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As COVID Has Changed the World, So Will Remote Learning

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This article by Tom Watkins, Centric Learning’s Educational Advisor to China and advisor for the Michigan-China Innovation Center, was first published at China US Focus.


The world is like a kaleidoscope – full of constant and unpredictable change. Who could have imagined a global pandemic upsetting our world and turning everything and everyone on its head as 2020 began? Fast forward nearly a year later and our global landscape has been upended on multiple levels – all due to a microscopic virus too tiny for the naked eye to see.

The U.S.-China relationship, already under strain by the Trump administration’s tariff war, was set ablaze with the onset of COVID. China’s initial lack of transparency about the virus, and Trump’s subsequent, inept U.S. mismanagement, has resulted in nearly a quarter of a million American deaths. Simultaneously, Trump has made China the COVID scapegoat for much of 2020.

China’s focus on science and its authoritarian methods to control its billions of citizens has helped that country flatten its viral spread. China re-opened their economy way ahead of the U.S. and Europe.  But while COVID may have originated in China, that country is also the first to bring it under control. Indeed, they are now pulling ahead in world economic recovery efforts.

Not all the changes that COVID initiated, however, have been negative. Responses to COVID  have revived the notion that necessity is the mother of invention. And as the Chinese say: “When the need for something becomes imperative, you are forced to find ways of getting or achieving it.”

Indeed, COVID-19 has forced the world to examine new ways of doing things – education takes center stage in this arena.

Change – with Added Value 

Responses to COVID have fast-forwarded the adoption of online, blended, remote, and micro-school learning models around the world.

As Michigan’s former State Superintendent of Schools (2001-05), I met two impassioned local educators who, more than a decade ago, were pushing the envelope on sensible school reforms to lift schools, teachers, and more importantly, our students. They had developed a robust remote learning platform that was light years ahead of anything then taking place in the U.S. or around the world.

Entrepreneurs Beth Baker and Glen Taylor were intent on providing disengaged students in their districts a rich personalized learning experience. After launching a successful non-profit, the WAY Program, they took their innovative learning approach to public, private and charter schools, becoming  Centric Learning. This powerful, state-of-the-art technology uses project-based learning – a model aligned with state and national standards. The mission is bold and simple:  Impact students’ lives and make them “learning heroes.”

The Centric Learning platform provides a way for teachers and students to engage in real-time 24/7 learning. Furthermore, assessments are competency-based and delivered by high-quality teachers. Students develop projects that demonstrate their mastery of a given topic or subject matter. When I attended  a conference in China before the pandemic hit, I heard a Chinese vice-minister of education praise project-based learning, saying: “We need students to look up and engage in their education, not simply listen to a sage on the stage.”  A Project-Based Learning (PBL) curriculum engages students and prepares them for success in their future.

Since the inception of e-learning, technology has delivered increased bandwidth and more engaging multimedia tools. Innovative instructional methods supported by a growing body of best practices have advanced the efficacy of remote learning. Solid learning about how to maximize the teaching and learning experience is being shared by exceptional teachers around the globe.

I recall the blank stares I first encountered in both the United States and China in the early 2000’s when I attempted to introduce blended, remote, and e-learning into the educational mainstream. As I recently told a reporter with the Xinhua News Service,  there was little appetite then for early adoption of this new technology. Then COVID arrived. Now remote learning has grabbed the educational spotlight across the globe.

Education (R)evolution 

No school, community, or nation can lead in the 21st century without casting off the anchors of archaic laws, policies, and beliefs binding us to 20th-century education models. Quality e-learning is catapulting teaching and learning forward in ways that make education more accessible, adaptable, and attainable for many students. E-learning allows students to truly learn at any time, pace, or place, making geography irrelevant. With or without the global pandemic, e/remote learning is here to stay.

COVID as Accelerant

COVID has become an accelerant for remote/e-learning. With new technology we now chat, Zoom, deliver live lectures, and attend workshops and business meetings online. Videoconferencing is now ubiquitous throughout the Internet.

It is amazing what the global pandemic accomplished to fast-forward the adoption of new teaching and learning methods. Educational and business leaders are now continuously focused on finding creative solutions to the very real learning challenges at hand.

Remote and e-learning was once viewed as inferior to face-to-face, traditional educational models prior to the pandemic. Yet, with necessity comes creativity and innovation – keeping teaching and learning front-faced and alive during the darkest days of this pandemic.

Education across the globe will be stronger in the future if we are willing to do a deep self-reflection on what holds us back once this healthcare crisis ends. When COVID-19 struck, wise policymakers and educators wasted little time casting blame or cursing the darkness but reached for new tools to enable quality teaching and learning to continue.

While China has since returned to face-to-face learning, there has been a loss of Western educators teaching in China. Many Chinese university students in the West have been unable to return to their campuses — e-learning has filled this void.

U.S. colleges are facing a major decline in Chinese student enrollment and are now scurrying to create meaningful remote learning opportunities as the coronavirus epidemic persists in the U.S. and is seemingly under control in China for now.

With sporadic spikes in COVID and the likelihood of a new virus emerging in the future, no school should be caught off guard without a robust, quality e-learning platform in place.

Survival of the Fittest  

Education must adapt to our changing world by moving away from the traditional building/classroom learning environment — learning now exists in the ‘cloud’. The Chinese people have led the world as early adopters of the technology, including remote and e-learning.

No one could have predicted how COVID-19 would rock our world. But what we have now witnessed is that those who have adapted have ridden a wave of change. Those who have not, have been swamped.  As the brilliant British naturalist Charles Darwin reminds us, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.”

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