As 2020 fades into 2021, EdSurge journalists offer the following personal reflections about reporting on education during the coronavirus pandemic.
Seeking Real Solutions
By Tony Wan
It has never been a better time to be in education. It has also never been a worse time to be in education.
Which is it for you?
The answer depends on where you are in this ecosystem. Business has never been better for those companies now seeing record growth. Investors who previously ran from edtech startups are now writing bigger checks. Those with an established track record in edtech investing are doubling down—literally. Edtech not only has unicorns, but decacorns. Job openings follow.
It’s different on the other side. Public school districts, already strapped for cash to begin with, face budget cuts from decreased tax revenues, on top of new expenses—as much as $1.7 million more for each district—to retrofit school facilities in line with COVID-protection protocols. Burnout is prevalent among teachers and faculty. Many are contemplating leaving.
Private industries and public systems cannot survive in isolation. Having covered edtech financing for close to a decade, it has always been a challenge—especially so this year—to reconcile the flood of private investment capital in the education industry with the staggering losses and deficits in the education system.
One can only hope that this capital is going to smart, viable ideas that address real issues in education. I know this isn’t always the case. There has been snake oil and foolish bets on “solutions” for assumed problems—not actual ones. In education, as in any other market, there are disconnects between what builders build and what users need.
I believe one of the most effective remedies comes when the people building and funding new ideas share lived experiences and backgrounds as those they are trying to serve.
To that end, what gives me hope are the emergence of funds led by diverse leaders, for diverse founders. For far too long, even as entrepreneurship has grown more diverse, the pool of venture capital and investment power brokers has remained stubbornly white. While many have paid lip service to diversity, others are actually paying. PayPal’s $530 million pledge to support Black and minority-led businesses, including $50 million to investment funds (including one focused on education) is a step. As are services like Founder Gym, led by a former edtech CEO, which has helped nearly 500 underrepresented founders raise capital.
Diverse capital will not provide all the relief that public education needs. But I hope that it will make the private industry more responsive to some of those needs.
By Jeffrey R. Young
Colleges love calendars. In normal times, academics cling to routines like farmers tending crops. There are seasons for each stage of learning: Times to collectively wander through material, moments to go away from campus and return refreshed, shared instants of focus and stress for crafting final papers and other proof of discovery.
This year brought a pandemic that threw off that predictable rhythm, and challenged just about everything that is sacred in higher education. It has been hard to watch, and difficult to make sense of.
People like to beat up on colleges as resistant to change and too wedded to tradition. But this year made me realize that, despite its flaws, the system usually works pretty well for millions of students and professors. This year, with the deadly COVID-19 virus forcing every campus to try modifications to teach through masks or plexiglass or Zoom rooms, college probably worked for no one.
During the fall I produced and hosted a podcast series attempting to document life on campus during the pandemic. We enlisted professors and students at six colleges who sent in audio diaries of their experiences trying to keep learning going. Every two weeks, we released a new episode weaving together telling moments. It was as close as I could get to doing the kind of campus visits I would usually do as a higher ed reporter.
What are the takeaways? It was just a no-win situation.
A first-generation student at San Francisco State was so frustrated trying to balance online studies with caring for two young kids at home that she contemplated switching to part-time status. But the rules of her financial aid—the inflexibility of the traditional academic calendar—wouldn’t let her. So she stuck it out, though she predicts she gave about 60 percent of the focus she usually devotes to her studies.
An award-winning professor at Texas State University said she left out entire chapters of material she usually teaches in her biology classes. Will that matter? Hard to say, as some in her class will go on to be doctors and nurses who just don’t know what’s in those lost pages.
Purdue University was one of the campuses that did its best to stay open, trying an accelerated schedule that ended in-person teaching right before Thanksgiving. It meant no breaks. By October, students were so burned out that more than 10,000 signed a petition requesting one day off from classes. A usually studious junior said he was having trouble keeping up with long lectures his professors posted on YouTube, and he said couldn’t seem to find a routine that worked.
In the end, I was hearing from the lucky ones—students and professors who stayed healthy. Nearly 400,000 cases of COVID-19 were reported on American campuses, and some 90 deaths.
There will probably be lessons from all the forced experimentation. But during 2020, there was little time for reflection, only a push to turn in something that looked as much like a college experience as possible.
Learning Our Limits
By Rebecca Koenig
For people who trade in facts and figures, news and data, it’s been a perplexing year.
Officials with elaborate plans for reopening and recovery didn’t make it past “masks.” Teachers prepared with new online lesson plans couldn’t reach webcam-shy students. And journalists seeking nuanced answers to “why?” and “how?” got stuck asking the most basic question: “what?”
Health statistics and election results produced dashboards and heat maps, but not consensus or clarity.
It turns out, information has limits.
Humans have limits, too. As the 2020 glacier finally retreats, leaving us to scavenge for significance in the debris it sloughed off, I wonder about these limits—human breaking points and the confines of information. If they’re sisters. If they’re twins.
Even if the Wi-Fi worked, and the video was clear, and people showed up—all big ifs—the entire enterprise of pandemic virtual learning felt for so many exactly like what it was: a last-minute substitute who turns on a movie and expects good behavior without trying to earn it.
The content was conveyed, but not the spark that makes curricula compelling. And that wasn’t the information we craved this year, the kind produced when humans share physical space. Professors longed for the glances and shrugs, eyerolls and smiles that offer instant feedback on whether their lectures are landing. Students missed the high-fives and hugs that affirm their successes or soften their setbacks.
If I didn’t know before, I do now: Education is not merely the transmission of knowledge. It is experiences shared and relationships nurtured among people who have not only brains, but also bodies and spirits. Lungs vulnerable to viruses and eyes to screen fatigue. Hearts susceptible to fear and grief and doubt and loneliness.
These are our human conditions. They set our rules of engagement with facts and figures, news and data.
The best-laid plans—and journalism—will fail to enlighten us if they don’t account for our limits.
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