Justin Reich hosts a virtual session with MIT’s Jameel World Education Lab’s (JWEL) to offer practical guidance and strategies for online learning during the coronavirus pandemic. The live audience includes educators from all around the world, and Justin answers their questions and offers his advice on listening to students and faculty, designing learning for challenging times, and prioritizing the needs of marginalized students.
Justin Reich hosts a virtual session with MIT’s Jameel World Education Lab’s (JWEL) to offer practical guidance and strategies for online learning during the coronavirus pandemic. The live audience includes educators from all around the world, and Justin answers their questions and offers his advice on listening to students and faculty, designing learning for challenging times, and prioritizing the needs of marginalized students.
“...really think about how you can partner with students and faculty. Coronavirus feels like something that's being done to us. It would be great if our response to the Coronavirus feels something that we do together.”
Special thanks to Julia Reynolds-Cuélla, Susan Young and the whole team at the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education for the invitation, and for recording the conversation.
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Justin Reich: Hello and welcome to teach lab. I'm Justin Reich. This is part of our special COVID-19 series, to support teachers and learners through the challenges of distance learning. This week I joined MIT's Jameel World Education Lab or J-WEL for a virtual event as part of their efforts to connect and support university leadership during these challenging times. J-WEL is a consortium of educators around the world connecting with MIT and each other to improve education. I sat down with Julia Reynolds-Cuellar, assistant director of J-WEL higher education for a virtual session with educators. Throughout the presentation you'll hear me answering questions from webinar participants around the world. If you have your own questions, tweet me at @bjfr and I'll try to respond. We hope you enjoy our conversation.
Justin Reich: During this whole period I keep saying, my hat is off and my heart is with all the educators in all kinds of different roles who are trying to make this work. These are really, really challenging times. I have a few ideas about how we can how we can address these challenging times. But I think a reasonable starting point is just, this is really hard. And there are going to be some things that we can do to mitigate. There'll be things that we can do in the future to remediate. But there's a lot of things that aren't going to go the way that we want them to. There are a couple of bodies of research that I think can be helpful a little bit just in framing the problem. Some of the research has to do with digital divides and online learning. And here's maybe one thing to try to hold in your head as sort of you wrestle with all of this.
Justin Reich: One irony or one puzzle of online learning that I think people haven't fully figured out yet. And there's sort of a simple explanation rather than a harder one, is that people are extraordinarily good at online learning and seem to be not that great at online schooling. People are often extraordinarily good at online learning and they seem to be not that great at online schooling, there's a lot of research. My colleague Mimi Ido, at the University of California Irvine, does a lot of work on what she calls connected learning or kind of interest driven, passion driven, peer connected online learning. My hunch is that almost all of you can think of something over the last year or over the last month that you're really excited about, that you've learned online.
Justin Reich: I assume that this is not a perfectly global phenomenon, but a pretty global phenomenon in the United States, Nintendo just released this video game called Animal Crossing. Right about the time that people were headed home for quarantine. Enormously popular game and if young people, if people of all ages want to learn how to do better at Animal Crossing, there's like zillions of websites and people are sharing on Reddit and communicating with each other and learning all kinds of things and they're really good at it. Part of what makes that work is the sort of internal motivation that people have to really want to learn something and figure that out. By contrast, when people are assigned things to learn online, they tend to find that a whole lot harder. This is something that we've done a bunch of research, people have done a bunch of research on over time.
Justin Reich: If you're familiar with the last 40 years of online learning research or media education research, you might have heard of this idea of no significant differences. This is sort of an older idea which I think is becoming overturned. I mean, actually starting as far back as the radio going back to the 1930s people did research comparing learning when people learn in a regular face-to-face setting and with radio and then with film strips and then with computers and then with the internet. And a sort of older perspective was that when people ran these studies, there were sort of no significant difference between the control group that was given regular face-to-face instruction. And the intervention group that received this sort of new media. And so a common way that this got summarized, is that in the history of education technology research, it is well established that technology is a delivery mechanism. For example, whether something is online or face-to-face has no direct impact on student learning outcome.
