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Covid and E-learning – Changing the World, a conversation with Tom Watkins

October 19, 2020


This article was first published by 

Tom Watkins

I recently caught up with Tom Watkins who was on the cutting edge of sensible school reform as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools, (2001-05) and remains so today, to take a look at remote/e-learning in the time of Covid. 

Tom has perhaps one of the most eclectic careers serving in leadership roles in K-12 and preschool education, higher ed, health and behavioral health, business, politics, and media. He was recognized by EdNews as an Upton Sinclair awardee and been active in building global educational bridges; especially with China. He is a “go-to” person on both sides of the Pacific when it comes to China-US relations, which he considers the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. He is often quoted as saying, “Going forward, all the major world issues will intersect at the corner of Beijing and Washington, D.C. How our respective leaders address these concerns will impact the people of China, the USA, and all of humanity”. Perhaps the only subject Tom speaks out more on – beyond the need to support public education — is China/US relations. Read some of Tom’s China thoughts here.

Now, let’s dive into Tom’s thoughts on e-learning today.

EDNEWS: Mr. Superintendent, as you have often said, “the only constant in the world today is change.” We have certainly witnessed a great deal of change since Covid-19 washed up on our shores. How do we assure this “change” produces progress for our schools and teachers?

Tom Watkins: Covid-19 has forced the world to examine new ways of doing things. Covid, became a accelerate for remote/e-learning. With technology we chat, zoom, live lectures, and other means of videoconferencing are all possible through the internet.

It is amazing what a global pandemic can do to fast-forward the adoption of new ways of teaching and learning. Education leaders cannot be mired in what they feel they can’t do because of what they have done in the past and must be focused on finding creative solutions to the very real problems at hand.

Remote and e-learning were viewed as inferior to face-to-face traditional educational models prior to the pandemic. Yet, we all know, necessity is the mother of invention. Education must adapt to a changing world by moving away from the traditional building/classroom learning environment— learning does exist in the clouds. The Chinese people have led the world as early adopters of technology, remote or e-learning should be no different.

No school, community, or nation can lead in the 21st century without casting off the anchors of archaic laws, policies, and beliefs that bind us to 20th-century education models. With or without the global pandemic, e/remote learning is here to stay. Wise leaders will find ways to uses this new tool to advance teaching and learning advancing opportunities for their students and nation.

EDNEWS: What are your thoughts on remote or eLearning. As I recall, you are one of the early pioneers in this work and certainly Michigan was an early adopter of this new way of teaching and learning.

Tom Watkins: 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 practice have advanced the efficacy of remote learning. Solid learning about how to maximize the teaching and learning experience is being shared by exceptional teachers across the globe.

I know a bit about remote/ online learning, having written an internationally recognized report on the topic in 2005, while serving as the assistant to the president at Wayne State University in Detroit Michigan USA after by tenure as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools from 2001 to 2005.

The report The New Education (R)evolution: Exploring E-Learning Reforms for Michigan offers a series of policy recommendations that are as relevant today in the US and across the globe  as when I wrote them in 2005.

EDNEWS: What are some of the advantages in e-learning in your eyes?

Tom Watkins: Technology, specifically e-learning, can assist in customizing the student\’s learning experience. E-learning covers a wide set of applications and processes such as Web-based learning, computer-based learning, virtual classrooms, and digital collaboration. The report I referenced above  provides 29 major recommendations designed to further develop and enhance e-learning

Some schools and nations have embraced this technology and are partially ready to continue learning for their students during this crisis. Sadly, many are not.

I am not advocating online learning to replace the human touch of face-to-face teaching and learning. Yet, sadly, few schools have adopted the full potential technology can offer our schools and children in a way that prepares students for their future, and not our past.

EDNEWS: Do you see the uses of e-learning as a passing fad to paper over the problems that Covid has forced on our schools— is it here to stay?

Tom Watkins: Schools across the globe will be stronger in the future if we are willing to do a deep self-reflection on anchors that hold us back when this crisis ends. When Covid -19 virus struct, wise policymakers, and educators wasted little time casting blame or cursing the darkness but reached for new technology tools to enable quality teaching and learning to continue.

