Teaching Online During a Crisis: Danger and Opportunity Ahead

When John F. Kennedy was on the campaign trail, he was fond of pointing out that the Chinese symbol for crisis is a combination of the words for danger and opportunity. In reflecting on the coronavirus crisis and its impact of American public education, let’s first honor the flood of complicated feelings that educators themselves are experiencing and perhaps feeling overwhelmed by: fear, sadness, anger, helplessness, distractibility, and most of all, uncertainty.

In juggling family needs and work expectations, everyone is feeling the anxiety that comes from a most unusual emergency. Nothing is the same as it was. Our relationships with family, friends, co-workers and students have all been disrupted by the self-isolation that is occurring around the country and around the world. The climbing infection and death rates can’t help but make everyone more than a little edgy, depressed, and fearful. As many states move public education online, there’s never been a greater learning curve for educators and school leaders who now must embrace a full-fledged focus on online learning.

But along with the uncertainties and dangers it brings, the coronavirus crisis also brings opportunities for those flexible enough to spot them. There are opportunities to be had by addressing the digital divide and embracing failure as an inevitable byproduct of learning.

Fail Fast to Learn Well

Many educators are feeling the uncertainty and stress of adapting to the new reality of online learning. For many, digital learning is not a familiar classroom routine, and this crisis leaves them in a state of panic. The need to feel competent can be paralyzing.

But just as Rome was not built in a day, learning to teach well online does not occur overnight. It takes years of trial-and-error to figure out what works with your learners. Beginner-level mistakes include relying on worksheets and other busywork, trying to stick with the pacing calendar, or using too much synchronous learning where students merely listen to the teacher talk.

  • Danger: If you are just beginning to teach online, you will make a variety of beginner-level mistakes. Watching things crash and burn online can be a demoralizing experience.
  • Opportunity: The Silicon Valley community calls failure the best teacher. Because 50% or more of your first efforts in online learning will fail, you will learn more quickly if you just keep trying new things without letting fear of failure prevent innovation.

When we accept and even embrace the inevitability of failure in ourselves and our students, we gain flexibility. We can be honest with learners. We can adapt to the unexpected. Nothing will be perfect. Life goes on even when the chaos of home sometimes interferes with online learning.

Addressing the Digital Divide by Valuing Authentic Learning

In many communities, profound gaps exist between students who have access to the Internet and those who do not:

  • Danger: 12 million American students do not have Internet access at home, creating profound educational inequalities between learners both within a classroom and across communities.
  • Opportunity: Students can learn that all forms of independent learning have value, and educators can get creative about at-home learning.

In places where teachers have the digital literacy competencies they need, the “new normal” created by by the coronavirus can be a nearly seamless transition. In communities where students have access to digital devices and the skills to use them, the adjustment may be relatively modest. Some children and teens are experiencing the power of Genius Hour, where the joy of project-based learning is center stage. Others will create podcasts, infographics, image slideshows, blog, or screencasts. Still others will develop science experiments, practice musical instruments, or write scripts, zines, and short stories.

Despite the digital divide that limits opportunities for digital learning for children and teens in low-income communities and schools, teachers everywhere are trying their best to focus on what their individual students need. Some are pioneering individualized approaches to independent learning and enrichment. In Philadelphia, one middle school English teacher quickly realized that only half of her 120 students have at-home access to her Google Classroom. So she mailed home a package of reading materials and homework to her students.

In a Virtually Viral Hangout offered by the Media Education Lab last week, renowned school library educator Dr. Joyce Valenza pointed out that the coronavirus crisis is disrupting all the systems and structures in our society, including practices of learning and teaching. Such disruption provides an opportunity for us to reflect on what really matters.


Renee Hobbs is an internationally-recognized authority on digital and media literacy education. She served as the founding director of the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island and is the founding director of the Media Education Lab. She lives in Newport, Rhode Island.

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