The “New Normal” in Education is Anything But

On March 1st, 2020 only 1.6 million K-12 students had taken any course fully online yet within the weeks that followed that number grew not by a little, but by an astounding 45.3 million learners.  What did we learn from this sudden experiment with massively scaled online learning and what does it mean for the future of primary and secondary education?

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Two decades after the dot com boom, high speed connectivity is often assumed but that was the first flawed assumption of many.  Care to guess what percentage of learners aged 6-18 have home Internet access?  

33% sounds too low in this always-on era.  Maybe 93-98% of school aged children have home Internet access in 2020?  Not quite…

Only 78% of school-aged children have home Internet access with the main household device being – a parent or family member’s smartphone.  Now smartphones are great tools for learning certain short topics, I recently learned to change the oil on my car with a YouTube video, but I wouldn’t recommend them as a primary form of delivering engaging, supportive, learning for an eight year old to fully replace an entire 8am – 3pm school day.  By the way, that also means that 22% of learners did not have home internet access – that’s over 11 million students who were suddenly disconnected from learning, social support and for many a dependable source of food. 

While we’ve all read stories of the takeover of online school sessions via Zoom, Skype, Meet or other videoconferencing solutions another item that is not discussed is bandwidth.  Bandwidth and Internet access are not (yet) utilities so widespread public access, as we noted above, remains a significant hurdle for scaling digital learning.  If you’re reading this with 200Mbps, 400Mbps or even fiber-optic connections of 1Gbps coming to your home as you stream Netflix, listen to a podcast and conduct real-time video calls in HD while continuing to keep up with your email, Slack and other work tasks consider yourself exceptionally fortunate.  More than half the population of the United States has a home Internet connection speed of less than 25Mbps.  Oh, and Skype recommends a 8Mbps connection for group video calls of 7+ people.  With an average K-12 classroom having well more than 7 people, it’s safe to triple that bandwidth requirement and then hope that while millions are working remotely that no one else in the household also needs to use the Internet for any reason.

Oh, but we haven’t addressed the challenges thrust upon the nation’s 3.7 million educators who may have young children at home, older parents to isolate and monitor, and had at most a few days of professional development before teaching fully online.  Teaching is far more than dog-eared textbooks and photocopies of math problems, it’s an artful balance of diagnosing each learner’s needs, matching the available resources and tools to those needs all while maintaining adherence to multiple layers of educational standards that must be taught to the dot point.  How specific are these standards?  Let’s share an example for Grade 8 of a single standard (amongst hundreds) from New Jersey’s 99 pages of math standards:

While it’s true that there are no shortage of learning platforms and technologies that help educators assess students, group them and offer remediation suggestions it’s exceptionally optimistic to believe that every student was armed with a (relatively new) computer, high-speed broadband, food and support at home, and access to teachers, family members or others who could provide social, emotional and educational support.  

As we reflect back on the last four months while summer recess is in full swing and the push is being made on many fronts to return students to schools full-time let’s pause to consider what happens if we end up in a fully online learning environment again?  How many of the 15,000+ school districts across the United States have used this time wisely and have they been able to make the investments to insure better learning outcomes in a fully online world, should that moment come, as they grapple with declines in state funding due to reduced sales tax collections correlated with the declines in economic activity?

We will get there, together, but in order to protect the learning progress of our littlest citizens let’s do what we can to insure that we’re equipping and supporting educators, opening up (extremely affordable) bandwidth to people’s homes, expanding 1-1 device programs for equal access and supporting stressed educators, parents and family members with a range of back-to-school options this year that work for them.  

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The author is the founder and CEO of Junction Education, a learning platform-as-a-service company that enables any content provider to quickly build and deliver personalized online courses to schools, college and universities, and professionals in over 160 countries around the globe.  He also co-led one of four public-private working groups chaired by the US Department of Education and FCC under the Obama Administration to chart a course forward for accelerating the digitization of the nation’s schools aiming to close the ‘digital divide’. 

Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

Masked Years

Masked years

Masks are here, effectively forever. Time to rethink little bits of furniture, retail, 

So, this note: first, something on the maths and science of mask effectiveness. A rumination on life in Taiwan and other parts of Asia. But first, a market for masks?

  1. Masks – health imperative and fashion market

As the pandemic swept toward the USA, masks were a hot commodity. We were urged, at first, to NOT wear them. A peculiar argument, which only made short-term sense – to enable medical front line workers to get them. And made terrible, long-term nonsense, since it encouraged strange thinking and worse actions. I’m not going to ruminate on the actions or motives of people who insist on not wearing them.

But now the shortages are past, I note my local Target has them in nice varieties. Neighbors have them in all types: macho boys and somewhat renegade musicians have bandana-style cloths. Tidy accountants have tidy masks. They’re necessities and they’re personal statements. We dare not leave home without one, so we may as well express our personalities. I’ve at home:

  • Now-banned ones; solid-color but a one-way valve that preferentially lets my breath escape. Ooops.
  • A small set of medical-quality N95s. Acquired a while ago, as forest fires ravaged nearby Northern California. I use these for dangerous trips into hostile territory. Like going to the grocery.
  • A pair of quirky ones: one that renders my face into a cartoon version of a teddy bear’s mouth. I wear those out when the neighbors’ kids are playing.
  • Three that a neighbor made! (She made some for my wife and one, I kid you not, has sequins on it.). I wear these while walking the dog or taking out trash.
  • Some nice, easy-to-wear, white-only, enriched paper masks made by a company for its factory workers. I wore them plus a face mask to go to BLM protests, of course.

And so, my little collection of masks starts to resemble my no-longer-used set of ties, whose colors and styles and prints in their way expressed a tiny element of personality: conformance or edginess; color or drab. Except: masks are really useful and mostly require handwashing and gentle air drying, and some need a little place for the PM2.5 activated charcoal filters.

The contractors working here have sturdy ones with the company logo. A neighbor has a set of Biden 2020 masks. Another, a white woman, has Black Lives Matter masks. Etsy reports it has nearly 6,000 Black Lives Matter masks. Yay!! I think I’ll get the raised fist one!

Okay, then. So there are, what, seven and a half billion people on earth. And they all need masks. Now, some are going to go crazy and have lots. Some will say: these for work, these for social, these for that. The world’s billion or so wealthiest individuals will have 10 or 20 each. And replace them every six months or more frequently. That, friends, is 30 billion masks a year, at $5 or $10 apiece. Just like that, a worldwide market of at least $300 billion a year.

Masks are a much bigger retail market than socks (now that folks work from home a lot more, who wears socks?). No wonder big fashion brands are heading toward this: we need to buy them; they need to sell something – and, frankly, we also need the quality control of someone to assert that the masks are reasonably effective. And the design aesthetics of someone better than me or, probably, you. https://www.forbes.com/sites/sboyd/2020/04/24/5-fashion-brands-pivoting-to-create-masks-for-the-public/#5f05b756648f

  1. Why we wear masks: the science of the effectiveness of wearing masks

COVID is an airborne, respiratory pathogen. The principal vector is from via disease-carrying droplets expelled from the respiratory system of the infected person, via the air, into the respiratory system of the unlucky recipient. Droplets expelled by coughing, sneezing, wheezing, singing, shouting, talking, breathing.

Masks should work, then, right?

Here’s Larry Brilliant, epidemiologist of some noted: “If 80% of people wore a mask 80% of the time, COVID would go away.” Is that really true?

Really. Yes. They’re easy and inexpensive, and the life you save may not be your own. So let’s note the science of how good they (and their wearers) have to be.

The science of how good masks need to be is well understood. The droplets start out (leaving the mouth or nose) in sizes from low tens of microns to low hundreds of microns. They shrink – due to evaporation – but then stay airborne, with smaller droplets staying in the air longer. So the first lesson is: since they’re bigger as they’re exhaled, it’s critical that the infected person has something to block droplets. But, as we all know: there’s a long period during which a person is infected and contagious – but doesn’t have symptoms. And decent cloth is really good at blocking droplets. Masks are pretty good at blocking inhaled droplets as well – but they don’t have to be that good there.

