3 Bad Educational Ideas That COVID-19 Will Hopefully Kill

Pandemic silver linings.

April 6, 2020

I see ye visibly, and now beleeve

That he, the Supreme good, t' whom all things ill

Are but as slavish officers of vengeance,

Would send a glistring Guardian if need were

To keep my life and honour unassail'd. [ 220 ]

Was I deceiv'd, or did a sable cloud

Turn forth her silver lining on the night?

I did not err, there does a sable cloud

Turn forth her silver lining on the night,

And casts a gleam over this tufted Grove.

-- John Milton

Comus (A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634), lines 215-225

It will be a stretch to find the educational silver linings of COVID-19.

A catalyst for online education? Not so much. Traditional online education is all about aligning practice with research, learning design with learning science. We are all trying, and we will get closer the longer this goes on, but nobody in the online education community would claim that remote and online learning are synonymous.

Evidence for the value of learning designers? Sure. Maybe. Although it is difficult to see how resource-constrained residential institutions will be able to invest in learning design talent in the years to come.

If we can hope for an educational silver lining of the pandemic, we might want to look to the higher ed marketplace of ideas. In the 20 or so years that I've been working at the intersection of postsecondary learning and technology, a set of truly bad educational ideas has remained immortal. Perhaps the virus may finally contribute to their timely deaths.

Bad Educational Idea No. 1: A Focus on Correcting Weaknesses, Rather Than Playing to Strengths

One silver lining to higher ed's overnight transition from residential to remote learning is that everyone is talking about caring. Our entire teaching and learning community appears to have gotten the memo that our students are under enormous stress. That effective teaching (at least for now) is also supportive, caring and generous teaching.

In practice, what caring for our students means during our pandemic-driven shift to remote instruction is that professors are highlighting strengths, rather than looking to correct for weaknesses.

No, this is not universal. But a focus on strengths does seem to be widespread. There is less emphasis on grading and more on finding the places where professors and students can work together to discover meaningful learning.

This does not mean that learning is easy, or easier, as compared to before COVID-19. Authentic learning is always difficult. Our professors and students are working amazingly hard to figure this out.

When we all return to campus, I can only hope that this idea that caring for our students by highlighting their strengths will remain.

Bad Educational Idea No. 2: That High-Stakes Assessments Are Valid Measures of Long-Term Learning

There are many reasons why so much of higher education continues to be built around high-stakes summative assessments. Students need to demonstrate skills and competencies to advance through majors. Mastery in a given subject often requires that a student moves through a specified series of content and techniques. Many professions have high-stakes exams that need to be passed to enter into and progress through.

The problem across higher education is that we too often confuse the necessity to test (which I agree with) with the idea that testing and learning are the same. (They are not.) We assume that students who can perform well on high-stakes tests will also perform well in the jobs, roles and occupations for which the course was designed to prepare the learner.

Testing can be used as a learning tool. Frequent low-stakes quizzes (formative assessments) are marvelous tools to solidify long-term understanding.

While I don't have comparative data to back this up, my hypothesis is that COVID-19 will diminish the centrality and frequency of high-stakes assessments. If they can be replaced by formative quizzes, we will likely find that the absence of big-deal final exams is not as big a deal as we thought.

This is not an argument to do away with big exams once everyone returns to campus. Only a plea to give careful thought to the question of what high-stakes exams are measuring. Are they assaying a student's knowledge and long-term retention, or are they measuring a student's ability to take a test?

Bad Educational Idea No. 3: That Technology Can Substitute for Educators

The very best thing about this forced pivot to remote learning is what this new reality shows about how learning works. From the beginning, everyone has been clear that the students and their professors are in this together. That the success of remote learning will depend primarily on how well the professor can transition to teaching from a physical to a digital classroom.

Take a minute to appreciate that nobody thought it was a good idea to accomplish this remote learning transition by disconnecting professors from their students. Across the entire higher ecosystem, there is an effort to discover ways that professors can provide more connection, more support and more presence for their students.

Nobody thought, "Let's use COVID-19 to eliminate instructor-led courses and send all of our students to Duolingo or Khan Academy." We understood, without even saying it out loud, that remote learning is all about reconfiguring the relationship between educators and students.

Once everyone is back on campus, it may be worth reminding ourselves that the quality of student learning is directly proportional to institutional investments in educators. Those of us who work in ed tech need to push the idea that all professors -- from full to adjunct and tenured to contingent -- are essential in the educational quality equation.

Technology can complement educators, but as we see during COVID-19, technology will never be a substitute.

What bad educational ideas do you hope that COVID-19 might finally kill?


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