Reimagine Learning: Education Solutions During A Pandemic

ESERIES

Success Through Technology Education (STTE) Foundation, along with The Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development (CREEED), created a series of panel discussions surrounding education, economic development, and entrepreneurship titled E-Series. 

These free virtual panels examine strategies to consider to achieve successful outcomes for students, employers, and our region’s economy. 

The second E-Series was held on September 17, 2020, and was moderated by John Fitzpatrick, Executive Director for Educate Texas. The panel included JJ Childress, Microsoft, Dr. José Espinoza, Socorro Independent District (SISD) Superintendent, and Dr. William Serrata, El Paso Community College (EPCC) President. Panelists addressed the daunting challenges and the required rapid innovation to educate students from pre-k to college. 

You can also watch panel at https://youtu.be/PSLANGewD94

The following is a summary of the panel discussion.

Back when the state issued stay-at-home orders, students and teachers had to finish the year online and do what they could with the tools they had on hand at the moment. Six months later, schools and universities try to adapt to the new reality and develop different strategies, as the local authorities share further information to prevent the virus’s transmission.

To bridge the digital divide within rural communities, SISD distributed hotspots and electronic devices a few weeks in the pandemic. 

After labor day, once the El Paso country met the criteria to reopen schools, SISD decided to reopen for in-person instruction just for a few students. The main goal was to accommodate those students who were having trouble accessing the virtual classes. 

Dr. Espinoza emphasized that they gave priority to those students who didn’t have the resources at home. Dr. Espinoza was not the only one who touched upon this problem.

The digital divide is known as the inequality in access to the internet. As Dr. Espinoza mentioned, those without broadband are struggling to access schoolwork. For those on the wrong side of the digital divide, online education isn’t an option.

“The digital divide has been exposed in El Paso, Texas, and the country in the last six months,” said John Fitzpatrick.

 A preliminary report from Connected Nation Texas indicated that 94% of Texas’ households have access to at least a minimum broadband internet level.

About half-million Texans’ households do not have access to a minimum broadband level, and 440,000 of these households are in rural Texas, the Texas Tribune reported.

Despite parents’ mixed feelings about reopening schools, the districts appointed October 19th as the first day of in-person instruction. Additionally, some other concerns parents are that children are sitting in front of the screen for an extended period. 

A study found that since the pandemic, the screen time increased for children has increased by 500%. Hence, the district had to accommodate everyone else’s needs, including those who don’t want to send their children back to school. ”For parents and families who do not feel comfortable sending their child to any of our 49 schools, they have the [virtual learning] option all year long,” said Dr. Espinoza.

According to these panelists, this transition has had its peaks and valleys. Over the course of nearly seven months, school leaders have prepared for the school year. 

However, J.J Childress, who leads TechSpark, a civic program by Microsoft, recognized that academic institutions have excelled given the circumstances.  

Childress said, “at the end of the day, one of the primary missions of educators is to provide students with the skills to thrive in an economy of tomorrow. This has been accelerated.” 

Also, Childress recognized the pandemic has expanded opportunities for advancement. He further explained that companies aren’t spending money relocating so they can create more job opportunities.

“At the cost of having to relocate somebody…Those are going down, and so, there might actually be an increase in opportunities for students in the future,” Childress said. 

Childress expressed optimism by saying there could be some helpful outcomes getting down by capturing the challenges of the individual learner and adjusting the academic curriculum. 

Many tools are being built with accessibility in mind. They used to be a feature, now they are an expectation. John Fitzpatrick was excited to hear about small data and the possibilities of Artificial Intelligence strategy.

Dr. William Serrata, mentioned 92% courses are completely online, about 5 to 6% are hybrid and very small that are face-to-face. “This changes us for the future. We will continue to see a larger population that will stay online. When we [EPCC] were 8% totally online, when we come out of this I anticipate that number will be significantly higher at least double or triple that in the normal course going forward,” Serrata said.

Prior to the pandemic the number of Texas recent high school graduates matriculating in higher education was at 52%, those numbers have significantly decreased, according to data obtained by Dr. Serrata. 

“If they don’t matriculate immediately in our region, the likelihood they ever get a credential is 1%. Were probably going to fall below 50%,” Dr. Serrata said. 

During the panel Dr. Serrata continuously reminded the importance of encouraging recent high school graduates to pursue a higher level education and explained the benefits of enrolling in CTE programs.

Based on the last recession, data showed that people who had at least a certificate had a better chance of getting a job. Dr. Serrata said those who graduated from a college or 4-year-university had a better shot at getting a job than those who just graduated high school. 

About 12 million jobs were created from the depths of the recession to pre-pandemic “99% went to people with degrees and certificates, 80,000 went, nationally, to individuals with a high school diploma or less,’’ Dr. Serrata said. 

The implementation of digital tools will accelerate the shift from academic transfer programs to CTE programs to workforce-ready programs, Dr. Serrata contended. 

Nursing and allied health are CTE professions, and they are high wage, high skill jobs that could stay locally, Dr. Serrata stated.

The panelist then discussed unexpected positive outcomes that the quarantine has brought to students, particularly those looking for internships at big tech companies like Microsoft. Childress drew parallels between changing internships and professional jobs at corporations like Microsoft to an online format and the current situation of online learning. 

Additionally, Childress recognized that having to travel to a specific site for an internship is as important as taking classes in person, “but at the same time, as companies need to remain profitable and adapt.’’

Many internships were moved to a remote format throughout the summer, and Childress said the transition to an online format was accomplished with ”some success.”

Adding to Childress’ contend, Dr. Espinoza hoped students and the community overall would “come up stronger,” as he recognized everyone is learning as they go, from students to teachers. 

Dr. Espinoza said the knowledge everyone has obtained from this pandemic could benefit new generations’ future. “From lower grade, kinder, four, five-year-old[s], he is already exposed, she is already exposed. They know how to log on, type in their names.”

To conclude the conversation, the three panelists felt optimistic about the future of education now that students have been exposed to diverse platforms and online learning. 

“There might be an increase in opportunities for the students in the future, just because the cost associated with the programs go down,” Serrata said. 

As more students access the online learning world, the more students can realize it can have benefits, especially for those students who work and study. Students have more flexibility to complete their coursework and organize their tasks now that everything’s online, an academic specialist at Stanford University said.

“For students that we serve, it’s all about the job, and it’s all about using higher education…to go into a living wage career,” Dr. Serrata added.

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