EDNEWS: as I recall, you have been working on developing powerful cross-cultural educational partnerships going back decades and most recently have been connecting Chinese and US Schools. How has e-learning helped in this regard?

Tom Watkins: I was working in China prior to the pandemic partnering with one of the oldest and largest private K-12 schools in China. Serving as the China Partner and Managing Director of WAY American Schools we were providing highly qualified American teachers to teach Chinese students using a powerful technology platform, Centric, that was developed, not by techies, but by educators/teachers for educators. Offering a rigorous project-based learning platform WAY American Schools/Centric Learning are internationally accredited enabling the awarding of an American High School diploma, anywhere in the world. Partnering with Chinese educators enables us to bring the best of education from each nation.

EDNEWS: Tell our readers more about Centric Learning?

Tom Watkins: The Centric Learning platform provides for ways for teachers and students to engage in real-time and through technology 24/7 learning. Further, assessments are done by high-quality teachers and not computer-generated. The assessment is competency-based. Students develop projects in order to demonstrate their mastery over a given topic or subject matter. Our project-based learning curriculum engages students and prepares them for success in their future.

At Centric Learning, we constantly ask ourselves, “How will this help our students?” Any crisis, even a global pandemic is a terrible thing to waste; and we have looked for ways to uses our decades of experience to benefit students with our powerful e-learning educational platform. We’ve spent over a decade developing truly engaging curriculum and intuitive teaching tools to enhance learning. Our Centric platform was designed to place students and teachers at the center of the learning process and development..  We work with a growing global network of private, public, and charter school partners on multiple continents who are excited to work with us to impact student outcomes. Our students’ success is our success.

EDNEWS: You have also partnered with schools in China using this technology and educational platform?

Tom Watkins: Yes. WAY American Schools in China and across the globe have created effective online learning courses that requires knowledge, time, experience, talent, passion, commitment, great communication skills, and a true passion for learning— all of which are in our education and technology teams DNA.

Today, Centric Learning is working with students face-to-face and remotely in the USA, China, South America, and the European Union.

This robust, rigorous Centric Learning WAY American School/ Centric educational platform had the built-in capability to switch to remote e-learning without skipping a beat. While schools across the globe were struggling to continue educating students WAY American Schools and our Chinese partners did not miss a day of teaching and learning completing the school year as strongly as we began. Further, we are continuing our partnership remotely this school year with our highly qualified American teachers using the internet to teach their eager and bright students in China.

EDNEWS: Has e-learning been an easy sell in China. It certainly has not been quickly adopted in schools in the US?

Tom Watkins: I recall the blank stares I encountered both in the US and China in the early 2000s while serving as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools when I attempted to introduce blended and e-learning into the mainstream. There was little appetite to be early adopters of this new technology and teaching modality into public and private schools in the US and across the globe. Today,  universities and schools are offering online learning to fill the void today. Online learning has been in the educational shadows and has now popped into the spotlight. Under it, learning is no longer regulated to the six-hour school day, four walls of a classroom, or the two bindings of a book — if educators are prepared to uses these tools.

EDNEWS: Due to COVID-19 pandemic, remote/e-learning may become normality. Concerning remote learning, what are the advantages and disadvantages of this way of teaching and learning?

Tom Watkins: Remote learning offers Positive Aspects:

  • Greater flexibility
  • Can be done in the midst of a pandemic. ..
  • Globalizing Education– making it easier for students from around the globe to connect with learning  via e-learning
  • Learning in a language that is not your native language can be a challenge. Yet with e-learning, the lecture can and be seen and heard again and again if you do not happen to understand the topic the first time around.
  • Using technology to digitalize and personalize learning;
  • Enables global learning without leaving home.
  • Self-paced
  • Tap Western educators
  • Ability to learn 24/7
  • Study any time, place, pace
  • Personalize learning
  • With E-learning, you can access the content an unlimited number of times.
  • Today’s learners want relevant, mobile, self-paced, and personalized content— remote learning can and is delivering it.


  • imagination. We all need to cast off our historic beliefs and move boldly into the 21st century using ALL tools to advance teaching and learning. The next educational advancement will come with the embedding of AI (Artificial Intelligence) into our schools to advance learning.

