The Opportunity of Crisis

What an unsettling time.

In a couple weeks, our world has dramatically shifted. It’s like 9/11. It’s like JFK. It’s not, really. Those were sudden national tragedies when the world changed in an instant. This is slower. Our world changed over the course of a week, not in minutes. And, at least for now, it’s temporary.

2809961438_56d48f9969_wBut it’s like those other events in the sense that the world as we know it has come to a sudden arboreal stop. Life isn’t normal anymore. It’s unsettling. It’s troubling. It’s disconcerting. It’s exciting.

We don’t know what the effects of this are going to be over the long term. But we know what the next month is going to look like. And we have a pretty good idea that things aren’t going to be back to normal in the next few months. After that, we have to wait and see.

In the nineties, the Internet was a place that brought people together. Before the web and all the “information superhighway” hype, it was fundamentally a way for people to communicate, to find their tribes, and to be parts of communities that were geographically disparate. From my earliest days as a teacher, I thought it would revolutionize learning by bringing people together. In some ways, I’ve spent most of my career trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to help make that happen.

Three weeks ago, Nancy Messonnier, a director at the Centers for Disease Control, warned that school closings would be coming. She told the public to “Ask about plans for teleschool.” A few hours later, all of my online communities were converging on this topic. The email listservs and the Subreddits and the Twitter stream and the Facebook friends all landed on it at the same time. We’re not ready for this. What do we do now?

The transformation never happened. We built the infrastructure. We put all the tools in place. We built wireless networks and put devices in the hands of every student. We did tons of professional development, and focused on next generation pedagogy and things like formative assessments, differentiation, project based learning, portfolios, and authentic assessment. We adopted learning resources that are primarily digital resources and stopped relying so much on textbooks. But we weren’t really changing much. We were nibbling around the edges. For the most part, school was the same as it was when our teachers were students.

But this week, somehow, when faced with no alternatives, everyone stepped up. I keep thinking of that scene in Apollo 13 where they have to fix the CO2 problem.

“We got to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.”
“Let’s get it organized.”
“Okay, let’s build a filter.”

Nobody signed up for this, but it’s the task in front of us. What do our students have at home? How can we use that to teach them as well as we can? Our teachers sorted through the pile of stuff on the table and they started putting pieces together. Our instructional coaches gave up sleeping and spent a lot of time filling in the gaps. Our curriculum director and our principals started triaging the problem and setting priorities. Nobody complained about a change in working conditions. Nobody refused to step up. We’re going to do whatever we need to do.

This isn’t a matter of life and death. The world isn’t going to end if our kids miss a month of school. As I’ve been saying, there aren’t any expectations. Anything we do is better than doing nothing. That’s a very liberating place to be. We can try things that might not work. We can roll the dice on long odds. We can try things that we weren’t willing to try a month ago. We have a get out of jail free card. There’s nothing to lose.

I’m excited about this. I’m hoping that we’re going to learn some things about us, and about our students, and about how learning can be. I’m hoping that we’re going to pick up some practices or ideas or some out-of-the-box methods that we never tried before because we never had to. In the end, eventually, we’re going to go back to school. But hopefully, we’re going to take some of these lessons back into the classrooms with us. And our kids will be better for it.

Photo credit: Max Klingensmith, Flickr.

Pandemic, not Panic

I’m fascinated by the Corona virus crisis. I’m not sure why, really. This sort of thing has never been my thing. I’m not a doctor. I hated high school biology. I have no expertise in this area. I’m afraid of needles. I wasn’t particularly worried about SARS or H1N1 or Mad Cow disease. We’ve had health threats and global crises before. In schools, we’ve even made plans to deal with potential pandemics. But it always seemed like such a remote threat. Do we really think 20% of our students are going to be infected with the disease? Is it really that deadly? Ae we actually going to close schools and stores and concert halls and amusement parks because everyone is afraid they might catch the disease? It all seems so irrational. And yet, here I am.

49597519106_95aa8efd19_wAbout a week ago, I started looking at this fantastic data visualization maintained by the smart folks at Johns Hopkins. That was around the time when all of my circles started to converge on this one topic. The CDC was saying “y’all might want to ask your schools what their plans are for this.” Meanwhile, our state educational technology email list was blowing up with people trying to make plans. Reddit forums and Facebook posts soon followed. By Monday, it was on everyone’s mind. I had four different meetings about it last week.

