Jennifer Henry wrote her admissions essay for Kellogg School of Management about her dream of building a teacher training academy: a way to train aspiring educators in the classrooms of accomplished public school teachers. And shortly after graduating, her dream became a reality. She pitched her idea to a successful venture capitalist in Chicago and went on to build the Academy for Urban School Leadership.
It’s now 19 years later, and Jennifer remains committed to a career in education. Today, she’s the senior vice president of career services at 2U, Inc., where her day-to-day focus is on building a scalable career services model that empowers boot camp students to achieve their career goals while helping employers get the tech talent they need.
As Jennifer’s area of expertise has expanded, so too has her knowledge of teaching strategies and perspective on the future of education. She was recently invited on The Next Class podcast to share her insights about what schools will look like post-COVID and how leaders can set their institutions up for success online. Read on for a recap of the five things Jennifer says leaders should prioritize to develop meaningful online learning experiences.
Ensure equitable access to hardware and connectivity
To be able to facilitate a great online learning experience, you need all students to have equitable access to hardware and connectivity. Before you move forth with developing a robust digital strategy for the fall, Jennifer suggests delegating a member of your team to get students access to the basic resources they need to get online.
COVID-19 has amplified the inequities in our society and our school systems. Jennifer sees this firsthand. “My children go to a small private high school. They all have the same Macintosh, there’s an IT team to do any troubleshooting if they have trouble with the hardware, [...] and all of the kids have access to the internet. There’s so much privilege there,” she said. “My husband leads a couple of charter schools. Most of the children will be the first generation to go to college. It is a very well-resourced charter school, but there are students that don’t have access to the internet.”
Acknowledge where your students are—in learning and in mindset
Students are not going to be as prepared coming into the fall as you could have expected them to be 12 months ago. Emergency remote learning this past spring caused the pace of learning to slow down dramatically. Students are going to start the new school year in a different place than originally anticipated.
It’s also important to understand that this is a time of crisis for a lot of families. There are many social and emotional needs that students have right now, which will stay with them through the fall. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a child, a teenager, or an adult, a brain that’s flooded with anxiety and stress and fear is a brain that has a hard time learning,” said Jennifer.
Incorporate a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning
Determining the best blend of live online classes and offline content for students is not a one-size-fits-all approach. “Figuring out the daily and weekly schedules that allow for differentiation based on age, learner, and subject matter will be a real challenge,” said Jennifer. She suggests trying to figure out how to create an environment where teachers can do some experimentation where there are very short learning loops and the results, and observations can be shared quickly with other teachers and the school community. Then, iterate on the model on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.
Jennifer believes that schools that encourage collaboration and have processes that allow for fast information sharing with distributed leadership models will be able to create the best kind of learning experiences for their students.
Accept that COVID-19 has changed the future of education and invest in reimagining learning
Many schools are contemplating how much to invest in online learning. They don’t know the extent in which to invest in online learning because they believe it may be a short-term solution. But Jennifer doesn’t believe we’ll go back to the place we once were.
“I don’t think it’s a rubber band where we’re being asked to stretch and then there will be some moment when we’re post-COVID, and we’ll go back to where school will look exactly the way it looked,” she said. “There’s so much to reimagine. Throw caution to the wind. [...] I don’t think any time or money spent reimagining what learning looks like won’t have a return on investment, even in a post-COVID world.”
COVID is disruptive. “One of the things I remember being taught in school leadership is that you need one of two things in order to create change: you need either readiness or crisis. We have a crisis.”
View this moment as an opportunity to meet the needs of all students
There’s a whole set of students for whom this chance to learn online allows them to breathe. The societal pressures decrease, and they don’t have to spend the first three hours of their day in classes concerned they won’t have anyone to have lunch with that day. Then there’s a whole set of students who have special needs who have real learning challenges and need one-on-one attention where that physical proximity is best.
“Our education system hasn’t served all of our [students] well to date. So, I’m hoping we have this moment to reimagine it, and we can get closer to serving all of our [students] well.”
This is the disruption we have been waiting for, and right now we have the opportunity to offer students more access to great, high-quality education.
To hear Jennifer Henry on The Next Class podcast, listen to episode 12.
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