The COVID-19 Legacy in K12 Education: A Path of Transformation

by Michael MacKay & Vanessa Tran

June 7th, 2020


How do schools use the lessons learned from the crisis to create a culture conducive to change, encouraging educators to develop their skills and competencies by exploring and accepting different technologies and methodologies to their pedagogy?


The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 resulted in the closure of primary and secondary schools in Alberta and across Canada. The Alberta Government mandated that teachers continue their practice online, placing hourly restrictions on the amount of school work based on grade level (see Table 1).

School divisions had to pivot quickly to a distance education model where most schools utilized some form of an online platform as their primary means of communication. Teachers delivered individual lessons by sending paperwork home, utilizing online tools like Google Suites for Education, or an already in place learning management system. Not all, but many schools delivered live classes using video chat technology. This technology allowed schools to communicate with their consultants in a synchronous environment more akin to face-to-face interactions.

Current Situation

The current school year is coming to its conclusion and people are looking ahead to the next academic year. Given the uncertainty of the current situation, it is unclear whether schools will resume their normal capacity. There are three likely scenarios for the 2020 – 2021 academic year:

  • The physical school will remain closed, and all educational services will continue through online-only means.
  • The physical school will partially reopen, limiting the number of students in the building. It is unlikely that extra-curricular activities will be available to students in this scenario.
  • The physical school will reopen entirely, and school activities will resume as normal with minimal or no restrictions.

Key Concerns

Building Support for Change

“We have a strong tendency to reject ideas that fail to fit our preconceptions, labeling those ideas as unworthy of consideration—aberrations, nonsense, irrelevant, weird, or mistaken” (Mezirow, 1997). Despite the profession, educators are not immune to this auto-rejective nature, and in many cases, are some of the worst offenders. There is an embedded belief that if it works for me, why fix it? While this view can have its merits, certainly when viewed in the forms of efficiency and work-life balance, it does stifle innovation and create an environment of change aversion.

Effectively Implementing ICT

“The challenge… …is to veer away from using technology to replace traditional teaching and learning processes, and to move towards technology use to provide the opportunities for personally relevant and meaningful transformation” (Veletsianos, 2011). Too often, technology is used for the sake of using technology; teachers using technology this way believe that its use will improve student understanding with no or little change to their practice. The effectiveness of technology is not determined by the tool, but how effective it is implemented. If an educator uses technology in a didactic, teacher-centered approach, it will have little impact on a student’s acquisition of learning outcomes. The strengths of information and communication technology are that they allow students to experience, express, and collaborate in new ways that would not be possible using traditional approaches.

The Twenty-First Century School

The prominent view of education needs to change from industrial systems of disseminating knowledge to institutions of innovation. Schools are often the front line of innovation. They need to instill and model critical and innovative skillsets to meet the demands of the twenty-first-century citizen and remain relevant in the age of information overabundance. Nevertheless, government leaders and policymakers still only value a school’s contribution to society in terms of efficiency and effectiveness encouraging educational practitioners to adopt this approach.


Return to Normal

If the physical school is open next academic year, there will be a desire to return to normal. What is normal will change depending on the circumstances and individual, but for most, this would mean that they return to work and school, allowing the events of the pandemic to become forgotten. This approach would create the least amount of resistance while students, educators, and parents return to their lives. This option is not recommended for schools wanting to broaden their collective understanding of modern pedagogical practices but would be a viable solution for a recovering community.

“In one way, the crisis has revealed the enormous potential for innovation that is dormant in many education systems” (OECD, 2020, p. 7). There is a need for schools to harness, acclimatize, and apply the pandemic knowledge accumulated to create transformative learning experiences (see Appendix A). The required use of unknown tools and methodologies of instruction forced many educators and students out of their comfort zone. While not all, many teachers and students found that they could navigate the online learning environments they created and managed with proper support. This process emulates the ever-changing needs of the twenty-first-century citizen and how skills and knowledge are acquired at a need to know basis. Transformative learning experiences are often sought after but rarely achieved. Schools looking to apply the pandemic lessons to move towards a more transformative environment would experience the most resistance, and this option is recommended for a cohesive community that is not disinclined to risk-taking.