We made some plans. We sent out some communications. We’re trying to be measured and thoughtful and reasoned. But there are lots of unknowns. And no, going from mostly-classroom-focused-face-to-face-instruction model to a mostly-online-learning-where-kids-stay-home approach overnight isn’t going to work for most of our teachers and students. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try. We want to make sure we do everything we can to support whatever’s coming, and if that means students are staying home for weeks, then we should be ready for that. Or at least as ready as we can be. And we’ll do the best we can.

I’m not really that worried. Lots of people are going to get the disease. Most of them are going to get better. The number of new cases in China has stalled over the last week or so, giving some indication that this whole thing could be over in a week or two. Next year this time, we may be reminiscing about how much time and effort we put into something that didn’t happen. But I’d rather do that than be caught unprepared.

With a long incubation period and limited access to testing, it’s very likely that a lot more people are infected than we know about. But looking at the data, I noticed something else. For identified cases, each person falls into one of three categories: they actively have the disease, they had the disease and have recovered, or they had the disease and died. About 3.36% of people who have had confirmed cases of COVID-19 have died from it. But that’s not taking into account the fact that 41% of cases still have the disease. Some of them are going to die, too. If you look at the percent of RESOLVED cases that have resulted in death, the rate climbs to 5.75%.

Let’s put that another way. Let’s say 100 people contract the disease. At this point, we can expect that about 3 of them have died. Fifty-six have recovered. The other 41 still have it. Of them, we can expect that 2-3 more will die from it before it’s all said and done.

Let me take a time out here and talk for just a minute about where these numbers are coming from. Remember that Johns Hopkins tool I mentioned above? They’re collecting data from a whole bunch of different places. They’re updating this content constantly and making it freely available to anyone who wants it. Yay, collaboration. This is why the Internet was built. I pulled the most recent data that’s available on Sunday, March 8, 2020, and put it into a Google Sheet.

I did a little bit of data manipulation to count the number of resolved cases. I created a second sheet that only aggregates the data for each country rather then listing each region separately. Then, I filtered out the countries that have had fewer than 40 cases, as well as the ones that haven’t had at least 10 cases resolved. Then, I made a graph.


What is this telling us? For the resolved cases in each country, the blue represents people who had the disease and got better. The red represents people who had the disease and died. The ones who still have the disease aren’t included at all. These are all percents, not actual numbers.

Maybe I’m missing something. I tried to weed out the outliers. I tried to get rid of the countries with sample sizes that are too small, or ones that aren’t far enough along to have significant recovery data.

And I don’t want to politicize this. I know some people could look at this graph and point out that the US purposefully and intentionally scaled back its ability to handle a pandemic. Or that the unavailability of test kits means that the situation is actually a lot worse than it appears, because you can’t confirm cases of infection without testing. At some point, medicare for all and Obamacare and socialism are going to work their way into this conversation. And they probably should.

But right now, I think we should take John Oliver’s advice. Be a bit concerned. Don’t be complacent, and don’t be an idiot. That’s what we’re trying to do in the schools right now.

Further Reading:


Update – March 15, 2020:
It has been a week since I posted this. In the last seven days, the world has changed dramatically. Schools are closed for the next 3 weeks. The governor banned all gatherings of more than 100 people on Thursday. Today, all bars and restaurants are being ordered closed. 

I re-ran the numbers based on what is available today, and generated an updated version of the graph posted above. The new graph is a LOT worse. But I’m not going to post it. It has become abundantly clear that these numbers aren’t reliable. The shortage of testing capacity in the United States means that the test results only represent those who are exhibiting the most severe symptoms. In short, the reason we don’t have more cases is because we’re not testing people with minor symptoms. That’s also why the death rate is so high.

On Wednesday, Governor DeWine said that once there are two community-spread cases identified, we can assume that 1% of the population is infected. On Thursday, he said that we can expect the number of cases to double every six days. If these numbers are accurate, we’re going to have hundreds of thousands of people infected. If the mortality rate is really in the ranges we’re seeing, this virus is going to kill more Americans than any war we’ve ever had.

I don’t think that’s the case. I think the extraordinary measures that are being employed are going to work. But these are certainly extraordinary times.

Image Credit: NIAID Integrated Research Facility on Flickr

Failing to Decide

It’s hard to keep up with educational technology. Every week, it seems like there’s some new product that promises to revolutionize the way we teach kids, and save our civilization from the perils of a failed education system.

While much of this is snake oil purveyed by charlatans preying on the fears of a public nostalgic for “good old days” that never really existed, there actually are some technologies that can improve both the process and the results of public education.