Justin Reich: That's a pretty common perspective that's out there. And a lot of online learning designers and researchers took that to mean like, well, all right, well let's just move everything online if we can because sometimes it's cheaper, it's more convenient doing things like that. But actually if you sort of dig in under that research you find that it's not based on large scale field trials. These were not studies that examined education sort of under normal circumstances. They were hothouse studies done with small samples. And one thing that's happened over the last 10 years is that we've sent millions of people around the world to learn online. And increasingly what we're finding is that the most vulnerable, most struggling learners that participate in online learning, they experience what I've started to call an online penalty.
Justin Reich: People who are good at learning anywhere tend to do fine online. Your best, most accomplished students if they have internet access, if they get online, if they don't have to care for their younger siblings, those kinds of things are reasonably likely to do well in online settings. But more and more evidence is accumulating that many people really struggle with the self directed learning skills with the executive function skills, with the motivation skills to learn well online. And that these challenges are magnified for our most struggling, most vulnerable learners. I think one of the ways that my colleague Susan Dynarski summarized this in the New York Times, is that it's very possible that online courses are hurting the students who need the most help. This was research that we've done over the last 10 years in normal, reasonable times.
Justin Reich: All of these things I would expect to be magnified during a pandemic. All of the students who are most likely to struggle who are most likely to be negatively effected by recession to be negatively effected by a lack of adequate healthcare. These are all the students who we would expect to have a hard time with online learning in boom times. That I think is, as I am trying to kind of provide organizations with some research around this, this is sort of a central set of themes that I'd encourage people to pay attention to is that lots of people struggle, even people who are good at online learning struggle with online schooling and we would expect the most difficulties, the most challenges for the students who sort of start furthest behind academically or just face the most challenges in their day to day life.
Justin Reich: What can we do? I think all of us are trying to figure out together what we can do. I have just a handful of ideas about what that might be. My first piece of advice to anyone working on this is to really think about how you can partner with students and faculty. Coronavirus feels like something that's being done to us. It would be great if our response to the coronavirus feels like something that we do together. I think we should discuss with our students what they're experiencing. What's working for them and what's not working for them. How we can partner together to be able to figure out the challenges ahead. Lots of universities are doing a lot of one way communication. They have administration that's broadcasting things out the faculty, administration that's broadcasting things out to students.
Justin Reich: I would really encourage you to try to shift this into two way communication. Be listening to your students, be listening to your faculty. Small focus groups, one-on-one reach out, surveys, those kinds of things. And faculty should be listening to their students too. People do a lot of learning online. Ask them what's working, what's not working and how we can do this better. There is I think more research on this in K-12. But if you talk to the very best K-12 virtual school teachers, they say they spend the bulk, they do two things. They provide their students with a largely asynchronous curriculum. It's really, really hard to coordinate lots of learning synchronously online. There was a really powerful blog post from an MIT undergraduate who was describing her life in quarantine with an internet connection that doesn't work real well and is spotty with parents who are moving in and out of the house trying to get work done, trying to get chores done, trying to take care of her younger siblings.
Justin Reich: This is really hard for people to coordinate synchronously and even before the pandemic, most distance educators have recognized that. What most distance educators do is they provide a curriculum that people can largely do asynchronously and then they spend their time proactively reaching out to students. They hold office hours, they pick up the phone and call people. They send them text messages. They find ways, particularly of reaching out to the students who are least likely to ask for help. The students who need us most are often the least likely to ask for help. Thinking about how we reach out to those students, MIT has just started this program, which I think is a great idea to take as many of our support staff as possible and to have them volunteer to be coaches for students. I think they're calling them student success coaches or things like that. I think that stuff is a great idea.
Justin Reich: Unless you're in a country with an extraordinary healthcare system and a great social safety net and universal broadband access, you just won't get as much done this semester. It's just not possible. You've got to be strategic at all levels about what you're choosing not to get done. If you're an individual faculty member, you have to ask yourself the question, what are the two or three things that I can do in my class that I need to do really well in my class? I also think as we move into sort of second phases of this at the department level or the major level or other kinds of levels, we've got to start being strategic. I have an undergraduate, she's a freshman. She's working with me on some research. She's in one of our introduction to computing classes and they had a midterm test coming up and they couldn't figure out how to make the midterm tests go online, they gave everyone a hundred.
