COVID-19 brings great disruption. Whether we like it or not, the education system is going to be reinvented overnight. It’s vital that we keep teachers involved in delivery, not just development. Education organisations outside the school system have a leadership role to play here. We can pivot fast, we can try new things and we can work out new best practices.

The response worldwide to COVID-19 has been to isolate people as much as possible through measures of increasing severity from social distancing to full lock-downs of society. This has led to schools closing and all in-person learning cancelled. Many fantastic learning organisations are now deciding between moving their offerings online, or closing up shop altogether and waiting it out. The problem with waiting it out is that according to researchers from the University of Toronto, it’s going to be a long time:

The disruptive measures must continue for more than six months to slash the size of the epidemic peak by more than half and delay it long enough that a vaccine might become available.

Schools, science centres and other educational organisations are realizing that they need to move to online delivery to ensure that our kids are continuing their education. This is not an easy transition to make, especially in a way that incorporates tough-to-teach intangibles such as emotional intelligence, curiosity, creativity, adaptability, resilience and critical thinking – the most important skills identified by the 2017 Pew Research report, “The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training”. This report noted that soft skills, or 21st-century learning skills, as they are called in education circles, are difficult to teach and difficult to evaluate in a clear-cut, objective manner in any setting, and that today’s MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] are not as effective as real-world settings in cultivating them.

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The education system is figuring out how to deliver these skills. One thing is certain, the best way to do this is through a teacher. Kids need a learning coach to guide them towards these mindsets. Due to COVDI-19, countless incredible educators can no longer sit face to face with their students.

What kind of new online education system are we going to build together?

We should be wary of simply replacing teachers with passive, online education solutions. It may seem cost-effective in the short-term, however, it would likely favour teaching routine cognitive skills that are easiest to teach and test – those that are needed less and less in the world.

Even the Andreas Schleicher, the Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills for the standardized PISA tests that Canada and 78 other countries use to evaluate their students and education systems, acknowledged that “the kinds of things easy to teach are now easy to automate, digitize, or outsource.”

What you test is what you teach.

What would an online education program that incorporates 21s century learning skills look like?

I’ll give an example of an AI-literacy program we developed that involves teachers guiding students, access to experts, and a real-world problem connected to student’s lives. The true learning of this activity focuses on empathy, societal-needs, and problem-solving, and the AI-literacy is simply the backdrop.

For the past year at Steamlabs, we’ve been focusing on ensuring that there is a place for humanity in a world increasingly dominated by Artificial Intelligence. We’ve been working with organisations such as Mozilla and Google and developing artificial intelligence and machine learning educational programs for delivery by national Canadian educational charities such as Scientists in School and ACTUA.

One example program involves high school students developing AI solutions to help a food security organization. 

  1. Teacher guides them to discover the needs of the organization and what AI technologies can help and what pitfalls could entrench existing injustice by blindly automating existing biases. The teacher helps explore the context of the problem – in this case an issue of food securityshortage.
  2. Online learning. They organize into groups, and code tutorials and examples help them implement an AI vision recognition system to detect food spoilage, a chatbot for answering common questions, and a machine learning recipe generator using the ingredients on hand. They write real code to solve real challenges and learn what challenges to leave to humans.
  3. Students receive support and feedback from their teacher and each other. They realize that a good chatbot automatically tells you how to get to the food bank, and an excellent chatbot recognizes that questions about how to feed your family need a connection to a real person, not a canned answer.

A passive online system can show them to code, but only a teacher can help them learn how to think. A web site can develop a kid’s knowledge, but you need a teacher to develop a kid’s identity. 

It takes a Village: Supporting individualized, online learning through an ecosystem approach

Learning happens in many places. Canada is home to many nonprofits and charities that offer a rich variety of educational experiences that complement the formal school system. Known as the “informal educators”, these form an ecosystem of connected learning opportunities that spark kids’ interests and develops their knowledge. Increasingly, these organisations collaborate with each other and with the formal school system, forming a web aimed at reaching kids across socioeconomic, linguistic, racial/ethnic backgrounds and genders. Locally in Toronto we have the Hive Toronto network and there are many others around the world such as Symbiosis in BC, and STEM Ecosystems in the US.

These organizations are adapting fast. Nonprofits such as the Canadian Association of Girls in Science (CAGIS) and Kids Code Jeunesse are moving their workshops to facilitated online group video chats. These organisations know that keeping teachers a central part of the learning experience is vital. Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants has been offering about 6 sold-out group chat sessions every day with scientists and explorers.

CAGIS and Steamlabs are members of a science engagement network called the Canadian Association of Science Centres (CASC). The science centres across Canada are all closed due to COVID-19, and are coming up with plans to support their communities to continue learning. You can see their evolving online science learning offerings on the CASC website.

One thing that the COVID-19 crisis has quickly shown us is that our kids’ education is actually made of many disconnected parts – school, family, activities outside of school, such as art classes, science centre visits, coding clubs, swim class, etc. The connecting thread has been the parent or guardian scheduling what happens outside of school.  

There is an opportunity now to connect all of these threads through a 21st century learning lens – after all, learning happens everywhere. How do these experiences build on each other? How can teachers help recognize and encourage 21st century learning through individualized online learning plans? These are just some of the questions we’ll all need to tackle.

It’s time for all of us who care about kids’ education to push for a future with an education system with humanity at its core.

If you’re an education organisation, join an association and start talking. Take a leap online and connect your staff to your community over video chat, emails, phone or even postal mail if you have to. Keep your people in the delivery!

At Steamlabs, we’re looking for gaps that need filling. Feel free to contact me on twitter at @codepoet127 or by email at Stay tuned, we’re going to figure this out together!

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