UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, forcing K-12 schools and colleges nationwide to instruct their students virtually, a Penn State inter-departmental collaboration among Will Diehl, Peggy Schooling and Rebecca Heiser was set in motion.
“Back in March, it was clear that face-to-face classes would be moving online at Penn State,” said Diehl, assistant professor of education in the College of Education, director of the American Center for the Study of Distance Education and coordinator of online graduate programs in the Department of Learning and Performance Systems.
“Rebecca (an instructional designer with Penn State World Campus) and I, with feedback from my colleagues in the Lifelong Learning and Adult Education faculty, created an online course template to ensure that students in our program would have a consistent experience in their classes. We shared this template with College of Education faculty, conducted informational webinars and it was adopted and adapted by some faculty across the college.”
Diehl teamed up with Schooling, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Study Council and professor of practice in educational leadership in the Department of Education Policy Studies, and they offered their assistance to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE).
Because of Diehl’s background in distance education, Schooling believed reaching out to the PDE also would be beneficial. “We ended up developing a proposal to work with the department. We initiated the work in the fall, and continued to work through into February 2021,” Schooling said.
That work entailed helping PDE develop its vision around distance education because it was putting in place supports for school districts statewide.
“We are working directly with the state, but that’s also led to working with a network of people, including PBS, as well as a network of intermediate units people called continuity of education leaders. We’ve cast a wide net,” Schooling said.
The net includes an association with Public Broadcasting System (PBS), which is launching a datacasting initiative, according to Diehl.
“Many students do not have internet access, and datacasting is another way to provide access to lessons,” Diehl explained.
Schooling said with datacasting, the PBS television signal can be used to distribute additional content to students. “They’re trying to develop a repository of content that kids and teachers can have access to so that students can learn from home even when they do not have internet access,” she said.
Diehl said he, Schooling and Heiser are helping the Department of Education create a vision for what that could look like.
“We’re looking at it from a systems approach, encouraging leaders to consider their entire school district’s resources and to make changes that will better support teachers, and ultimately provide a high-quality education for students when they are not in the classroom,” he said.
“And it is exciting to see that some leaders are working on developing more robust and flexible systems that will improve teaching and learning in face-to-face, hybrid and distance modalities as they move past the pandemic.”
The Penn State team believes that equity and accessibility should be at the forefront of the system.
“It is likely that some kids are going to continue learning from home, even when things shift back. This is because some students are thriving, and their learning has increased outside of the classroom,” said Diehl.
Diehl noted that when COVID emerged last spring that teachers had to scramble and figure out how to move forward. “Systems weren’t in place to support them. The burden should not be placed solely on the teachers. State and local policies and infrastructure must be in place to support everyone involved,” Diehl said.
There was an infinite amount of information to disseminate and distribute, and Diehl, Schooling and Heiser conducted a series of five webinars that included the participation of 300-400 people. Topics were:
- A Systems Model for Distance Education: Planning for Tomorrow;
- A Blueprint to Lead Past the Pandemic;
- Facilitation and Modalities: Pathways to Interaction;
- Designing for Tomorrow: Develop Learning Environments to Scale; and
- Learning-Centered Instructional Strategies.
“We’re not necessarily working with teachers per se as much as our focus is working with the leaders, so that the leaders have the understanding to be able to build this system,” Schooling explained. “And we want leaders to be able to make sure that in any event, whether it’s a pandemic or a five-day, snow-day situation, schools can provide high-quality learning experiences for students with minimal disruption.
“We are also hopeful that we can help districts think about how to continue their work on preparing students for the 21st century. In some cases, this might mean that students will work and learn in a variety of environments: distance, face-to-face or blended.
Diehl said decades of research about distance education “clearly shows” that distance education can be as effective or more effective than face-to-face teaching.
“The question that I ask people is ‘have you ever been in a face-to-face class that was ineffective and low quality?’ I can’t recall meeting anyone who hasn’t. Face-to-face education is often thought of as the gold standard, but I would argue against that,” Diehl said.
He added that while there are well-designed and well-taught face-to-face classes, there are some that are just the opposite.
“The same is true with distance education. It is unfortunate that many people are now equating hours of synchronous video sessions that attempt to duplicate the face-to-face experience with distance education,” Diehl said. “Hopefully the work we are doing is changing the negative perception of learning at a distance, but there is still a lot of opposition.
“Leaders need to understand the possibilities, and will then need to educate school boards, parents and teachers about the benefits of distance education, but this shift in thinking and preparing systems will take time.”
Diehl and Schooling said the College of Education, the Adult Education program, and Penn State Outreach were instrumental in the launch of Penn State World Campus, which educates more than 14,000 students globally and has more than 25,000 graduates.
“The approach we have been taking is to focus on student learning and finding ways to ensure that all children, particularly our most vulnerable students, have access to high-quality instruction, are prepared for the 21st century, are engaged in their learning and have agency and choice in their learning experiences,” Schooling said.
An optimal outcome of the continuity of this education initiative, in Diehl’s opinion, is that some school districts will embrace these ideas, take action, achieve success and serve as models for other districts — not only across the state but across the country.