These pictures show the principle: more violent or more prolonged respiratory output is worse, and masks well at preventing transmission.

These ideas give mathematicians enough to get cracking on modelling.  It’s hard work but the basic idea is to answer the question: what level of face mask adoption by the public, associated with what level of face mask efficacy, would be required to reduce the effective reproduction number (R) below 1? And the answer is … indeed, Brilliant is right. If nearly everyone wore reasonably effective masks nearly all the time … COVID goes away.

The graphs attached show modelling (Oxford University group, Stutt et al) that examines effectiveness at quashing transmission of COVID given lots of variables: the effectiveness of the mask – the graphs reading from left to right represent increasing effectiveness; the R(0) of COVID – the blue lines are the higher R(0) estimate; whether the masks are only worn after symptoms are determined (top rank) or all the time (bottom rank); and what percentage of people wear masks – each graph, from nobody to everyone. Each of the eight little graphs shows the effective R (written as R/e) in each case. The goal: R needs to get below 1.0.

OK, what to do?

First – compare the two rows. Wearing masks only after symptoms never does enough to spread contagion for R(0) = 4.0. Never.

Then look at the bottom row, the 3rd column – 75% mask effectiveness. Everyone, or nearly everyone, wearing reasonably effective masks, all the time ( = outside your household) kills the spread of COVID.

The message: Don’t wait for someone to have symptoms. Always wear masks. Limit your exposure to unknown places and people. Always wear masks.

  1. Masks and culture in Taiwan (and Japan, Hong Kong)

Crowded cities, packed trains, high humidity, people eating out all the time. Almost no COVID deaths.

Masks everywhere.

Taiwan, particularly, I know because I lived there and have many friends there. When I lived there, it was a decade after the SARS epidemic of 2002 – 2003. But the reflex was there: masks everywhere. If someone thought they had a cold, perhaps felt a little run down or had a sore throat coming on: wear a mask. Employees at stores where they were in constant contact with the public – convenience stores, like 7-11, banks, train stations, toll takers on the highways: always wore masks. 

And, Taiwan has a decades-old tradition of scooters as a means of inexpensive transit, and a nasty, long history of unconstrained dirty industries. Both meant that the air was sometimes filthy with soots and chemical fumes. You know what works well for these?

Scooters in Taipei: https://totobobo.com/blog/2019/02/totobobo-for-riding-a-scooter-in-taiwan/

And so it was, of course, that I developed a sore throat one particularly cold, damp winter. Off to 7-11. Masks for sale included nice masculine ones in sober colors and cute pink ones for young girls and Hello Kitty masks for dating-age young women. Of course, the would-be-tough young men would wear ones with death’s head skulls, but 7-11 doesn’t stock those.

Taiwan was and is where we all will be. Respiratory diseases are well quelled by wearing masks. They’re inexpensive and they can save lives. Done well, they express your personality. We’re going to have to wear them, either by mandate, or because we are humane enough to not want to be vectors of contagion. Cool. Let’s do it!

Office Or No Office, That Is The Question

Okay, so it is not quite the question asked in Hamlet, but it is really a question that a lot of businesses and workers are asking themselves right now during international lockdowns. If you find yourself asking, “Where will I work?” or “Do we need to pay for an office?” then you are probably thinking about the short term and that makes a lot of financial sense. However, I think this is a much larger question. The question that really needs answering is “What makes us Human?” The answer to that is “people.”

My background study, before I became a mountain man living off in the mountains as a hermit, was around cultural and forensic Anthropology. It was a wonderful area of study for me because it helped answer many of the questions that I had about what makes us Human and why people behave in the ways that they do. What sets us apart from the wild is our organization into societal structures that we have created to ensure our collective survival from the elements and threats.

