Can Recovery Funds Drive the Virtual Instructional Systems of the Future?

Virtual learning as a pandemic response was the foot on the gas for closing the digital divide and expanding open educational resources (OER) more broadly. Many states and districts have been focused on quality in the digital curriculum arena for some time – but now everyone’s along for the ride. 

One place we can steer to for highlights from across the country is the newly launched EduRecoveryHub from the Collaborative for Student Success in partnership with the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Edunomics Lab. This platform takes on the unwieldy but critical task of tracking and elevating promising practices in educational response to the ongoing pandemic. The Hub contains an initial set of state and district initiatives reviewed by an impressive set of peer experts and will continue to expand with more examples and case studies in the coming months. 

To be clear, this task is messy – just like the work in schools, districts, and states is messy as we adapt to ever-changing health and safety conditions and guidance. When it comes to efforts to support curricular materials and training, practices in the Hub so far exemplify the significant obstacles states faced when students were sent home overnight in March 2020. Many had to first boost virtual infrastructure as a foundation for quality instruction. As a school board member, I had a front seat view of the challenges my district faced trying to accelerate a carefully mapped out one-to-one device initiative as demand exploded and supply chains kinked. And securing devices and reliable connections was just the first step in trying to enable virtual learning – my district and others nationwide also had to move lessons and materials online, train teachers, and support families.

My firsthand experience is why I have so much admiration for efforts states and districts have made to think and act quickly. The practices aren’t perfect and it’s easy to poke holes in initiatives both large and small that leverage federal relief funding to support students and schools. Rather than focusing on the problems alone, though, I’m working alongside the Hub with a focus on quality curriculum to lift up examples that are worth a deeper look. Together, we are taking a “share as we go” approach which will come with some flaws, but has the potential for greater impact given the scramble to use current dollars wisely.

In one example, Alaska earned attention for fast-tracking efforts to develop an online learning system and launching the Alaska Statewide Virtual School in March 2020. State leaders advanced an existing partnership with the Florida Virtual School to provide students, families, and educators with access to established courses and tailored training adapted to the Alaska context. Leveraging an established program is a smart way to adapt quickly – giving students in this far-flung state access to learning almost immediately and providing training and additional resources over the summer of 2020. A statewide license provided all districts with access to a learning management system that streamlined access to and sharing of instructional materials. The state is now leveraging online education for summer learning and its 2021 guidance emphasized the importance of quality materials and instruction in remote settings. 

In Baltimore, Maryland, the district is building on existing infrastructure and lessons learned through the pandemic to expand and improve virtual learning. Baltimore’s Reconnect, Restore, Reimagine plan outlines detailed strategies to build on successful practices to personalize learning – such as connecting students virtually to hard-to-staff courses or providing flexible scheduling opportunities for older students balancing school and work. The approach also includes a deep commitment to aligning virtual offerings with teacher and family training centered on the instructional core. Further, the plan details city leaders’ efforts to engage with the whole community to understand what has been working and where improvement is needed to continually inform the path forward. 

There was no clear roadmap for education during a global pandemic – but two years in, we know a lot more about how to move ahead. Please join me to better understand the fast evolution of OER and the world of quality virtual teaching and learning across the states. Share your thoughts and other examples of state and district efforts worth watching and watch this space for more.

Jocelyn Pickford is an education policy and communications specialist focusing on understanding and promoting practitioner-informed public policy across the private, public and non-profit sectors as a Senior Affiliate with HCM Strategists. She began her career in education as a high school English teacher in a regular and special education inclusion classroom and is now a public school parent and recent member of her local district school board. Previously, Jocelyn led the design, launch and implementation of the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education to integrate teachers into the national education policy dialogue. Jocelyn’s passion for her work was seeded during her own public school education and took root during her classroom teaching experience in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she led action research and presented instructional materials to a variety of audiences. Jocelyn earned her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College (CT), working as a professional writer and editor prior to becoming a teacher, and obtained her master’s in secondary education from the George Washington University. Jocelyn lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two children.