Justin Reich: There's lots about that, which I think is totally appropriate. I think there are lots of reasons to have a bias towards grades during this period, to not worry about grades and those kinds of things. But the one thing I am worried about is that as a freshman she really probably needs to learn that. For some subjects it's not enough to say, well, times are tough you just don't have to learn as much stuff. If you're teaching introduction to statistics and someone's in a statistics major, you can't skip the multiple regression that you usually teach during this time of year. You have to find some way of teaching it. That might be now, that might be in a summer school, that might be in the fall.
Justin Reich: Now by contrast, there's some things that we do in higher education, they're actually quite a few things that we do in higher education in which we select learning experiences out of a candidate. This happens I think more in the humanities, but I think it applies to STEM and I think vice versa sort of sequences also appear in the humanities as well. But there are lots of Shakespeare courses in which, you read Romeo And Juliet and the Tempest In The Fall, in the first half of the semester, and if you don't get to the Sonnets and you don't get to Henry V or II, you still read a bunch of Shakespeare and that's probably okay. Some of our courses we should be able to kind of stand down and say, you know what, we did pretty good in the first half of the semester. You're going to be fine in your life without this and the second half of the semester.
Justin Reich: And I think departments of schools, units, the grade level teams should be getting together and asking themselves, of all the things we're doing, what's the most important across all of this? Because it could be that there's a handful of classes that we teach at our second year, sophomore, third year, junior major, that we should really help people make sure they finish that material because they really need it. And there are others that are electives or other things that we should encourage those faculty to really just pull down and stand out. There may be some things that we say, these courses were so important to our department, to our sequence that we ought to be dealing with them in the summer, in the fall when life gets back to normal. And that I think is connected to plan for mediation.
Justin Reich: Maybe the last thing that I said is to the extent that we're going to be successful with this, I think it's not only partnering with students but really helping students form peer connections and support one another. In lots of cases, faculty aren't going to be able to make individual connections with all of their students and make sure they're being successful. To the extent that you have students in your courses who are in stable situations, who are doing well, who have more time to act as peer tutors, as study group leaders, as helpers, I'd really encourage you to, I've been encouraging faculty to start sort of triaging their students in some ways saying, who are the folks that are going to kind of do okay on their own with some marginal support and be fine? Who are the people that you really need to reach out to and connect with and make sure you're getting support? And then who are the students who might be best positioned to be in leadership roles helping you provision instruction.
Justin Reich: There's a bunch of questions in here, which are great. Stephen Carson asks, have any studies been done of the kinds of ways that struggling learners do with the kinds of interest driven online learning that you described versus directed schooling? That's a great question. There's not, Stephen, sort of like one-to-one comparative research except to say that when a lot of the work on interest driven online learning has been done in the United States, in historically marginalized groups. In part because we know that there are these categories of students who don't do real well in school and do, do real well in peer-driven online learning experiences. This may be sort of a cultural niche thing, but some of my favorite examples of this are from fanfiction research. Actually, I have this book right here. It's called the Writers In The Secret Garden which MIT press published earlier this year.
Justin Reich: And they study teens who write on fanfiction sites. They write additional stories in the Harry Potter universe. And you talk to these kids and you say, what do you write for school? And they're like, Oh, I don't write, I really have a hard time writing at school. And then you look at their fanfiction accounts and they've written these 4,000, 5,000, 7,000 word stories once a week. And you realize that when people are doing work that really matters to them that they're really passionate about, they're just much more capable of doing it. I think there's good evidence that, I think in all cases right now, we should be concerned about our most vulnerable learners. Not only because they struggle most during regular times, but they're the ones who are going to be most likely affected from job losses, from unstable work conditions, from not having access to the internet, in the United States having inadequate access to healthcare, all those kinds of things.
Justin Reich: I also think people should generally, it depends where you are in the world. If you're in South Korea and your country has been successful in bending the curve you might be thinking to yourself, Oh, we might be heading more back to normal. In the United States, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people are going to get sick. People need to have a plan for what are you going to do if a third of your class get sick? What are you going to do if your faculty team gets sick? It's unfortunately going to happen. Jeff asked the question, do we know why vulnerable learners experience an online learning gap? He proposes lack of access, lack of equipment, lack of digital literacy, lack of support resources, distractions and challenges of life. It's all of those things. Certainly what we hear in lots of circumstances, distractions of life challenges is one thing. It's also just the other demands of life. What do you do if your parents get late off of work and you as a young person are best able to go earn a living for your family.