* students can be distracted

  • scheduling  issues  around different time zones
  • Technical or internet connectivity  issues
  • Assuring these advancements reach ALL students, not simply the elite.
  • Equity issues, assuring poor, minority, and rural school children have equal access is always a challenge in America.

EDNEWS: How may education opportunity and economic benefit evolve under remote learning?

Tom Watkins: Technology is another tool educators can and must use to assure quality teaching and learning. Educators skilled in using new and old tools are best prepared to adapt to meet the needs of students.

EDNEWS: In the medium and long term, is it likely that remote learning may change the politics of many countries?

Tom Watkins: Change is easy, progress is always much more difficult. Sadly, the tensions between China and the US coupled with the global pandemic have made it increasingly more difficult for students at the high school and university level to travel to America and other Western countries to receive an education. The Covid has also, reduced the number of Western teachers in China. The uses of remote or e-learning have enabled teaching and learning to continue uninterrupted. This has benefits for both China and the USA.

EDNEWS: What has the economic impact of remote learning on universities in the US and China?

Tom Watkins: The loss of Chinese and other foreign students unable to return to universities in the US has resulted in a loss of significant revenue and opportunities for students to interact face-to-face. Australia, Canada, and the U.S. face a shortfall in applicants because of travel bans; revenue growth relied significantly on Chinese, Indian students. Prior to the pandemic, China has over 320,000 university students in the US. Some of these students are attempting to continue their studies remotely, while others were forced to withdraw. It is estimated that Chinese students spend about $40 billion a year globally on overseas tuition.

In China, the Ministry of Education historically has not accepted online degree courses, so universities are scrambling to figure out a way to offer some classes in person. It would be wise for the Chinese Ministry of Education to review this policy, as well as e-learning, is proving to be as robust as a face-to-face modality.

EDNEWS: What are your expectation for the future of remote/ e-learning?

Tom Watkins: There is a saying: “you can’t unring a bell, turn back time or unscramble an egg. Remote learning is here to stay. Yet, like most things in life, not everything on the market is the same or of equal quality. Parents, students school administrators and policymakers need to be diligent in choosing quality remote/e-learning. As my colleague Ron Stefanski, executive director of Sales and Marketing at Centric Learning says – great teachers:

  • Engage students directly in their own learning and help them think independently.
  • Excite students’ natural curiosity and appetite for learning.
  • Adapt their teaching to students’ needs and use creative alternative approaches.
  • Nurture relationships and assist children in doing so.

The truth is — this is how effective learning takes place remotely or using e-learning as well.

EDNEWS: Anything you want to add about the benefit of remote e-learning, that I failed to ask?

Tom Watkins: It was said in the past in America that students needed to “focus on the 3 R’s Reading, Righting and Rirthmatic.” Today,  need to be serious about the new 3 R’s — Restructure, Reform, and Reinventing teaching and learning.

Clearly, we are living in a fast-paced, hyper-competitive, disruptive, transformational, technologically driven, global, knowledge economy where ideas and jobs can and do move around the globe effortlessly– staying even is falling behind. Our children, both in the US and China are not simply competing against the child in the next seat, district, or state—- they are competing with the children of the world. Change is difficult and is avoided until it can be avoided no longer. As we know– the only human that truly likes change is an infant. We have to get to the point where the only adjective that matters before school— is QUALITY! Preparing our children with the abilities to learn, unlearn, and relearn, will help them navigate the tsunami of automation and technology that offers potential for even greater disruption of our traditional ways of living and working in the coming decades.

As the 21st Century unfolds, new technologies like e-learning and artificial intelligence (AI) will permeate our world— educators and policymakers need to lead change that produces progress for our children. The community, state, Provence, or nation that invests in teaching and learning will prevail as the 21st century unfolds.

The pandemic has created an environment to speed up the need and acceptance of e-learning. Educators took this tool and have demonstrated a wide set of benefits it gives to students. E-learning has proven to be successful and quite popular and appreciated among students all over the world. With e-learning/technology, the impossible is possible now.

There is no going back – and students and the world will benefit.

EDNEWS: As always, thank you for your keen insights that maintain a focus on quality teaching and learning.

Tom Watkins can be reached at [email protected]