In this episode, educational researcher Justin Reich shares insights into transitioning to remote teaching and learning during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Join us as we talk with Justin Reich, assistant professor in comparative media studies at MIT. Professor Reich runs the Teaching Systems Lab, which was founded with the mission of designing, implementing, and researching the future of teacher learning. With the emergence of the current coronavirus pandemic, Prof. Reich has been turning his attention to helping teachers and education policy makers figure out how to transition rapidly to remote learning. In this special episode of Chalk Radio, Prof. Reich discusses the need for teachers to use a balance between asynchronous materials and synchronous check-ins, the challenge of making home learning equitable for students, and the value of existing open educational resources (like the materials on OCW!) for teachers who are suddenly forced to teach their classes remotely. “It’s totally normal to struggle during a pandemic,” Reich says, but he reassures teachers and parents that effective education at home may look different from effective in-school education—we simply need to recognize and cultivate the kinds of learning that can happen best under these extraordinary circumstances.
The OCW Educator Portal
The Teaching Systems Lab
Professor Reich’s faculty page
Professor Reich’s TeachLab podcast
Interview with Prof. Reich on WBUR’s “On Point”
Resources, tools, and support for teaching remotely at MIT
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SARAH HANSEN: Welcome to a special episode of Chalk Radio, a podcast about inspired teaching at MIT from MIT OpenCourseWare. I'm your host Sarah Hansen. In this episode, we want to share some insights into the many ways we can transition our traditional learning environments into remote ones.
We connected with someone whose work even before the pandemic hit has been deeply focused on how learning is changing. Our conversation started off with what's become a familiar sound for listeners with young ones at home.
SPEAKER 2: [children playing, family talking].
SPEAKER 3: Well, it looks like, ...
SARAH HANSEN: Just so you know, you might hear some more of this in the background throughout the episode. We're all doing the best we can working from home, right?
JUSTIN REICH: Hey, girls--
SPEAKER 2: Dance party.
SARAH HANSEN: Anyhow, let's jump right in.
JUSTIN REICH: I'm Justin Reich. So I'm an assistant professor in Comparative Media Studies. And I run a lab called the Teaching Systems Lab. And the mission of the Teaching Systems Lab is to design, implement, and research the future of teacher learning. And we try to figure out new ways for teachers to learn in online and blended ways.
SARAH HANSEN: In his work, Justin partners with teachers and instructors, curriculum designers, software developers, researchers, and experts from across disciplines to help teachers adapt to the changing world of learning. Since the pandemic has shifted almost all teaching to remote instruction, Justin's work has adapted to the new needs of instructors.
JUSTIN REICH: I would say the bulk of my teaching energy has gone into helping K-12 educators and education policymakers across the country. But most of my work has been trying to provide some guidance for schools and school leaders figuring out what distance learning can look like.
SARAH HANSEN: So for schools and teachers with little or even no experience with online instruction, where do they even begin to approach remote learning? With so much changing each day, what are the most important things educators should be thinking about?
JUSTIN REICH: These are enormously complicated issues to deal with while you're trying to feed millions more meals to kids than you ever had before in large districts or big urban school systems while you're trying to help your entire faculty transition almost instantaneously into a new model of learning. I mean, doing all of these things at the same time is just immensely complicated.
So I would encourage people to keep it simple. That's one principle. A second principle is to really think about how you can partner with students and in K12 with their families. So the coronavirus feels like it's something being done to us. It feels like something that we have very little control over. But our response to the coronavirus can be something that we build together.
So I would encourage education leaders at every level from college provosts to elementary school teachers to school principals, superintendents -- whatever it is-- asking and partnering with everybody in the system is a really important part of responding to remote learning. What most emergency remote learning should look like is kind of a package of asynchronous materials that's coupled with lots of frequent check-ins.
SARAH HANSEN: Synchronous versus asynchronous teaching or offering learning experiences at a specific time versus providing students with the material to engage with on their own time is at the core of Justin's message for teachers.
JUSTIN REICH: So in lots of circumstances, synchronous learning is not going to work for people. It's hard for all of us to line up our schedules. In K12 circumstances, you've got a teacher who's got a first grader, a fourth grader, and a seventh grader who's trying to teach her kids who are ninth graders, but they have siblings or third graders and fourth graders and 12th graders... and trying to line up all those schedules so that people can be synchronously in front of the one computer that exists in a household or to use the amount of bandwidth because your home only allows one synchronous video call to happen at a time, it's just too complicated.
So for the most part, what educators should be thinking of setting up is some kind of package of curriculum that lasts about a week or two maybe with some sort of daily guides of what people might be doing each day recognizing that people might have to do two days of work in one day because they get busy with other stuff for another day, or things like that and then providing frequent points of check-in.