Justin Reich: We're hearing now from lots of families where they only have one learning device. There might be two or three kids and one or two parents who are trying to get work done during that period. And they're all trying to do it with one, four year old laptop or one phone or something like that. There's a whole series of barriers, some of which potentially we can address by giving people money to buy new computers, by paying for people's Broadband internet access and things like that. But also in the United States, people from low income families are more likely to live in places where they don't have good Broadband options at all. Which is not the case in every country in the world, but in lots of places, access to good internet is correlated with how affluent your neighbors are.
Justin Reich: I've been thinking a lot about the research on self directed learning. And the research on self directed learning often treats, sort of proficiency with self directed learning as an individual trait as a thing that's like a part of me. But then I was reflecting back on some research that we did about MIT MicroMasters students who are sort of slightly more likely to be male than other folks. And one of the things they tell us is that they're really good at sneaking bits of time in the evenings, in the mornings, taking lunch breaks. Being really good at protecting your time also can sound an awful lot like shirking your family responsibilities. And so in some ways what looks like a trait, self directed learning might actually be a social condition. If you don't have a lot of responsibilities to other people or if you're a member of a group in a culture that feels comfortable shirking your family responsibilities that can look like self directed learning.
Justin Reich: If you have a lot of obligations to other people in your household or in your community that can look like you don't have good self directed learning skills, it actually means you have other responsibilities. Eddie Daldo says, I wonder how to do more to deal with preparing university professors to carry out online teaching. I think the first phase of this is to remember, a pandemic is not a great time to get better at things. Everyone is kind of doing their best out there, but we need to be really realistic about the expectations that we have. I'll give you one thing that sort of caught my attention. In the United States, there was a school district in Seattle that was the first to pivot to online learning. And a news article came out that said, this school district tried to do all day synchronous online classes and this parent was kind of frustrated because his six year old daughter really required full time supervision to be able to participate in remote instruction.
Justin Reich: I read that and I thought, how on earth did a principal, a teacher, a parent, a journalist, think that a six year old was going to be able to participate by themselves in remote instruction? There's nothing that we know about the basic developmental psychology of a six year old that suggests that they should be able to like hold an iPad and pay attention to their teacher all day. We have a set of magical thinking about what is possible with technology. And I think that it is wonderful that people are so taking such initiative, so much ingenuity in trying to do new things during this period. But I think sometimes we're forgetting the basics of human development. I have a colleague Bror Saxberg who used to work at Kaplan Networks at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative who says, we often design for how we wished people learn rather than how they actually do learn.
Justin Reich: There's a lot of good reasons to believe that faculty are not going to rapidly get good at carrying out online teaching. I think part of what we can do is keep this as simple as possible. The simplest, most robust mode of distance instruction that we know of as far as I understand is to have teachers and teams of faculty identify effective asynchronous curriculum. Identify open online course platforms or OpenCourseWare or textbooks or collections of readings or packets. Give students those learning materials, give them challenges in week or two weeks segments and then coach them through that. Give them lots of feedback. Reach out to them individually. I've been telling faculty, what will probably determine the success of your students most is how much you can connect with them.
Justin Reich: Take your roster, print it out and print it out on a grid and put a little tick mark every time you or someone on your teaching team connects with a student, every time you answer a question on a discussion board, every time you reach out and make a phone call to say how they've been and what they're missing, every time you offer a little study session and try to make it so that the students who before school closures had the lowest grades, are getting two or three times as many tick marks as everyone else. A model like that make curriculum available, support people in doing it. Pick a couple of things you really want to focus on and make it simple, I think is the best thing that we can do. Now the other thing we can do, I think there's some of your faculty members who are trying to do what you're asking them to do with two school aged kids at home who need to be tutored full time in addition to everything else. Their bandwidth for supporting students is going to be less.
Justin Reich: They're going to be some folks who are empty nesters or who don't have any kids yet, whose research just fell apart and can do nothing but teaching. They may have more time to really ramp things up. In my department we host the writing across the curriculum team for MIT. And those folks have been having these daily online zoom, not quite, almost daily online zoom or open Hangouts where some senior administrator who runs the writing program is just saying, come on in and let's talk. Come do a test lesson with your colleagues and see how it goes. Come try to do an online activity, ask some questions, get some feedback. I think those are some of the best things we do. I would caution too much against long guidance documents. People don't read a lot of long guidance documents and they don't learn much from them.