Being around people is not just an elective thing we do on the weekend with friends in a restaurant, it is a deeply instinctual psychological need from a million years of evolution and myriads of millennia of organizing larger societies. It is such a powerful psychological need that when you are away from other people for long enough periods of time you develop what is commonly referred to as “Cabin Fever.” I experienced this myself as I lived in the mountains for over a year alone with only a stray dog to keep me company. I would drive across mountains, more than an hour away, just to buy a loaf of bread in Walmart to experience the comfort of being around people after months alone.

Photo by Piotr Usewicz on Unsplash

Being isolated and alone can actually contribute to your death as well. Historically, one of the worst punishments that could be handed down upon a bad actor in a village or tribe was to be banished and ostracized from society. That is because you’d not have the safety of a larger group or a stable supplies of sustenance to keep you alive. As we have developed scientific observation and medical study, it has become apparent that isolation away from others causes early death through increased morbidity and mortality rates attributed to loneliness and isolation. Our psychological stresses increase inflammation, stress, cholesterol, and mental illness that lead to early death. Simply put, we have to be around others for our health.

In our modern society, this has carried over into our workplace. We are organized in miniature hierarchical tribes where people join either for pay or for achievement. Our motivating factors are different from person to person, but they largely revolve around being part of a group where we can work towards a common goal and achieve success. It is a need to be part of something larger than ourselves.

We have seen a trend of co-working spaces popping up across the globe from both small and large companies allowing so-called digital nomads, remote workers, and independently-minded entrepreneurs to have an office workplace around others with many amenities they have grown accustomed to that allow them flexibility away from a rigid structure. Why don’t they simply work 100% remotely from home? To answer that, we have to look at motivations that people have for work.

During this crisis, there’s a lot of talk about huge waves of remote-only work or that businesses will simply eliminate physical offices all together. That may work for some workers who prefer to just punch in for their assignments and clock out for personal endeavors, like a lone wolf, but I don’t feel that will be something that the majority of people will feel comfortable with after the novelty of working from home wears off. That is where Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory of Motivation comes into play along with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The two work in concert, but I will briefly address Herzberg.

Photo: Herzberg Two-Factor Theory – 7Pace

For the workforce, jobs are broken down into Hygiene Factors — encompassing things such as income levels and job security — and also Motivation Factors –- encompassing the psychological aspects of the job such as a sense of belonging, doing something meaningful, and being part of a cohesive team –- which coalesce into the overall experience of working for a company or group. Each person has different motivations, like some just wanting prestige of job positioning, but you can’t have one aspect of the Two-Factor requirements without the other. One side will outweigh the other side if it is lacking and the employee will be unhappy. So, you could increase someone’s pay a great amount but if they feel isolated and unhappy then they will end up leaving to find another more enjoyable work experience. These are components of management that are taught to managers and in business school as necessary to the health of a company.

When you remove people from the workplace, where they are not feeling like an active and valuable member of the organization, they will end up leaving. This is often overlooked in the short-term discussion about working from home and decentralizing. This is one of the most important factors into why I feel that work-from-home will not be sustainable across the board for companies. There may be some sections of the workforce, based on personality type, who will opt-in to work remotely fulltime, but I do not see it being rolled out across entire industries or even large companies.

Photo by Levi Guzman on Unsplash

After these rolling lockdowns begin to end, I think that people will be starved to be around their coworkers and friends that they won’t be thinking about staying at home anymore. That will be their last desire. Who knows, WeWork may even pick back up and be host to many new and returning “nomads” to gain some semblance of normalcy back where they can have a visceral sense of security and comfort around others happy to be back in the office.

We spend a large portion of our lives at work. We are driven to be there for a purpose and people around us believing-in and striving for the same goals is an empowering feeling. We need it. We also make a lot of our friends through work and some even find their spouses in the workplace. The office is more personal than it may seem on the surface. It’s the people that make it worth it. And it’s the people that we will go back to.

Why? Because we are Human. We need each other.

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash