University of Illinois

2020 Impact Report
College of Education

Schools After COVID-19: Seven Steps Towards a Learning Revolution

by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis

Student typing on computerProfessors William Cope and Mary Kalantzis have spent years building tools and researching pedagogical processes for online learning. Here are their seven tips—what they refer to as “digital affordances”— for better learning in an online environment.

Step 1: Turn Students into Active Learners

Position students as knowledge producers rather than simply knowledge consumers.

Discard tedious scanned textbooks and worksheets. Instead, point students to credible content available online in more engaging formats. Better still, have them find it themselves and learn to discern good sources from bad.

Sitting in classes and listening to teacher talk, in-person or now on video, has always been an absurdly low cognitive load. And more so for today’s students who, on their personal devices, have become habituated to designing their own information feeds. When recording video, break it into small parts and accept that control has been ceded to students for the listening—to skip the easy bits, to play at 2x speed, or to replay the harder parts several times.

Step 2: Harness Collaborative Intelligence

One of the classical delivery modes for online learning is to watch the video or read the text, do the activity, then take the quiz.

The lesson of social media is the powerful “stickiness” of connection and mutual recognition of each other’s presence. Have students work together in shared online projects. In a time of physical distancing, social learning is more important than ever.

Get students to peer-review each other’s work. Students learn by seeing strengths and weaknesses in others’ works-in-progress. They learn to give constructive feedback— not “wow, that’s great”, but “here’s a suggestion.” They learn to respect others’ perspectives and to acknowledge the contributions peers have made to their own learning.

Step 3: Allow Learner Differences to Shine

We call the first two of our seven tips, “changing the balance of agency,” where learners take greater responsibility for their learning and individual learning is balanced with social interaction.

One result of relaxing the constraints on learner agency is that learner differences become a visible and refreshing resource for learning—productive diversity.

Have students co-curate content. Learning about volcanoes or triangles? Have students research a volcano in favorite country or a familiar triangle-in- reality. The differences will give voice to their interests and identities. The knowledge they share will be distinctively their own. Have students give feedback on others’ work. If the theory of “crowdsourcing” is correct, the sum of multiple peer reviews can be as smart, interesting, and rich as an expert review and students can progress towards “mastery” objectives at their own pace.

Step 4: Make the Most of Digital Media

Today, in web-based work we have the resource of “multimodal meaning,” where the page can look as good as any other on the web, and where we can include digital images, videos, audio, infographics and a host of other resources, all duly cited and linked, of course.

This is the new literacy of our times. Spaces for “web writing” such as blogs and wikis are accessible to all from a range of devices. Have students use various web tools to make what we term “multimodal knowledge representations.”

Step 5: Assess-As-You-Go

Traditional tests measure long term memory: a fact, a definition, a procedure correctly applied.

Here’s a different scenario. A class of twenty eighth grade students in rural Wisconsin is studying the Comedy of Errors in our experimental CGScholar (Common Ground Scholar) platform.

By the end of their unit of work (about 3 weeks) they have interacted in online discussion and written a peer reviewed project, giving and receiving 1,172 pieces of actionable feedback and having their results analyzed based on nearly 150,000 tiny datapoints. Each learner can see their progress towards mastery as the petals grow in the colorful flower visualization (the “aster plot”), and on three measures: the knowledge they have acquired, the effort they have put in, and their help to each other or the collaborative contributions to the class. No teacher could offer this much feedback or analyze this much data this carefully. No tests could give so much immediate feedback to every learner.

Step 6: Have Your Learners Think about Their Thinking

One of the most powerful consequences of the five changes we have already mentioned is a phenomenon we call “metacognition”—thinking is more effective when thinkers also think about their thinking. Instead of a teacher or test-marker imposing judgement from the outside, give learners rubrics in which they can measure themselves and each other. Have learners make posts, then comment constructively on each other’s posts. Have them discuss what a particular piece of learning is for, and the kind of “knowledge processes” that it requires.

Step 7: Learn that Learning is Everywhere

Traditional educational architectures had teachers and learners confined in space and time—the four walls of the classroom and the blocks of the schedule. Now, by dint of today’s terrible circumstances and for the moment at least, we’ve been “liberated” from the first of these confinements.

“Ubiquitous learning”—learning any time, any place—allows education to break out of institutional confinements. Not only is online discussion more inclusive of all learners, it doesn’t matter whether it happens in class or as work at home. And the “flipped classroom” idea is that recorded video lessons can be quite different from and in many respects better than the teacher lecture. So, our seventh tip: we’ve become flexible about space; now let’s become flexible about time.