Justin Reich: I was talking about this with some folks online. One of the things that people are trying to do right now to help students is publish these basically online study skill guides. Here's three pages of good practices that you could do. I have some colleagues who do research on online learning and social psychology and they are so certain that nobody learns anything from study skill introductions that we use them as placebos in experiments. If we need to compare a new intervention we're developing with something of approximately equal length of time that we're pretty sure it doesn't work, then we use study still skilled guidance as the placebo in the control condition. Somebody says our two week experience shows that students are more focused online rather than normal face-to-face in a class of a group of a hundred, is it true? I have no idea what's happening at your university. But I do think it's the case as much as I've sort of cautioned about being realistic about scaling things down, there are lots of places where people are going to do amazing things.
Justin Reich: There are going to be faculty that develop new innovative approaches that are better than what they're doing on campus. Innovation during emergencies, during crisis, during difficult times absolutely happens, this is another one of these places where I think people need to hold two contradictory ideas in their mind. One is that they're going to be new innovations that blossom that give us great new ideas for the future of higher education or the future of workforce learning. And at the same time most people, I would predict, are not going to do amazing things. Most people are going to barely get by. And we need to somehow find ways of celebrating the folks who are doing new, incredible things without embarrassing or shaming the folks who are just getting by. I think most efforts at synchronous instruction are not going to work very well. I think people find them boring. I think they're hard to do. I think faculty are going to get sick.
Justin Reich: I think faculty are mostly pivoting to synchronous instruction because they say to themselves, well, what I do normally is I give an oral lecture twice a week for an hour and a half. I'm going to use zoom and do that. That said, I think there are going to be some synchronous class meetings that work extremely well. They're going to be seminars where there was strong culture built in advance, and those learning communities are going to be a source of solace for people. There's going to be all kinds of places where what works best is exactly the opposite of what I've just suggested to you. And some of those contradictions are things that we'll sort of have to hold in our head.
Justin Reich: Botswana Sindesi, says what's the benefit of reducing learning goals? How do they impact students' employability? Well, there's two things. We do higher education for two reasons. One is just to credential students. And as long as you keep credentialing, there's some argument that essentially people don't learn very much in college. What they get out of college is kind of a social credential. In some of our MIT professional master's degree programs, companies start hiring our students as soon as they're admitted into the program, before they've learned anything at all. Companies will come and hire people who the MIT admissions office accepted. It's like they're using us as their HR department. And so for some kinds of things it's really not going to matter if you only taught them two thirds this year. There are other fields where it matters a lot.
Justin Reich: If you're doing a one year radiation tech program in health care education, you can't skip the stuff that they do at the end of the year. And that's what each department in each program needs to evaluate kind of step-by-step. What is it that we teach in which we're sort of selecting things out of the cannon. And if we teach five or six of those things, instead of nine or 10 of those things, our students will be just fine and go on with life. And what are the relatively few number of things that are really important to our program? And how by hook or by crook, either now or in the summer or the fall or in some future time, are we going to help people learn some of those things.
Justin Reich: Megan now some time ago asks, what kinds of emerging competencies do you think are being developed in students? Again, I think to some extent there are students who are developing some new ways of getting proficient at online learning. I appreciate people who want to look on the bright side, but I think we should not overestimate the benefits of learning during a global pandemic. For the most part students are stressed and they're sad and they're having a hard time and there may be some learning that's happening there. But a lot of what's happening there is struggle. What else? We had to implement online learning for healthcare specialties. Would you recommend that this be continued as blended learning after the crisis is over? I think there are some things, here's a funny thing from K-12 that I've just observed that hardened me a bit. In the United States, most us States are recommending that people only schedule about half students time for the older students and less than that for younger.
Justin Reich: What States are offering guidance are saying come up with programming that's about three hours a day for high school students, less for younger students. And they are also saying, encourage people to do physical education and the arts or creative expression every day. Now in U.S. schools, under normal circumstances, we do not make time for physical education and the arts every single day. This is a question that I think we should ask ourselves at the end of this. If during a pandemic it was a good thing for kids to get exercise and do art every day. Why is this not a good thing every year that we have? I think they're going to be some things like that. Here's another thing that I think we'll find, is that we're going to throw away a bunch of policies and bureaucracies and things like that and we'd be like, Oh, that was fine. We didn't need those.