We separate the wheat from the chaff though a constant cycle of evaluation. When a new technology emerges that shows promise, we begin with exploration. This usually involves trying the technology in a variety of configurations and contexts to see if it solves a problem we’re struggling with. If the technology shows promise, we move on to a pilot phase, where different options are tried and compared before standardizing on a solution to be widely implemented.

Here’s an example: about ten years ago, interactive whiteboards were all the rage. Teachers were excited about them. Vendors were calling. Grants were starting to be written. It became clear that we were moving toward a wide adoption. For the first couple years, we bought all kinds of different solutions. We tried the Promethian, Smart, Mimeo, and Interwrite solutions. We tried boards that require a stylus and those that don’t. We tried the slate approach, where the teacher controls the projected image from a tablet. We bought and installed several different solutions. After a year or so, we came together to reach consensus. The SMART Board was selected as the product of choice, and then a phased implementation began. Once the decision was made, it only took about three years to get them in most of our classrooms. We now have a consistent solution that meets the needs of our teachers while still being standardized enough to make support and maintenance practical.

The iPad is another example. It generated a lot of interest in schools when it was first introduced, and we bought lots of them to see how they could best be used. We also bought some Android tablets, Kindles, and Nooks, and even looked at the Windows tablets that were available at the time. Within a year, we had standardized on the iPad, developed a procedure for configuring and managing them, and figured out that they’re best used with developing readers and in targeted interventions. While the management process is not exactly smooth, we do at least have some consistency that makes things a lot easier for everyone.

When it comes to Learning Management Systems (LMS), though, we missed the boat. An LMS is a digital representation of the classroom.  When students enter a traditional classroom, they walk into a familiar environment centered on routine and consistency. They know where to sit. They know where to turn in their homework. They know where upcoming assignments and homework are listed. They can see the schedule of upcoming topics and learning objectives. There’s a place to celebrate excellent student work. In an online space, students can easily get lost. They may have to go to an online textbook hosted on one site, complete assignments someplace else, and take tests and assessments in a third tool. To complicate things, different teachers might use completely different systems, resulting in a lot of frustration for students and parents.

We could have fixed this, but we didn’t. I didn’t. We started off fine. We were in the exploration phase. We used Manhattan Virtual Classroom for a year or two before trying out Moodle in 2002.  We did some training on Moodle, and some teachers really jumped on board. But we never went further than that. Some people moved to WordPress. Others made web sites and used other resources that filled some of the needs of an LMS. Teachers chose the solution that worked best for them, or they chose none at all.

Eventually, we wound up with so many different approaches that it was impossible to keep track of them, let alone try to provide support. We still have some teachers using Moodle. Others are using Schoology or Canvas or Google Classroom. Some have web sites, created in WordPress or Blogger or Google Sites or Microsoft Publisher. Some teachers use email to keep their students informed. Others use Twitter or Facebook.  I commented at the beginning of 2014 that failing to standardize on an LMS was one of the biggest things holding us back.

So a year ago, we set out to change that. But the regular evaluation process didn’t work. The list of essential characteristics for an LMS was so comprehensive and contradictory that nothing fit the bill. To make things worse, most of the teachers involved in the process had already spent an extraordinary amount of time in the tool they’ve been using. So almost everyone was biased in favor of keeping his or her own solution and getting everyone else to standardize on it.

The solution came from an unlikely source. Earlier this year, I attended a software demo for a different product which included an overview of the Virtual Classroom LMS. This is a new product the fully integrates with our gradebook and student records systems (Progress Book). Made by the same company, it’s really the only LMS that can automatically create assignments in both the gradebook and the LMS at the same time, and transfer grades between the two systems automatically.

On the instruction side, it hits the highlights. Teachers can collect and organize resources, and can collaborate in that process. Teachers can also co-teach sections of courses, and those resources can be assigned to whole classes or groups of students. Some assessments can be automatically graded. Navigation is intuitive for students. And since it’s an extension of the gradebook software teachers have been using for years, the learning curve shouldn’t be very steep.

It’s still a very new product. That means that all of the features we’d like to see aren’t there yet. But it also means that the company is open to suggestions and we should have a significant voice in product development as one of the early adopters.

There’s still a long road ahead. Some of the teachers are resentful that they’re going to have to switch products. Full implementation will probably take a few years. And change is difficult everywhere. But at least we finally have a decision and we can move forward.

And I’ve learned not to wait too long between exploration and adoption.

Photo credit: Nicholas Mutton on Wikimedia Commons.