So a huge part of what motivates us as learners is when we're getting feedback on what we're doing. And this doesn't have to be based around grades or numbers or other things like that. Just "that was a great idea. Keep that up. Tell me more about that." "Wow, it looks like you did more on this assignment than anyone you've done before. What else could you do with this? How could you take this further? It seems like you're interested in this."
SARAH HANSEN: Shifting so heavily toward asynchronous teaching might feel strange at first. But this one change may address in a small way some of the equity issues school systems and individuals are facing right now such as differing access to dependable Wi-Fi.
JUSTIN REICH: There's no survey that was done in advance of the pandemic that asked questions, like, "do you have one device for each school-aged child or learner in your home and a broadband connection and a printer to be able to print things out?" Like, we actually don't know how well families are equipped for this pandemic.
But it's pretty clear that a lot of our low-income housing is in broadband deserts or isn't networked in. I mean, there's lots of people in urban environments who in their typical daily lives can get by with having one mobile broadband device in their house, and that's plenty. But now if you've got three school-aged kids at home, your demands have just increased substantially.
But I think partnering with students, I think, really thinking about, who are the most vulnerable learners in our community? There are some people who come from affluent well-equipped homes. And they're able to weather this crisis in a very different way than if you're going back into a poverty-impacted place that is really feeling the effects of the recession and the coronavirus.
I think the students that aren't reaching out-- I think the ones that are not doing well, I think we always had this responsibility. But I think during a pandemic, we have a special responsibility to reach out to those students and say, "how can I help you with this? How can I keep you on track?"
SARAH HANSEN: And helping students stay on track is another big part of the puzzle for a lot of educators out there, especially for classes that form the foundations for later learning.
JUSTIN REICH: I mean, I think the other thing that universities and other places need to do is be strategic about what it is that we want students to be able to learn. So if you were to go across the OCW catalog, I think you would find at least two types of courses. One type of course is where to study a discipline you sample from a canon.
So literature is the most obvious example of this. But I think it appears in STEM classes and other places as well. If you were to take a Shakespeare class at MIT, you wouldn't read all of Shakespeare's work. You would read some selected sample of that work. And we would probably be willing to say we read Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night and a couple of sonnets before we left. And we were going to do that much work again in the fourth quarter.
But actually, this time, we're just going to read Henry the V. And we'll do it a little bit more slowly. And that'll be fine. That is a less of a sampling of the canon that we would have done previously. But it's a perfectly reasonable sampling of the canon. We'll give you your emergency pass grade. Everything is fine.
There are other courses in which there's a sequential building of material of understanding in which subsequent courses depend upon that sampling understanding. So our Introduction to Statistics Class, it's not suitable to say to a student, ah, we're just going to do half of multiple regression. And we're just not going to teach you the other half or figure it out on their own.
I mean, one of the things that I think at the department level or other levels people need to do is to say there's some courses that we strategically reduced. And those young people will be fine for the rest of their lives. We don't have to worry about it. There are other courses that we had to strategically reduce in a pandemic.
But we've got to figure out how we support students in learning that material so they don't show up at Intermediate Statistics in the fall without the preparation that they need to be successful and still, the sort of lingering effects of the pandemic. So that's a kind of strategic question. It's probably best resolved at the department level-- something along the lines of, who are the students in our core classes that we think missed learning materials that they really are going to need?
And how are we going to supplement over the summer or right when people come back in August or in the fall or whatever the new model looks like to identify the areas in which it's not OK to just strategically reduce. But instead, we got to figure out how we help people get the learning that they need to be successful in subsequent courses.
SARAH HANSEN: When I asked Justin about putting new teaching approaches into practice and developing materials to support educators during COVID-19, we got to talking about education at scale. From the system as a whole to each individual participant, there's such a wide range of needs and no one prescription for addressing them all. And in a time when teachers should be focusing on partnering with students and families and identifying how to strategically reduce and recover content area material, open educational resources may have an important role to play.
JUSTIN REICH: Students differ so much from place to place. One of the things that I'm seeing is that a lot of big districts are creating sample lessons, sample schedules-- those kinds of things. But my initial evidence is that a lot of teachers aren't using them, not necessarily because they're bad or wrong, but just because they, like, aren't right for where their kids are right now.
And so a lot of teachers feel the need to be basically inventing their own new distance learning curriculum as they're learning a whole series of new practices and co-inventing them with their students and finding the forty percent of their kids who aren't answering emails or responding to phone calls and facilitating their own kids' instruction at home. I mean, I think that's something that people really need to keep in mind.