Justin Reich: But one other piece of advice, I haven't found the way to sort of turn this into a bullet point is, in the very best of circumstances, our policies serve our mission in the very best of circumstances if we did them right, our bureaucracies serve our missions. We don't serve our policies, we don't serve our bureaucracies. They're there to support our mission. As the world has rapidly changed, if our policies no longer support our mission we should drop them. We shouldn't do things like, as you're making decisions, try to ask yourself, are we doing this just because this is a bureaucracy that we set up during normal times? Or are we doing this because it advances our mission and because it advances equity. And I think there's going to be a lot of things that we throw away that afterwards we go, oh, I'm kind of glad we threw those things away.
Justin Reich: Sylvia asked, students are complaining because teachers tend to give them much more homework than in a regular classroom case. Is this a generalized phenomenon? I will tell you this, in normal times before the pandemic, there are a bunch of faculty when the new technologies were to being developed, switched to a flipped classroom model where they said watch videos beforehand and then come to class and do discussions. And what we found was that when faculty set up these flipped classroom models, it used to be that there was a time for lecture and then there was some homework. And then the faculty recorded their lectures, still gave them homework and had additional time for in-class synchronous activities. And so in the past they had given students nine hours a week of stuff to do and now they were giving them 12 or 13 hours a week stuff to do.
Justin Reich: I think there is some research evidence that suggested a pivot to online learning. One intuition that faculty have is just to ask people to do more. Now there's some research that suggested that if you surveyed students about how much time they spent on each class, what faculty aside was not correlated with how much time they spent. You can assign and more stuff and students will still only spend X hours a week, six hours a week, nine hours a week doing the work. It doesn't matter if you assigned them nine hours a week or 15 hours a week. I think as faculty are pivoting online, they should be choosing fewer, simpler, better things to do or simply fewer and simpler things to do rather than saying there's going to be video lectures and there's going to be readings and there's going to be an online discussion hangout and there's going to be all these other kinds of things.
Justin Reich: I teach a class called learning media technology, which I think would fall in one of these Canon classes. If I was teaching this semester, I would just say for the rest of the semester, you're all going to do an independent research project on something about K-12 education and how schools are coping with this. And I'll meet with you once or twice a week to guide you through that project. And if you're doing well in your life and this is interesting to you, I'll help you write a really cool paper and if you're having a hard time, we'll chat about it and you can write some notes and we'll call it a day. I happen to be on teaching leave this semester, but I typically teach a class, which will be one of the ones that I can say, you know what, we did a pretty good job in the first half of the semester. I taught you the main ideas, go forth and take care of your younger siblings.
Justin Reich: I think those are some of the kinds of things you should be thinking about. You shouldn't be thinking about that in like a respiratory therapy class. Or in a mechanical engineering class for someone who's going to become a bridge builder. Some things we can't skip but a lot we can. Antonio notes that sometimes the environment home is not that good to have lessons, that's absolutely right. Should we assess student learning when doing online learning? You should always provide your students with feedback and if your faculty can, they should provide their students with more feedback than is usual. I would encourage you to design lessons in which there are lots of opportunities for teachers to jump and say, good job, great question, that's interesting, do more of that. Lots of small connections with people because those connections are what motivate our students. We all are motivated by our social relationships with others and there's so much less of that now that your students can't walk into the classroom and say hi to you.
Justin Reich: Should you grade student learning? In a lot of cases, no. In a lot of cases we should sort of set grades aside. There may be some circumstances again, where we're teaching people material that we really have to know whether they're being successful or whether they're not. And we need to come up with some way of measuring that. But for the most part, we use grades for three things, to motivate and inspire students not always in the most constructive way, to give students feedback about how they're doing. That is probably some of the best things that we use grades for. But you could also tell students how they're doing, not with numbers or with letters, but with words that describe what they're doing and then to signal to future employers, future graduate programs, things like that. How a student ranks next to other people.
Justin Reich: A bunch of university systems are announcing that they're going to accept pass-fail grades from high school transcripts, that they're going to accept pass-fail grades from college transcripts and graduate programs for the next couple of years. I hope that the MIT admissions office, when they look at grades, they're saying, I'm going to try to make an inference about whether this student would be successful here based on their grades. But we don't need to, it's not useful to make inferences about how students performed during a pandemic. How you perform as a student during a pandemic, may very well be totally unrelated to how you perform as a student during normal times. One day we're going to have a vaccine and we're going to get our lives back to normal. If you weren't able to learn during the pandemic, I mean, that's great for you if you were just taking care of your family during a pandemic, that seems perfectly reasonable to me. Give people feedback but be cautious about grades and think about pass-fail, those kinds of things.
