Concurrent Online & Live Instruction: The Swiss Army Knife Approach?

Swiss Army knives are fun and full of gadgets. They make a nice gift. But in general, like most multitools, they’re just OK at everything and not really great at anything. If you really need to do something well, sawing, cutting, even opening a bottle of wine, you find the best tool to do that.

I am thinking about Swiss Army knives as I watch school districts plan concurrent instruction as part of a return to school strategy.

A basic first principle at a time there is no plan to vaccinate Americans under 16, and a not fully operational plan to vaccinate everyone else either, is that schools can reopen live but you cannot compel students to attend in-person. Janice Jackson, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, discussed that in a recent Bellwether webinar.

But there is a growing push to get students back in school and President-elect Biden is making return to live part of his first 100 days agenda. That will increase momentum.

In response to all this, the default emerging in some places is concurrent instruction. Some students live, some joining online. Sounds like a great third way, compromise, our universal approach. In fact, it’s really hard to do everything well at once – it’s sort of the multitool of education. Some districts have already abandoned it.

High quality live instruction is challenging – and something school districts struggled to do at scale pre-pandemic. High quality remote is challenging, too. Something that districts around the country are struggling with now. Doing both? At the same time?

An option that is at once logistically challenging and often politically complicated is to reassign students so there are live classes, remote classes, but not concurrent classes. District adherence to teacher of record norms or questions about special education are some of the issues that create an inertia against reassigning students midyear. (It’s really hard to overstate how much inertia has driven practice this past 10 months) In some cases policy flexibility will be required along with practice flexibility.

On the upside, it’s also a way to respect teacher choice and protect teachers with underlying health conditions. Of course, another option is to stay remote but that’s increasingly politically untenable and there is a growing consensus against it.

What seems like a bad idea for sure is trying to limp toward the end of the school year with fingers crossed. Now may be the time to reorganize for the short term.  And some districts and charter school networks are innovating with bifurcating by online and live now – and have been. Some have committed to virtual only to focus on that. Some have pulled back from concurrent. But there are still a lot of plans to shift to concurrent going forward. To torture the knife metaphor a bit – what we need right now is the sharpest edge we can find to get all kids learning again. That’s probably supporting teachers to focus on one thing and doing it well rather than a few things at once.