E-Learning and School Design: What Happened in 2020?

I am not sure I need to define the historical global pandemic that happened in 2020 and how it impacted e-learning, as it is still fresh in our memories. But, just in case you were living in a remote village with no internet or human contact for the last year, I will update you. (Although if you were in a remote village, you were in the best place imaginable!) 

Never will I forget a conversation I had with a parent at my school in February of 2020. This parent worked for an international organization with folks around the world. He spoke of a virus that was popping up in different places globally that could change the way we do business as a society. According to him, it was likely going to shut everything down for a period of time. He hoped the school district was tracking it and paying attention. 

From the news, I heard this idea of a coronavirus. I remember thinking that perhaps we would get an extended spring break out of the situation. During the second week of March, rumors started to fly that we were going to keep kids away from school for a bit. That decision was finalized and communicated on March 11. I told my admin assistant to take everything home because I thought it might be a few weeks before we went back. Boy, was I wrong!

So many, if not all, schools made the transition to an e-learning format.

While the “e” for some schools stood for electronic, I think the “e” was actually the abbreviation for emergency for many schools. As a school system, we did not see this type of scenario coming. We had to make very quick decisions on how we would educate our children. Most schools just did what they knew best with such short notice, which was trying to replicate an in-person classroom experience but moving it to an online platform. 

Instead of students attending class and learning from the teacher in person, they would just “attend” online and learn from the teacher there. Much of the focus was on preparing staff to move their teaching online with very little conversation about the best ways to move learning online. Most teachers used the same lesson plans they had been using for in-person learning but just did them on camera. There were some bright spots here and there as teachers tried to experiment with some new methodologies for instruction. But, if we are completely honest, much of what happened was a complete train wreck. 

We took many students that were bored and disengaged during in-person learning and magnified the situation by logging the students into Zoom, Hangouts, Teams, etc. In many schools, students stopped showing up and stopped turning in work. Schools then adjusted grading policies. We had to get creative not in how we were teaching students, but in how we were reporting progress on students that we had completely lost any connection with. 

Along this journey, another curious thing happened…

Parents started to experience firsthand what their student’s day looked like. It wasn’t pretty. Much of a student’s day was spent listening to adults do all of the talking. Many parents supported the student in checking out of the system. 

There were also significant issues with internet access, access to technology tools, and a host of other issues and concerns. Some teachers even had no conceptual understanding of the technology tools that were being used to deliver instruction. In general, parents and students gave schools a pass, as they had little to no time to prepare. Regardless, it was abundantly clear that much of the system we had designed for schooling was archaic and outdated.  

This was never more apparent to me than the day we had a family friend middle schooler was at our house. She was listening to her teacher drone on about the content they had to cover that day. Then, things got really quiet. I asked her if something happened to her teacher. She responded, saying that her teacher was fine; they were doing a fire drill. A fire drill with no students in the building but everyone at home. 

At that point it was confirmed, we had lost our minds.

As we prepared for the fall of the 2020/2021 school year, we had a bit more experience under our belt with e-learning. Again, though, much of the conversation was about teaching online, not learning online. Let’s dig into this concept a bit. I believe that most students learn every day. It is how we are naturally wired. We are all naturally curious about the world around us: people, places, decisions, foods, etc., and we seek to better understand it. 

I think of my own two children who spend much of their day e-learning online. My son will watch the most random YouTube videos and pull out the knowledge at a later date about a rare virus found in chickens in Papua New Guinea, the metal used to make a medieval sword, the way the body processes specific proteins, or about a crazy play that happened in a sporting event. My daughter spends time learning on Instagram about fashion trends, eyebrow design, workout routines, and how specific colors affect the brain. I am not sure you would find much of the information they are learning in the state standards, but they spend their day learning. 

What could e-learning look like if we were to harness the power of student learning?

If students inherently want to learn, how can we leverage that for schooling and e-learning? How can we design an educational system for students that moves away from teaching and moves towards learning? Would this be a system that students and families would be interested in pursuing?

By Nathan Gorsch | June 19, 2021, 12:50 PM PT

Up Next: Going Back to Normal

Meet the Writer

Nathan Gorsch is the Principal of Village High School in Colorado’s Academy 20 School District. There, he supervises the online high school program for over 400 students in both primary and supplemental online/blended enrollments. His role encompasses curriculum selection/development, teacher evaluations, student scheduling, marketing, and enrollment.

His degrees include a Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction from Colorado Christian University, a Bachelor of Science from Illinois State University, and a Certificate in Education Administration from the University of Denver.

Currently, Nathan also serves on the AASA Personalized Learning Cohort, the ASD20 Envisioned Future Taskforce and the Academy School District 20 Research and Design Team. He develops strategic plans and shares learned best practices for e-learning and improves personalized learning implementations across the United States.