Justin Reich: Bance here says that, I'm on at USP, and we're trying to do classes and simulations online now and leaving hands on activities to be organized upon return. I think that's a terrific idea. Think about the things that you can most effectively do now. Actually, I had one math teacher who sort of pushed back on me when I said teach the most important things now. And they said, well, maybe I teach the most important things. Maybe I just teach the things that are easiest to do at a distance. That I think is another good operating principle. Teach the things that work reasonably well online and save hands on other kinds of things for other contexts. Rubrics and other kinds of tools are great. Again, I would say if you're using rubrics to make it more efficient and more effective to provide students with feedback that helps them stay motivated, stay connected and learn, that's a great use of rubrics right now.
Justin Reich: If you're using rubrics to sort and rank people, these are the more advanced and these are the less advanced students. We're not going to be able to make good inferences about student performance right now. Because what people's performance looks like in a pandemic, maybe totally uncorrelated with what their performance looks like in normal circumstances. There's a great question here about how should we support and compensate faculty for doing a bunch of extra work? I think those are great questions. Educators are the kinds of folks who are always willing to roll up their sleeves and do more for their students when it really matters. But there are a lot of people who are working a lot harder also to stay away from the financial parts of that question. Because I know that this time period is going to be extraordinarily challenging financially for universities. But I do think that that universities should be about at the very least how they can celebrate great work that's happening during a pandemic.
Justin Reich: Again, not to shame the people who aren't able to do great work. To those of you who are administrative roles, think about how you, how your department heads, how your school leaders can reach out to the faculty doing this work and say, Hey, I just want to check in. I just want you to know how much I appreciate all that you're trying to do. If we want teachers to make time to reach out to their students, the most effective way of encouraging them to do that is to model that behavior as school leaders ourselves. If we want teachers to reach out to their students individually, we should reach out to our faculty individually. I think there's a lot of enthusiasm about taking what we learned on this period and applying it in future contexts. I think that's great. I think two things to be careful of, too much thinking about silver linings. I think it's good to sort of maintain hope, but I think we should also recognize this is really hard.
Justin Reich: I also think that we should be cautious about saying that a crisis is a time for us to implement ideas that we've been thinking about for a long time anyway. In the United States we have this phrase, which is disaster capitalism, which says when there's a crisis, use that as a time to advance your policy goals. It may be a time to advance certain policy goals. It also may be a time to just help people. Aceli Martinez asked the question how to consider diversity in this context. At the very least we should be recognizing that people are going to face all kinds of very different challenges in this. There are going to be lots of folks, depending upon what country that you live in who are profoundly affected by grief and loss.
Justin Reich: They're going to be thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who die from this virus or complications related to this virus. That is a reality that we need to be aware of. There are people who are going to go home to homes with lots of support, with great internet connections, with great access to computers. In the United States, very, very sadly, we're seeing a scourge of Asian racism that's connected to this, where you people are swearing at and saying slurs at people of Asian descent because the virus came from China because some people in United States are using that to promote divisive rhetoric. That's going to be hard for people in different ways.
Justin Reich: I think the thing to think about is that, at least what the research online learning would tell us is that all of the students that you would expect to have some difficulties in learning are going to struggle even more during a pandemic. And I think it behooves us to really organize our programming or organize our instruction, organize our coaching for faculty around the question, how are we going to serve the students who are most likely to be negatively affected by these crises? Are students who have every resource in the world who have all the support just to be successful learners, they're going to be fine during this. I think it really behooves us to focus on those who are in need. And you know, to remember that the people who need our support may be the ones who are least likely to ask for it. It means reaching out, finding ways of identifying folks who are struggling to support them.
