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


When I was 25, I believed that the anonymity of online discussions would allow the exchange of ideas without prejudice, and raise the level of human discourse. I’d been communicating online for five or six years. The web was brand new. Most of the forums were text based. There was lots of Usenet and mailing lists. And it didn’t matter who you were or where you were from. We didn’t judge people based on skin color or physical attributes or handicaps. We couldn’t see those things. Your ideas stood on their own merits.

snakeoilI remember teaching middle school kids about this wonderful world where stereotypes and pre-judgement were relics from a more primitive time. I even did some original research around anonymity in online discussion forums. The hypothe

sis was that students were more likely to engage in deeper conversations online if their real identities were unknown to the other participants (but known to the moderator). The result was that there was no significant difference.

And the civil discourse didn’t really happen either. There were flame wars before there were trolls. Sometimes it’s fun to push someone’s buttons. It’s fun to wind up the toy and let it go. As it turns out, the lack of accountability that goes along with anonymity can bring out the worst in people. And it doesn’t take many of those people to destroy reasoned, civil discourse.


When I was 35, I believed that the democratization of the means of dissemination would give voice to the voiceless, and allow more perspectives to be heard. Those are big words. Let me put it more simply: everyone is a publisher. Even the relatively simple process of setting up a web site and having access to a global audience had become MUCH easier with the advent of weblogs and wikis. It really did become easy for anyone to publish anything and reach an enormous audience.

We were no longer shackled by the editors and publishers and news outlets that controlled the means of publication. I can say whatever I want (and I did). I set up news feeds and RSS links and all kinds of stuff to tune in to these alternative sources of information. Chris Anderson came up with his Long Tail idea. There’s room for everyone’s ideas on the Internet. You don’t have to figure out whether it’s worth the investment to publish something, because publishing is basically free.

But the movement away from a few broadcasters has led to misinformation, fake news, and the breakdown of such fundamental concepts as “truth” and “fact”. For every opinion, there is an equal and opposite opinion, and in the interest of fairness and equal time, we give voice to the crazy. Now, we have people who are intentionally destroying their own credibility, because they can’t be held accountable for their words if it can easily be proven that they’re lying most of the time. So we use words like “alternative fact” and “believe” a lot more than we used to, and we’ve lost touch with ideas like trustworthy and authoritative.


When I was 45, I believed that technology could save public education. Technology would allow differentiation and authentic assessment in ways that previous generations could only dream of. Every student would have an individualized plan, and the learning activities would be tailored by a caring, intelligent, and perspicacious teacher. Students would have some flexibility to explore topics and ideas that interest them, and they would complete projects, conduct original research, and produce deliverables that demonstrated their learning in novel ways. Along the way, they would learn to collaborate, express their creativity, and communicate effectively in a variety of media. They would apply innovative thinking strategies to take ideas and concepts from different disciplines and combine them in new ways to solve challenging real-world problems. And all of this would happen in public schools using best practices, innovative teaching strategies, and cutting edge resources that would be unmatched by the private/online/charter/alternative schools.

So we worked through all of the challenges. We put devices into all students’ hands. We built the infrastructure to make the technology work reliably and efficiently. We spent years on professional development. We talked a lot about assessment and homework and learning activities. We focused on the importance of portfolios and depth of knowledge and learning standards. And then we bought document cameras so teachers could help students complete worksheets as a class.


I wonder what I’ll believe when I’m 55.


Photo credit: Wikimedia commons.