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Previously Published on Forbes | March 13, 2020
By Jeanne Allen, Founder and CEO of CER

Every challenge is an opportunity, they say. I’ve been thinking about the impact of the coronavirus, and the kinds of tools and services that could be focused on ensuring that students don’t miss a beat in their learning. COVID-19 has brought home the reality  that education technology that delivers great content and engages students and teachers has never been more important. While many education systems have resisted changing their 150-year-old structure, necessity now compels them to do what declining student achievement could not. Thousands of entrepreneurs and innovations can help our students keep moving in their educational journey no matter where this virus disruption takes them. While we are all upset by this global problem, we can and we must overcome it. And fortunately the tools to do so are at hand.

Reinventing Education

In the field of education technology, most products and services on the market work to improve the educational experiences of students, instructors or managers. Far fewer are intended to ensure the educational experience can continue for each student on their own, in the event of choice — or necessity.

Higher education is the exception. University students have had access to advanced and interactive curricula online for at least a decade, though many institutions are still slow getting to the party. In reflecting on the current situation, Andrea Leone-Pizzighella, who manages English language instruction remotely in Italy for the University of Pennsylvania, “You want to have the option…to do lots of different things, having every possible tool available to us… It makes sense to continue to develop our online infrastructure and have everything available to us and also because it’s not complicated; [we need to get] over the idea of high quality education needing to be offered in a face-to-face format as opposed to being offered in an adaptable, online format.”

That’s a lesson that Coursera, EdX and the non-profit Modern States Education Alliance have taught us, as well as Arizona State University, who has been a leader in delivering highly adaptive and interactive programs online. But primary and secondary education have lagged unless you live in a community or state with innovative leaders, like Florida, whose state-wide virtual school has been working to help incorporate digital learning in classrooms by providing personalized, student centric solutions for 23 years. “If and when that time comes, I think we are well poised to be able to educate, with our teacher population and with our student population, kids without losing hours,” Florida’s commissioner of education Richard Corcoran told reporters.

In the charter school arena there are large and small players that have long served as options for students with numerous needs and challenges, like the nearly 300,000 full-time online charter school students who’ll continue their education seamlessly in spite of the virus. This model has yet to be utilized across much of “traditional” education, but could become an equitable, quality substitute for virtually all students should tragedy, or potentially opportunity, hit.

Rather than leave it to chance when a tragedy strikes, what if we were actually deploying the many advances in the science of learning and technology to bring an “end to average?” As Harvard’s Todd Rose argues, “The hardest part of learning something new is not embracing new ideas, but letting go of old ones.”

New Jersey, for example, began considering legislation last week to permit school districts “to use remote or virtual education in emergency situations such as a coronavirus outbreak that would require facilities to be shuttered for more than three days.”  They’ve also asked the Commissioner to come up with standards to guide that. But why only in an emergency? And what kind of new quality standards are needed for a world of ed technology that is already faster, smarter and often more personalized than the average traditional classroom? Why try to fix what’s not broken?

Conversely, the Northshore School District near Seattle announced closure of its 33 schools for at least two weeks. The district, located north of Seattle, will move coursework to a cloud-based online learning platform. “Let me be clear: Education is a service to which our district is resolutely committed. It is not a place,” the superintendent Michelle Reid wrote in her letter to parents. “To that end, we are shifting our education from the classroom with four walls to the cloud,” using Google for Education.

Edmentum is responding to increasing demands to deploy their online learning and assessment tools in districts across the country. Their adaptive curriculum and research-based assessments can help students access quality instruction and resources for an extended period out of the classroom. The company is responding to hundreds of requests for help and is holding webinars dedicated to helping educators “learn how Edmentum can help ensure learning continues outside of the classroom”.

Artificial intelligence is demonstrating its power to serve as a teacher in cases where students need to be isolated. Italian Educator Michael McDonald uses virtual reality to improve the way people learn or teach English as a foreign language. Using Rumii “a social virtual reality space, students can collaborate and communicate in one room from anywhere in the world – as though they’re all in the same physical location.”

A company founded by literature and English expert Dr. Jamey Heit puts that expertise to the service of teachers everywhere using artificial intelligence that essentially mimics the gifted writer’s brain. Say Ecree leaders: “We want to offer our #support to schools closing due to #COVID. We are ready to give access to our online writing software to any school or district that asks!”

But what about when whole institutions and countries have to close for extended periods of time and are not prepared? Italy has had to step up its march toward education innovation. Enrico Poli, head of Zanichelli Venture, the parent to Zanichelli Editore, which has long been developing integrated digital education products for the country, reports that the Italian government put out a request for proposal to ensure remote learning was possible for all of its students. Imagine the potential for all Italian students to use adaptive tutors on their smartphones which can replace, for now, or augment paper learning in Latin, grammar and literature.

What about the adults who can’t go to work and are currently confined to their homes?  They could be gaining valuable insights on closing their skills gaps if GLEAC’s corporate upskilling was ubiquitous. It helps employers and employees to “map and measure soft skills gaps for any job” and helps improve job performance readiness.

There’s an APP for just about anything in education and a lot are deploying the best in AR, VR and AI to put the learner in charge. We shouldn’t need a crisis to rethink education and how it functions. But technology changes the role the teacher plays from directing to supporting and guiding, and changes the reliance on certain times and places that we expect students, particularly young students, to “do” school.  Because at the end of the day, students, no matter where they are and how old they are, should be able to make their way through their education and work journeys with the benefit of superior technical innovations that can more easily and quickly identify, respond, correct and expose them to deep learning.

Let’s hope that when COVID-19 is in our rear view mirrors, the innovations and technology that helped our students and educational institutions get through it become commonplace and often used tools in the great task of educating America’s students.

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