Justin Reich: Barnes asked this question, the programs that are based only on final exams, what do you suggest? I am very concerned about the shift towards online proctoring software. There are many, many reasons as a society to be very concerned about online proctoring software. Online proctoring software is requiring students to install malware surveillance technologies on their computers. These are things that take control of our machines that operate in ways that we're often not familiar with. And in many cases, we're not part of the original agreements that you made with your students, when a student signed up for your class, they didn't say, Hey, I agree in advance to install malware that surveils me on my machine to be able to pay for it. I would encourage faculty to think about alternatives to final exams. Think about having students answer questions or do projects that address issues that have never been addressed before and so are harder to find answers for online and those kinds of things.
Justin Reich: I would encourage people to give folks credit for past work. I would encourage people to use take home exams and encourage people to do them fairly, but sort of greater assessment in away that if there are a handful of students who are cheating, it doesn't take away from the learning experience of everyone else. But this is not a race to try to make life as close to normal as it was before the pandemic. It's a time to make accommodations and then to ask the question, all right, if in a bunch of our classes we aren't able to sort rankings our students, maybe that's not such a problem as we thought it might be. Maybe it's okay just to say we know that people did their best participating in this learning experience. And we're going to find other ways, more holistic ways that take place over years rather than over a day to evaluate what student learning looks like. Those are some strategies.
Justin Reich: Adriana asked this enormously important question, what strategies do they use to support students and teachers with disabilities? Certainly in the United States and the K-12 system this is a huge question. Many of our strategies for supporting students with learning disabilities, for supporting people who are trying to learn in a second or third language depend on synchronous meeting times. It depends on being face-to-face with one another. I mean the answer to this question is, have faculty really pay attention to the students with the greatest needs and try to be creative about solving these problems. Learn as much as we can about, really think about how your curriculum is accessible. How is it accessible to people who are blind and need screen readers? How's your curriculum accessible to people who now have a new kind of disability, which is really low bandwidth in learning circumstances. If your whole curriculum is being delivered through synchronous video, there are a whole lot of people who are now, that is a disabled curriculum. That is a curriculum that doesn't allow itself to be translated to lots of different folks.
Justin Reich: If you're within countries, within some other units, maybe this is something that J-WEL can work on trying to rapidly assemble best practices and serving students with disabilities at a distance is something that people all around the world are struggling with right now. I think the basic principles of saying, start by asking the question to how can we make these curriculum material as accessible as possible to as many people as possible? And then maybe a second piece of that would be, how do we share what we're learning about, how best to do that? I think the more that our assessments are simple and straightforward, are easily translated into multiple languages, are easily communicated through text, can be sent by phone, can be sent by SMS messages, the more accessible they'll be to diverse peoples. Lots of the advice that I gave will be impossible in all kinds of circumstances. Think about focusing on the advice that seems most closely related to your learning goals and your mission. And think about focusing on the things that seem most doable and most important.
Justin Reich: Again, I get to be on teaching leave this semester. I'm just spending all my time studying how people are responding to this and trying to offer useful guidance based on the research that's out there. I get it, my hat is off and my heart is with all the educators who are in all different kinds of contexts who are trying to make things work. I think if we put the health, if we put the welfare of teachers and students at the front, if we put our relationships with each other at front, if we think carefully about what our most important learning goals are, what we're really here to do, I think that is the way that we are most likely to come out. We're not going to come out at the end of this feeling great about what we accomplished, that is normal during a disaster. If you leave this experience and you have that reinvented higher education in some wonderful new way, that is what you should expect.
Justin Reich: Let's prioritize taking care of each other. Let's prioritize, certainly in the MIT context, I hope in your other environments, a really fun thing about teaching at MIT is that taking care of each other is doing learning and science. Lots of our students are in our institutions because what they love is learning. For our students, getting back into physics and chemistry is going to be a great break for them and we want to make that available as best we can, but not in a way that's punitive, not in a way that's doing things for the sake of doing them, not in a way that's really focused on sorting, ranking and failing students. But in a way that's focused on lifting each other up and taking care of each other during difficult times.
Justin Reich: I'm Justin Reich. Thanks for listening to TeachLab. For more info on what we talked about with J-WEL you can find the full webinar and PowerPoint from the session in our show notes and be sure to subscribe to TeachLab to get future episodes on how educators from all walks of life are tackling remote learning during COVID-19. Special thanks to Julia Reynolds-Cuellar and the whole team at J-WEL, for having me on and for recording our conversation, this episode of TeachLab was produced by Aimee Corrigan and sound mixed by Garrett Beazley. Stay safe until next time.