during this time of massive change that now is the time when new practices—either good or bad—take hold. For example, we know that instructors only tend to redesign their courses substantially when there is an extrinsic driver forcing them to rethink how they teach. We are currently experiencing the mother of all extrinsic drivers. We should be taking the opportunity to make sure we are teaching them about evidence-based effective practices. This is, in part, an equity issue. Disadvantages students are disproportionately vulnerable in the move to online. We lose them more easily. As a sector, we have an ethical responsibility to ensure that we are applying everything we have learned about educating well in order to help these students. That is even more important at a time when these very same students are particularly vulnerable in the rest of their lives, such as during a global pandemic that is shutting down the economy.
In an educational resilience response to a crisis, where the emphasis is on moving students to online, there will be a need for technology as well as information. People should have defined resource centers where they can go to find what they need and get advice about how to use it. I'll offer one example. I am getting inundated with messages about COVID-19 resources and offers of help that various folks want me to help them promote. While I could easily turn e-Literate into a running announcement board for such offers, I have resisted that temptation. It's not what e-Literate does best, and I see no point in duplicating work that others are already doing. For example, ISTE and EdSurge include a directory of vendor offers on their Learning Keeps Going web site. They have the resources to maintain such a directory and are a natural home for it. We should just use that rather than creating something else (or 100 something elses).
I would love to see them include guidance to both schools and vendors about topics like how to design and vet such offers to address student data privacy concerns. In other words, there is a whole set of practice knowledge that attaches to this kind of a list. To the degree that one organization, network, or community becomes a hub for a resource (whatever that resource may be), it should also become a community hub for sharing information about the effective use of that resource.
In this way, an education resilience network isn't a hub-and-spoke kind of centralized response but rather a network consisting of multiple nodes of expertise concentration that are coordinating with each other as needed. I'll have more to say about this in my next post.
This is an extension of my previous paragraph—including my comment about having more to say about this in my next post—but the most precious resource we need to coordinate is humans who can help. Many organizations are stepping up to play a role in matching helpers with need, but (a) a lot of companies and universities are just tossing information out into the ether without the benefit of coordination, and (b) the associations and other community nodes that are coordinating with their constituents are not coordinating with each other. This is the hardest part of the education resilience network to optimize, but it is also the most important. Ultimately, we will find that effective content and resource production and distribution in an emergency are second-order effects of the ways in which we organize ourselves—or don't—for a whole-sector response to the crisis.
Resource needs are also dynamic. At this moment in the midst of a crisis for which the education sector has not been well prepared, I find that most people I talk to fall into one of two categories. Either they are about to drop from exhaustion because they are frantically working the front line or they are climbing the walls trying to find some way to be useful because the work that they normally do to help has ground to a halt. We are doing a very poor job of coordinating those imbalances at the moment. And they will change as we finish the current term and people start preparing for the next one. We need organizational structures that enable us to balance human resource utilization—matching people who need help with people who can offer help—more dynamically.
That challenge will be the topic of my next post.