An Educational Shift: Encouraging Mission-Driven Online Learning

Student types online with mission-oriented icons surrounding computer

Over the past decade, many independent schools have intentionally expanded their missions to go beyond academic excellence and include goals related to character development, equity, accessibility, and social responsibility. In an effort to be more inclusive and widen the scope of what our systems have to offer, schools have refined curriculum to meet the diverse needs of learners; have sought to become more culturally responsive and trauma-informed; and teachers have focused on providing students windows into the wider world while mirroring back to them the unique value of their own experience.

In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, hundreds of thousands of institutions across the globe are temporarily closing and moving to eLearning models. How will schools maintain their commitment towards character development, equity, accessibility, and social responsibility as they adapt to new ways of teaching and learning under social distancing guidelines? (This is a great resource for PreK-12 from Teaching Tolerance.)

Many of us became educators because we wanted to do more than share our expertise on a subject—we joined the profession because we are passionate about our subject and want to inspire a similar passion in others. In classrooms, we foster excitement by orchestrating lively discussions, providing provocative essay prompts and encouraging new and innovative ways of applying content. Every time we inspire excitement in our learners, we gain something. Watching our students light up builds our enthusiasm and reinvigorates our commitment to education. 

Ideals of whole student development, and shifts in work culture at large, have inspired a movement to teach “21st century skills”—such as collaboration, communication, and creativity. Schools have put this into practice through maker spaces, classes on entrepreneurship and leadership development, embedded social and emotional learning, and innovative educational technology.  By redesigning recruiting and application policies and global engagement initiatives, teaching and learning communities have become more diverse. Although implementation is inconsistent and imperfect, schools have made important strides towards meeting the needs of all students.

Over the past few weeks, educators have scrambled to transition syllabi and pre-planned classroom activities online, with little to no training.  Meanwhile, schools must not lose sight of the commitments they made to offer an educational experience that fosters both character development and academic learning. Many of the learning opportunities to be offered this spring will be asynchronous, whereby students will access resources online and complete tasks that are then graded by course instructors. 

The move to asynchronous education may be a desirable solution, mitigating complications associated with time zones, access to technology, and because it offers everyone maximum flexibility during this unpredictable time. However, the approach also poses challenges, and possibly opportunities (see this video from the Professional and Graduate Education Office at Mount Holyoke College on asynchronous teaching), for institutions to get creative about upholding their missions related to holistic education and student development, which is especially important right now..

As we ALL adjust to a new normal, wherein we live with uncertainty about our own security, institutions have the ultimate opportunity to walk their talk about equity, access, inclusion, and community engagement.  Many have committed to these goals and, while teaching and learning as we knew it has been significantly disrupted, this historic moment highlights the imperative to be responsive to each and every students’ unique experience.    

With the shift to online teaching, it is vital that institutions don’t just share academic content through electronic files.  Students need the support of their learning communities now more than ever, and it is incumbent upon educators and administrators to find ways to continue to support the whole student.

Gwen Bass, MEd, MA, PhD, currently serves as the director of the Teacher Leadership division of Professional and Graduate Education at Mount Holyoke and frequently presents on inclusive classroom practices, behavior management, child development, child welfare systems, parent education, measurement and evaluation of social emotional skills in schools, and trauma-sensitive teaching.

Michael Lawrence-Riddell has been an educator in one way, shape, or form for the better part of the last three decades. He has taught high school in Brooklyn, elementary school in Boston, and middle school in Amherst. While at Wesleyan University, Michael majored in African American Studies and was actively involved in anti-racist activism on campus. It is when Michael is able to marry his passions for learning, history, social justice, and a better future that he is his most fulfilled. Michael brings these passions to his current work creating a multimedia, digital curriculum that looks at the histories and legacies of institutional racism.