“It was the best of times, and the worst of times… it was the spring of hope…” — Charles Dickens, 1859, Tale of Two Cities

Going online to SAVE the Academy and Humanity?!? Could it be true?

Today, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, The Chronicle of Higher Education, published an article entitled, “The Coronavirus is Upending Higher Ed.” In sum, it reads that the campuses are empty and a crisis looms: “The crisis – one Chronicle senior writer called it a ‘black swan’ event – could have lasting ramifications in the months and years to come. It could financially devastate institutions, their students, and employees. It will test the strength and efficacy of remote institutions. And there are likely to be a host of unanticipated effects that will become clear only with time” (p. 2). There is no need for this to be the black swan of the academy. As a long-time career educator and consultant whose expertise is in special charges, I challenge us to shift the paradigm: Let it be an event illuminating educational equity and accessibility.

Teachers who disavowed online learning and remote teaching as less than or the “end” of higher ed are seeing it now as just the beginning. Those of us educators who embraced online teaching in its highest forms have known this all along. Rather than a B-rate option, it embodies the beauty of educational accessibility for all by teaching quality content and instruction by bringing education to those in rural or other areas where flagship campuses are not; those who are caretaking ill relatives and could not leave for school; those with many jobs and many generations living at home; those who through physical or other disabilities and could not attend class on campus; those of our veterans that cannot tolerate on campus class due to PTSD or other issues, among other reasons brick and mortar traditional classrooms may not work for an individual learner. True educational equality and accessibility, which is a matter of social justice, comes with online teaching. Let me be clear; this is not the end of brick and mortar schools. They hold their place and will return to normal. However, campus community can be made online, too. Undoubtably, it is a paradigm shift that no one way is the better way, and there are many pathways to education in all its forms. Every student can be taught, just not all in the same day or in the same way. As a professor who began teaching online in its infancy in 2007 to supplement on campus teaching while being a single mother to my at-the-time young daughter, I unwittingly became part of the vanguard (somehow, I repeatedly find myself here in this accidental educational Netherland – the accidental renegade) —part of an unseen revolution that would emerge in 2020 to save the academy and mitigate risks to humanity. The irony is the challenge to Academy: Now to save the Academy, we must go online.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, … we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way … ” (Dickens, 1859, para. 1).

In the opening passage to Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, Dickens foretells the zeitgeist of our times 161 years ago when writing about the age of radical opposites taking place. In Tale, the radical dichotomies take place across the English Channel, in France, and in the UK. It is a beautiful novel about the complexity of contrasts and comparisons during the French Revolution. Could it be said we are in the Corona Revolution? Upending our staid and stale ideas of community, education, illness, magical thinking, and ignorance?

When Dickens speaks of the season of Light, he means it is the time to illuminate truth about systems and structures. He clearly says, “It was the spring of hope…” So, too, can this time be. One in which neighbors become neighbors again, and people, even teens and millennials, are forced to look outside of themselves to protect the greater good. It is a time of foregoing small inconveniences to forge a new way for the collective good. A time of Light, indeed.

In contrast, Dickens also states, “It was the season of Darkness, it is the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” How can both be present? We are always living in the complexity of both light and dark. The worst of times can bring the beauty of humanity to the surface. One that has gotten buried in our entitled lives; one where we feel too entitled and privileged to consider that we may even get the virus. Too little thinking of children and people with special medical needs, including the elderly. That is indeed a time of darkness. A time of light is finding a new way to help neighbors, protect people we do not even know, lessen disruption to daily life in the ways we can. Toward the end of the passage, in this (my) interpretation, Dickens is not speaking of heaven or death in a literal sense and not necessarily in a religious sense, although he could be. Dickens is clear that the alternative to that perspective, the one of Light and hope, is that all will go direct the other way, to despair. In the age of now, he is speaking mythically, figuratively, through the uplifting of our spirits toward hope.

As an educator, as a student, as a human being, in these most uncertain times that fell on the Ides of March (reference: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar —Google it, if you do not know it portends trying times), we must not fall into inertia or immobility.

These are not end times for education. The true and dire lesson of equity is accessibility in education.

Charles Dickens said these are the worst of times and the best of times. Is this the cataclysmic event that will level the educational playing field and take away the artifice that on-ground is better than online?

There are simple easy ways to move your students online in a few days time without it being financially burdensome to an institution or district. I have done it in less critical times for schools. Even for those students with learning challenges that cannot go online, there are many pathways to alternate assignments and all can be done while remaining mission aligned with the school and within accreditor guidelines. This need not be trying times for education. In fact, this can be the best of times in which we gather our community together and work with our students to find pathways to lessen disruptions to learning and teaching.

Call to Action: Let’s turn this event into a broad map that illuminates the many pathways into learning and education that have been hiding in the shadows of the Academy; they may now just be its lifeline.

 To close, consider Dickens’ charge, “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous, and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known” (Dickens, 1859, Book 3, Chapter 15).

Education in the age of the Corona—a beautiful community can rise from this abyss. Students do not have to be adrift – they can be peaceful, useful, and prosperous, perhaps connected to community in ways unheard of in recent generations.

“So does a whole world, with all its greatnesses and littlenesses, lie in a twinkling star. And as mere human knowledge can split a ray of light and analyse [sic] the manner of its composition, so, sublimer intelligences may read in the feeble shining of this earth of ours, every thought and act, every vice and virtue, of every responsible creature on it” (Dickens, 1859, Book Two, The Golden Thread).

It is a far, far greater thing for us to do as educators than we have ever done and rise to this challenge. Dickens emphasizes Light which is transparency. We must be transparent with our students as other systems’ leaders, e.g. government, medical, and so on, must be with their constituents. Innovations: Education Advocacy Group has mastered the creation of strategic initiatives to calm fears, roll out quick plans in a systematic way that trains teachers and students in a concrete granular method as to not overwhelm them with a new system in a chaotic time. As educators, we hold a sanctuary in the heart of our students. Let’s cultivate it.

I welcome you to reach out to me. Minimizing disruption to school communities and learning is my priority, while other less time sensitive projects can be shuffled. Let’s discuss ways to minimize disruption to your campus, mitigate panic on campus and in the mind of students, and establish ways to maintain retention during this time of transition and the unknown. My charge is to help your school function at its best in full mission alignment and in compliance with accreditors. 

For now, my commitment is to make sure each child/student has as little disruption to learning as possible and in the best way that each child/student learns. 

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