If you told Justin Reich back in February that his research into digital education technologies would soon make him a sought-after expert during a once-in-a-century global pandemic, he would have been more than a little surprised.
“I had never imagined in my life that there would be a crisis where having expertise in online learning and equity would become relevant, but here we are,” he says.
Reich is an assistant professor of Comparative Media Studies in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and the director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab (TSL), which studies how teachers can best harness technology to help students take an active role in their learning.
“When the learning students do is connected to things they really care about, they’re often quite proficient at teaching themselves,” says Reich. “By contrast, when we try to get them to learn standards-aligned curriculum, things that look more like schooling, there are often huge issues with motivation.”
Before March 2020, the TSL primarily supported this kind of transformation; teachers could take free online classes through edX focused on such topics as design thinking and launching innovation in schools.
And then the world shut down.
“The contest before was, could you do online learning that was better than in-person learning?” he says. “And the contest suddenly became, could you do online learning that was better than nothing?”
Seizing the opportunity to provide some structure to the schools across the country, the TSL released a report in April (downloaded more than 7,000 times) that summarized the guidance for remote learning that was emerging at the state level. For example, most states were canceling tests and using remote learning in some form. Reich and his team then set out to determine what was happening on the ground. They interviewed approximately 40 teachers about the reality of their digital experience and discovered that many were burned out and struggling to motivate students online.
To help move everyone forward, the TSL then facilitated a series of design meetings that involved students, parents, teachers, librarians—anyone who would be impacted by the way schools would run come September. This work culminated in a report titled Imagining September.
“We have tried to give them some tools to make a plan,” says Reich. “Not to come up with the one right answer of what to do, but to come up with a process that schools and districts could use to engage in more participatory design.”
The design meeting participants identified a number of insights, such as supporting students’ increasing responsibility for their own education—an issue Reich and his colleagues often tackled before the pandemic—and building in time for reflection on how the new system is working. Then Reich and his team created fictional scenarios to help school officials visualize how their ideas could be combined for a tailored, successful reopening strategy.
One theme that emerged from this work is that the emotional security provided by having access to teachers is important to replicate in remote situations. Schools could do this by implementing a “call a teacher” button, or by creating an advisory group where one teacher is responsible for checking in with a small number of students, Reich says.
The report also presented a few foundational ideas that schools could use to support reopening. These included prioritizing time for electives and extracurriculars, creating “microschools” (teaching in small groups, an idea often referred to as “learning pods”), and ensuring children who most benefit from being physically at school are prioritized and not left behind.
This last point is key, Reich says, since the crisis has underscored issues that have long simmered under the education system, problems like underinvestment in school and childcare systems, limited access to internet connections in homes, and systemic inequities.
“African American, Native American, Latino families, working-class families—these are the folks who bear the greatest risk if they go back to school,” says Reich. “They’re more likely to have essential workers in their households, to have multigenerational households, to have comorbidities [where more than one disease or condition is present at the same time] that make Covid-19 more dangerous and more deadly. So, going back to school is the greater health risk.”
At the same time, he notes, at-risk populations are also less likely to have good computers and internet access and less likely to have parents who can work from home. This combination makes effective remote learning almost impossible, Reich says.
He says progress will hinge on active efforts by educators to combat racism and inequity as well as structural fixes from outside school, such as a commitment to provide broadband for all.
“Professor Reich’s work is important, timely, and resonates with a number of themes in Comparative Media Studies/Writing (CMS/W),” says Eric Klopfer, head of CMS/W and director of the Education Arcade at MIT. “As is the case with countless media and technology transitions in other aspects of society, the technification of education has not moved the needle, and real change demands examining and understanding the relationships between media, teachers, and learners. Reich seeks solutions that enhance both equity and technological adoption, which often seem at odds.”
New ideas for education
In an ideal situation, Reich suggests, the entire way we think about education during this unprecedented time would be overhauled.
“What if, for the year ahead, we set really different learning expectations?” Reich asks. “What if we tried having young people learn things about being a good family member, about doing chores, about other kinds of projects that they’re interested in, rather than trying to keep them locked into the curriculum that was designed for in-person schools?”
Maybe students could watch an educational TV show and come together with teachers for a conversation about it. Or they could learn about a craft or skill important in their families’ heritage. For the moment, however, Reich says he has heard of no state plans to deviate from a traditional education model.
Nevertheless, an enormous unplanned experiment is under way, with nearly 100,000 public schools in the United States finding ways to reopen amid the pandemic. These efforts will provide Reich and his team with a wealth of data to draw from to understand best practices and the effects on students.
“I’m hoping that we learn a lot from schools in different places that start with different kinds of models, so that we can figure out what works best,” says Reich. “There will be some incremental learning improvements, and I have every confidence that teachers will do the very best they can.”