University of Illinois

2020 Impact Report
College of Education

A Brave New World: Supporting Today’s Educators and Learners

by Tom Hanlon

Cartoon image of a person thinking surrounded by options

When COVID-19 struck, the College of Education quickly pivoted to support college faculty, preK-12 teachers, and remote learners with the tools, resources, and guidance needed to navigate an educational world turned upside down by the pandemic.

WITH THE DECLARATION by Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker that K-12 public schools in Illinois needed to move to remote learning effective April 1, school districts and teachers have had to scramble to get remote learning curricula, plans, and models in place. The College of Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign stepped immediately to the fore, coming to the aid of teachers with its LearnAway website, newsletter, and 10Talk video chats with experts.

“Our College was prepared in ways to triage this situation not only really quickly, but also to aid and assist others who needed help, like the K-12 public education system,” says Christopher Span, associate dean for graduate programs in the College and professor in Education Policy, Organization & Leadership. “We got the LearnAway website up so quickly because we didn’t have to triage internally.”

Collaborating to Meet the Challenges

“Now the question becomes how do we work in collaboration to build an epistemic community to where we are working to answer some of the grand challenges around remote learning in the state of Illinois and the nation,” he says. “Whether it’s preparation of teachers or working with parents, or it’s working with social workers and counseling psychologists around the new stresses that come with COVID-19. We’ve been handling questions now around bereavement and death in ways that we never imagined having our children think about.”

Span advocates for all three schools in the University of Illinois system—at Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Springfield—to work together to remedy the challenges impacting educators and stakeholders across the state.

“You need to have a small party of folks who are thinking through the day-to-day issues and making sure we’re putting out the fires,” he says. “But you equally need a small group of people thinking through, ‘Okay, what’s next, and how do we start building capacity to tend to some of the stressors that we’re seeing.”

Conversations, Span says, are taking place among various state universities. “We’re trying to identify the people who see this as an opportunity for the professional development of teachers in the field, as an opportunity to rethink teacher education programs across the state, and as an opportunity to engage our state legislators and the Illinois State Board of Education to really understand the importance of having flexibility and adaptability in the way we can offer learning to children,” Span says.

Changing the Face of Teacher Preparation

That need for adaptability extends beyond how learning is offered, notes Nancy Latham, executive director of the Council on Teacher Education for the College of Education. The COVID-19 pandemic has “forever changed the face of teacher preparation,” she says. “And not just teacher preparation, but preparation for school social workers and school psychologists. They’re all trying to figure out how to work in a remote learning environment. So, as we look at teacher preparation moving forward, we teach future educators how to plan and implement instruction, how to evaluate learners and assess instruction, how to reflect on their own practices, not just in the context of face-to-face. Everything has to be both ways. For our teacher candidates, this is a moment of great opportunity.”

Span agrees. “We need to do a better job of ensuring that we train individuals who are going to teach or be administrators to not only engage in the face-to-face, but in the remote and online as well,” he says. “So, how do we shift and adjust our teacher education programs to ensure we are educating our future teaching force so that they can reach their highest potential as educators, regardless of setting and circumstance?”

That setting for student learning, for over 300 years, has been in school buildings. Now, a teacher with 30 students is engaging those students in their dwelling places, through technology. It’s likely that no K-12 teacher ever envisioned her- or himself teaching anywhere else than a school building. Yet, most teachers have been sheltering in place since the end of March, teaching their students remotely.

“Teachers are in new territory,” Latham says. “It will be interesting to interview them after this year. I think teachers will feel that they’ve probably never known and had a relationship with a group of learners and their families as deeply as they’ve had with this group. And I’d bet most parents would reciprocate that.”

Dealing With the Inequities in Education

Still, some negatives for teachers and learners have arisen from the pandemic, as Latham is quick to point out. “This challenge is further exposing inequities that already exist—not that teachers didn’t know they existed, and didn’t deal with those inequities daily, but this has made them painfully obvious.”

One of those inequities surrounds equal access to technology. “Not all students have access to online learning,” says Lisa Monda-Amaya, associate dean for undergraduate programs. “There’s a concern about how teachers are going to be able to reach those students. There’s also a concern about students with disabilities, how they’re going to be able to access content. Another significant concern has to do with how students with severe disabilities are gaining access to appropriate services.” Remote learning, says Span, “has become the great exacerbator of the inequalities we have in society.” He mentions a school district in Chicago that had to have 100,000 devices distributed to students. “There are 400,000 kids in Chicago Public Schools, and that tells me that at least 25 percent require some kind of device to aid and assist them in their learning in the wake of COVID-19.” And he points out that even if you have a device, “that doesn’t necessarily mean you have the other kinds of things that need to go with it—the connectivity to engage in remote learning, a structure to understand what it means, some type of facilitation between the teacher and the school district to enhance that learning.”

Cartoon of Learnaway Computer

Rapid Response to COVID-19

  • March 17, 2020: Council on Teacher Education and the College of Education discuss the need for a website in immediate response to the COVID-19 crisis to assist educators with remote teaching and learning.
  • March 31, 2020: LearnAway website launches with 450 resources, curriculum ideas, and tips for online teaching and learning.
  • April 2020: 10Talk expert videos launch on YouTube.
  • June 2020: LearnAway weekly newsletter is distributed.

As of September 2020, LearnAway has produced:

Educators need to spend a lot of time around these problems, Span says, “not just in the wake of a future pandemic, but just a need to aid and facilitate education, to make sure teachers are prepared to engage students regardless of their setting—and not just the face-to-face one we have held near and dear for the past three-and-a-half centuries.”

Another challenge that Latham points out is the structure in which remote learning takes place. “We can come up with creative remote learning strategies, but they are received very differently in various households,” she says. “You might have a household where there are two parents, and one is working and one can help with the schooling and enhance it. Or you might have two parents in the home, perhaps, but they are both working intense hours themselves and trying to figure out how to balance this. This is an ask a family has never felt before.”

To try to circumvent this situation, many teachers are personalizing and customizing the learning. “If we can bring learning resources and ideas and applications together for them and at least make that part easier and let them be the experts on their learners, we can let them use their energies toward that customization,” Latham says. “That’s our goal with the LearnAway website.”

A Shift in Education

Monda-Amaya sees the pandemic causing a shift in education. For that shift to happen in the classroom, it also has to take place in teacher education programs, she adds. “I think everybody is recognizing that there’s a need to be able to prepare teachers regarding remote instruction,” she notes. “Teachers will have to think differently about the way technology is being accessed by students in their classrooms, and how they are going to use technology to teach content—and help students access content in very different ways.”

Span believes remote learning will become more prominent in the future of education. “It’s unfortunate it took a pandemic for us to get to this point,” he says, “but in some ways we can see where remote learning can become the great equalizer of educational opportunities. It can give children more access to resources and to opportunities.”