Opinion: Virus should spur change in educational environment

Lisa Sitkins

With the outbreak of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, in the United States, precautions are being taken in all parts of our lives. Individuals are washing their hands more, keeping their distance from people and staying put.

Businesses are encouraging or requiring their employees to work from home. Personal and business travel is restricted, as are visits to nursing homes and hospitals. Large face-to-face gatherings such as concerts, church services, and schools have been canceled or closed.

Most K-12 districts are scrambling to find ways to meet the needs of their students while they are away from the school building. In addition to providing meals for students, districts are also seeking avenues to continue instruction, with most using online tools.

Michigan schools should be restructured so that education would be less affected by something like the current pandemic, Sitkins writes.

Districts that operate virtual schools or that have integrated technology as part of their teaching practices are more prepared for such a crisis. What if we restructured school so that teaching and learning would be far less affected by something like this pandemic?

Used well, technology can transform education from the archaic six-hours-a-day-in-the-confines-of-a-classroom model to learning that is more relevant, authentic, and real for students. In a student-centered learning environment, technology allows us to customize learning for every student. Teachers have the capacity to offer more individual attention and build deeper relationships. Most importantly, students become independent learners — working at a flexible pace and demonstrating their learning in a multitude of ways.

Online learning has been available to Michigan’s K-12 districts for over 20 years, but the pace at which it has disrupted how we “do school” has been extremely slow. In 2005, former state Superintendent Tom Watkins published a research paper titled “The New Education (R)evolution: Exploring E-Learning Reforms for Michigan.” While Michigan adopted a few of his insights from 15 years ago, more needs to be done to create student-centered learning for all across our state. 

Opponents to online learning believe that students just sit at a computer all day or can’t take certain types of virtual courses like physical fitness. They say districts that use online learning are taking money from other districts. Some opponents argue students in poverty areas lack access to the internet and digital devices at home. These beliefs or fears come from a 20th century education lens. 

Our educational model in the 21st century should look different because life is different. Who hasn’t typed “How to” in a browser to learn something new? Students need teachers to facilitate their learning. People turn to Peloton, YouTube and other subscription services for their fitness programs. Students need adults to guide them on their individualized lifetime fitness journey. Working adults manage a variety of online and offline tasks in their jobs. Students need mentors to support them as they learn to manage their learning.

Education tax dollars should be allocated differently. Michigan needs to look at alternatives to time-based funding. Are we willing to educate all children? The Lindsay Unified School District in California, a 100% free and reduced lunch school, found a way to provide internet to all their students. The poverty excuse cannot limit what we provide to our students. 

The trying times of the COVID-19 epidemic may just be what Michigan education needs to change long-standing attitudes, beliefs, practices, laws and policies.

Lisa Sitkins is founder of LSS Connections and Consulting and an educator passionate about lifelong learning.