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Scores of students are getting F’s: What’s the point of failing them during COVID-19?

Alia Wong
USA TODAY – Dec 23, 2020

Class failure rates have surged in districts across the country, from 
Virginia to Hawaii. And those F’s tend to be concentrated among low-income students of color, data indicate, as well as those who are still learning to speak English or have disabilities 

How Effective& Engaging Content is Developed

I was formerly responsible business development with The Quality Group (now OpusWorks®). Yesterday I had lunch with my former boss, OpusWorks co-founder and president, Rob Stewart. OpusWorks develops adult learning. They are laser focused on Problem Solving subject matter (Lean Six Sigma, Essential Problem Solving) for Government, Healthcare, Business, and Education verticals.

In 2008 OpusWorks completely embraced the blended learning concept, where learners arrived in class having completed online elements before the live sessions. It worked great for adult learners. They could take in the materials in smaller chunks, which made it easier to weave into their work schedules and home lives.

The class benefited because everyone showed up for ILT (Instructor Led Training) with the basics and foundational understandings in tow. Learners were on the same page. ILT class time was allocated to hands-on demonstrations, discussions, team exercises, or reviewing projects. Travel time was reduced, and costs were lowered as class days were cut by 50-80%, and overall knowledge transfer (which was of course measured) improved.

When developing learning assets instructional designers follow Bloom’s Taxonomy for the cognitive domain:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Comprehension
  3. Application
  4. Analysis
  5. Synthesis
  6. Evaluation 

In 2008 great instructional design and rich media made pushing most of the OpusWorks Level 1-2 “basics” content online a no brainer. Skillfully developed interactions were even pulling some Level 3 content into the online domain, too.

Fast forward twelve-years and advances in content development systems, LMSs (Learning Management Systems), video editing software, adult learning strategies, cloud servers, and interactive design capabilities have arrived at a new plateau: A key OpusWorks customer, the Air Force, has just moved all of their Problem Solving instruction to 100% online delivery for 1,000’s of learners a year. The transition was seamless and successful.

But it’s Not Working in Schools 

K-12 100% online learning is showing huge gaps and failures after almost a year of COVID-19?

Yesterday one of our team members had a conversation with a school superintendent who is on her state’s boards. She said there were alarming problems with engagement, knowledge transfer, and online attendance. Her district will lose millions in state aid from homebound learners who log in an hour or two a day and then disappear. Then there is the “paper packet” problem. Many underserved students do not have sufficient technology or bandwidth for online instruction. So, everyday schools print packets of work sheets and reading materials that frazzled parents drive back and forth to pick-up and drop off.

But, in her words the biggest problem is this:

“These kids are getting hurt. They are falling a long way behind, and it’s happening quickly.”

So, how does the Air Force deliver 100% online complex technical training seamlessly when many K-12 online students are tanking with it? Here are few potential gaps we see:

Audience: Adult learners vs. young people. We probably do not need to go real deep on that one. Airforce learners are easier drive engagement among: “The captain said to do it.” 

Great Content: OpusWorks was able to develop quality interactive online materials because they were focused on a specific subject matter. There is no magic switch can be thrown to push the vast array of good content, appropriately leveled and targeted, that is also engaging and interactive and spans the needs of a K-12 audience just because COVID-19 showed up.

Microlearning: Adult learners and content are now designed to be consumed in short sessions. Not a series of 50-minute class blocks in 6+ hour days. It is harder to keep the attention of kids to begin with. When doing it for hours on end the content simply has to be great. At this time: It is not great.

Development Timeline: The Air Forces’ Problem Solving curriculum represented multiple iterations that spanned almost of 20-years of continuous improvement.

Quality of Engaging Interactive Content:  OpusWorks was able to develop best-of-class interactive content because they were laser-focused on a somewhat narrow band of subject matter. A flowing K-12 year-long curriculum by comparison is massive undertaking.

Technology: The Air Force networks and hardware in training areas are solid. A rural student trying to learn from their mom’s phone with a sub-15-gig connection will struggle mightily. Many at risk students are working off packets of worksheets and reading assignments shuttled back and forth to school by parents.

Delivery: The “live” delivery of these new curriculums via 100% online is a huge adjustment for teachers. It absolutely requires the development of completely new skills. Plus, the feedback loop from student to teacher is severely impeded. 

Missing too Much

There is simply a lot being missed from home. Orchestra or marching band in your living room? Will Amazon deliver the fetal pig for anatomy? Chemistry lab … how? Zoom proms? I was a student athlete. Curtailing sports for kids. It’s all wrong. Couldn’t imagine my senior year. Playoffs in hockey and baseball. Last week a Michigan teen took his own life when his school cancelled the hockey season. 

Students need to be in school to optimize their learning journeys. They are not learning as much, as well, nor as often from home.

There is no magic switch that creates and effectively delivers  content that is engaging and effective at driving measurable knowledge transfer to children who are not in school. In fact, the data is suggesting that the strategy has multiple and glaring failure modes for far too many students. The hardest hit: the kids who are most at risk. 

Chart of children failing due to COVID-19

“This is not going to be a problem that goes away as soon as the pandemic is over,” said Jimmy Sarakatsannis, leader of education practice at consulting firm McKinsey and Company. He co-wrote a report that estimated the average student could lose five to nine months of learning by June, with students of color losing more than that.  

USA Today, December 23, 2020

The bottom line is that we have to get the learners back in the seats of their desks in school. Based on the data this new wave of 100% online learning is leaving too many of our most vulnerable children floundering in its wake.


About the author:

John Nycz is the VP Marketing, Infection Control Solutions, for Tennessee-based MEDformance.

MEDformance distributes diagnostic testing, PPE, and innovative products, devices, and processes for helping schools, businesses, health clubs, and healthcare providers manage disease transmission more safely.


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