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Silver Linings and the Work to Be Done

On Post-Covid Techno-Social Transformation
By Matt Brady
Silver Linings and the Work to Be Done

“When the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, watchout!”

Jack Welch, 1935-2020

It is perhaps not a big surprise that it took something completely outside of education to change education. 

Single handedly, Covid-19 came in and did in a matter of weeks what thousands of tech-positive individuals—on the inside—had been trying to do for decades: Covid took everyone in the building, yes, even the "Never Tech-ers,” and put them in the digital game.

Assuming an eventual return to a post-Covid “normal” in six months to a year, I wondered: What are the big picture implications for technology in international education? 

Are the days of the cacophonous, impersonal, meat-factory parent conference in the gym numbered?

I asked several colleagues for commentary on their Covid experiences and one of the more interesting, unexpected effects of Covid revolved around a boon in parent-teacher conferencing. At one school, a colleague of mine who wanted to remain anonymous commented that:

“Parent-teacher-student conferences had the highest attendance this year over Zoom than any time in previous years (when offered face-to-face). The feedback on offering these interviews over Zoom was overwhelmingly positive and we will most likely move towards having these conferences over Zoom in the future, in our Senior School (Grades 6-12) at least.”

Jackie Van Der Steege, Head of MYP Design at International School of Hamburg, noted, “Parents accepted online and hybrid learning much more than was expected and many believe it enhances their children's education. This was a surprise. Protocols and clear expectations make new learning environments work. Lack of protocols leads to chaos and mixed results.”

Jackie’s statement made me think of the rise in homeschooling, unschooling, and deschooling movements. The market for real online learning is growing and, while still in its infancy, the corner on “learning” that brick-and-mortar schools have had is starting to crack. It’s a tiny crack for sure, but it’s going to keep growing.

Online learning is going to grow because expectation transfer is accelerating

Customer expectations are usually shaped by the conditions within an industry—say, education. Now, because of technology, changes in other industries can have a greater impact on a school than internal ones. For example, when you order an item on and it shows up on your doorstep the next day, you begin to wonder why other services can’t be as convenient and effective.

Expectation transfer occurs because when people can do or get something in one setting, they begin to expect it to translate to all settings.  Many parents saw their work lives go “remote-only” successfully, and online learning platforms like will continue to grow to meet growing expectations for high quality education online.

Digital teaching is not digital learning

When teachers were forced to quickly take their meatspace courses online, everyone realized that online courses work best designed as online courses; the two don’t translate well.

A high school student remarked, “What do we do now when teachers trying to teach us remotely is a lot of times worse than YouTube and Khan Academy. Why spend the time only to end up using other resources to actually learn?”

Covid highlighted key differences between digital teaching (providing instructions, handing in assignments, grading, etc.) and digital learning. Digital learning encompasses digital teaching, but is also geared toward maximizing learning-focused attributes like student choice/autonomy, personalized learning, connection to resources beyond the classroom, etc.

A notable take on the teaching/learning gap comes from Elon Musk, who believes the future of education “should be more like an interactive game, not what it is today, which is a rather boring Vaudeville act. Before movies, every town had its own troupe of actors and most often, they weren’t very good. But today with movies, and the technology of distribution, you take the best directors and best actors and special effects and you can produce something incredible, and that’s how teaching should be.”

Chris Muller, Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, echoed Musk’s sentiment: “When we look at mass education in the developing world, the biggest problem is the poor quality of teaching. Why not retrain teachers to guide students through a curriculum provided online? With the sudden surge in online learning, the resources for such programs have increased exponentially.”

We don’t know what the proportions of classroom/online and digital teaching/digital learning students will receive going forward, but an ever-deepening understanding of our true capacities and limitations is not reason for despair, but ground from which to build.

Adjusting to a strategy of commitment vs. compliance

We learn from history that complex systems cannot be changed quickly and the effects created by complex systems are not always simple "problems" that can be "solved."  (We also learn from history that we don’t very often learn from history, but that’s another story.) So, how do we nurture the new opportunities brought on by the pandemic? 

My view of where most organizations are today with digital integration is akin to the hunt-and-peck typist. They have a method they can rightfully claim "works," but never learning proper technique puts them at a local maximum; they could do much better with training.

What has happened with technology integration in schools prior to Covid is analogous. EdTech has largely been a trickledown project (I’ve written about this in TIE here) where cultures of compliance get built and the biggest reason to use technology is a sensible, rational decision among teachers to “follow orders,” not to commit to training and practice in digital learning.

One of the silver linings of Covid follows from how it obliterated so many long-held limiting beliefs of what was possible with technology. As a leader having taken all this in, the first step in the way forward is implicit in the warning Ben Franklin gives in Poor Richard’s Almanack. “If you would persuade, appeal to interest and not to reason.”

Matt Brady leads international teams envisioning, designing and supporting techno-social transformations that drive value and growth.

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