But I would say that if schools are facing waves of closure in the fall or other kinds of challenges like this, I would really encourage people to say, even though it's not exactly the way I would want to teach it, there may be a better comparative advantage for faculty members to focus on that check-in, that facilitation role rather than trying to generate original content by video without a studio and without all the other resources that we need, or consider doing less of that, consider saying, "oh, in my solid state chemistry course, I can find these MIT OpenCourseWare videos. And six of the 10 lectures are great. And I'm going to only record four for the period that we have to miss in the fall" or other kinds of things like that.
I mean, I think one of the things that we've discovered is that faculty find it very difficult to identify whole online courses that they like to just take and sort of use as textbooks. But it strikes me that a pandemic is exactly the sort of time in which people might want to employ that kind of thinking.
SARAH HANSEN: One of the most important factors in determining our best way forward is looking at how we actually measure the success of remote learning. Who do we look to for guidance and models of what is best right now? It's not as simple as it might seem.
JUSTIN REICH: So we just did this report about the remote learning guidance offered by all 50 states. And one of the cautions that we have in the report is there are good reasons to believe that lots of teachers are not doing what this says, that educational systems are what we call loosely coupled. So there are tightly-coupled systems in our society like the military.
If a general in the military says everyone's hair should be shorter than x inches, then within weeks, there would be hundreds of thousands of soldiers around the world whose hair is shorter than those number of inches. Teaching is not like that. Education policymakers, leaders all the time make edicts. And teachers sift through them. And they apply them as they see fit in their own context for a variety of reasons.
And because of the incredible granularity of teaching, in a lot of cases, we just don't know what's happening at the classroom level. I think most of the places that we say are doing a good job of remote learning, their primary characteristic is that they are affluent.
One way you can do a good job of remote learning is have a bunch of kids in stable homes with broadband internet connections who each have their own device. And if those conditions exist, then you will have a thing that looks a lot like good learning. If those conditions don't exist, regardless of the heroic effort of teachers, you'll have things that look like less effective learning.
The way that my colleague Tressie McMillan Cottom said this is like the number one thing that education has to reduce inequality is the school. The school is the thing that we've lost. And there's not a mechanism to like, rapidly make up those sort of equalizing forces. So that's a long way of saying that I don't think I know of places that I would say, wow, these folks are doing a really great job addressing this.
I think one measure that people are using to define a good job is who can do things most quickly? Who can get the thing that looks closest to what school looked like before up and running the fastest? I'm not convinced at the end of this that that will end up being a good proxy for better.
SARAH HANSEN: And in the end, it seems like better learning while we are at home simply looks different than what we're used to. And the more we can embrace that, the better off we as parents, students, and educators may be.
JUSTIN REICH: I've encouraged both families and educators to, if possible, not put too much stock in trying to recreate school at home. There are lots of things that schools can do in their local environments that can be really hard to replicate in a home environment. But there's lots of learning that can happen at home.
And what we need to do as best we can, cultivate and celebrate that learning. I was interviewed recently by a reporter from The Arctic Sounder, which is the newspaper of the north slope of Alaska-- very bad connectivity up there. And so remote learning is not going to look like what it looks like in an affluent Boston suburb.
And what a lot of teachers there were saying is, like, look, this is a great time for families to strengthen their connection to traditional Inupiaq values. This is a great time for kids to learn how to cook and bake and sew and bead and repair snow machines and do all the kinds of learning that can happen really well at home.
So I think to families out there that are sort of struggling during this period, it is totally normal to struggle during a pandemic. If you feel like this is hard and is anxiety-provoking, that is normal and lots of people feel that way. And I think our goals-- we can't put too much pressure on ourselves about keeping up and staying up and things like that-- think about what can you do to maximize the learning and the resilience that happens right now?
And if part of what we do to do that is like teach our kids new chores, if it's time for those nine and 10-year-olds to start doing their first load of laundry, or their six or seven-year-olds to do their first sink of dishes, like, that's great learning too that we can do really well at the home. And we can probably do some reading and some math and some social studies and science along the way too.
And some of that relates to the first piece of advice that I offered before, which is let's partner with our learners. And if those learners happen to be our own kids, so much the better to be partnering with them.
SARAH HANSEN: If you're interested in learning more about teaching remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, check out Justin's WBUR On Point interview where he talks about how colleges and universities are teaching students virtually. We've provided a link to that in our show notes.
Justin also hosts Teach Lab, a new podcast that explores the art and craft of teaching. Several of the show's recent episodes focus on teaching during COVID-19. That link can be found in the show notes as well.
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