Schools looking to learn from the lessons of the pandemic and move towards a transformative philosophy need to do the following:

  • Establish a school culture that values risk-taking, participation, a critical mindset, and freedom of expression without the fear of coercion. Without a coercion free environment, collaborative efforts will be met with disdain and suspicion.
  • Establish a digital learning environment that encompasses and encourages the previous values (see Appendix B).
  • Cultivates instructional design that incorporates constructivist philosophies (see Appendix C), but allows student access to content at all times using the digital learning environment.
  • Models transformative learning experiences to staff by developing professional development that is transformative (see Appendix A).
  • Allowing for development time for staff to develop transformative learning experiences that align with the curricula outcomes.

Table 1

Hours of work a week during COVID-19

Note. This table shows the maximum amount of hours of instruction each student should receive each week as mandated by the Alberta Government. Adapted “Student learning during COVID-19” by the Alberta Government. Alberta Government. (2020, June 3). Student learning during COVID-19. Copyright 2020 Government of Alberta. Adapted with permission.

Appendix A

Creating Transformative Learning

The twenty-first-century skillset has moved away from the acquisition of knowledge to its applications and manipulation. The assembly line workforce has been replaced with technology, and workers are required to solve increasingly complex problems autonomously. Mezirow (1997) argued that children need to develop a foundation that allows them to think autonomously by:

(1) Recognize cause-effect relationships, (2) use informal logic in making analogies and generalizations, (3) become aware of and control their own emotions, (4) become empathic of others, (5) use imagination to construct narratives, and (6) think abstractly. Adolescents may learn to (7) think hypothetically, and (8) become critically reflective of what they read, see, and hear. (p. 5)

With this fundamental shift in the skillset of the workforce and an inability to predict the needs of future societies, pedagogical approaches to K – 12 education needs to be transformed to mirror the needs of the community.

Educators have recognized that the world has and is changing and that education needs to change to stay relevant. The constructivist movement has gained traction in educational institutions in recent years, as it allows students to develop the foundational skills needed in the twenty-first-century world. While the definition of constructivism changes depending on one’s perspective, one common thread is that the learner actively engages in the means of learning (Ültanır, 2012).

Transformative learning is deeply seeded in the constructivist movement and is its current apex. According to Wilson et al. (2006, p. 480), a transformative learning experience creates a lasting impression, becomes part of the person’s self-narrative, and has a behavioral impact. Before transformative learning can occur, the learner must be cognisant of their current beliefs and views. Mezirow (1997) discusses the meaning of transformation:

We transform our frames of reference through critical reflection on the assumptions upon which our interpretations, beliefs, and habits of mind or points of view are based. We can become critically reflective of the assumptions we or others make when we learn to solve problems instrumentally or when we are involved in communicative learning. We may be critically reflective of assumptions when reading a book, hearing a point of view, engaging in task-oriented problem solving (objective reframing), or self-reflectively assess-ing our own ideas and beliefs (subjective reframing). (p. 7)

A transformative learning experience is currently not cohesive of the current K – 12 system. Educators need to create an environment where learners “have full information; are free from coercion; have equal opportunity to assume the various roles of discourse; become critically reflective of assumptions; are empathic and open to other perspectives; are willing to listen and to search for common ground” (Mezirow, 1997, p. 10).

Appendix B

Designing Digital Learning Environments

Despite the ubiquitous nature of learning environments, they are often misunderstood and ill-defined (Veletsianos, 2016, p. 242). Digital learning environments allow instructors and administrators to design, facilitate, and develop digital content that allows learners to engage, collaborate, and synthesize their understanding of materials in an asynchronous and sometimes synchronous setting. The idea of a learning management system, such as Moodle, often comes to mind when discussing the digital learning environment’s infrastructure. Simultaneously, a centralized tool can be useful for managing data, but the digital learning environment should rarely be limited to one technology.

The digital learning environment is embedded in the constructivist philosophy because the focus has moved from the individual to the context or environment that the learning and instruction take place (Veletsianos, 2016, p. 242). At times, the learning may seem ill-structured because learners will have more autonomy as they develop and become more independent, yet it is the digital learning environment that enables this type of autonomy. When developing and designing the digital learning environment, the intentional use of tools and means of social interactions are vital and should be constructed around the needs of the stakeholders. Digital learning environments can vary greatly depending on these needs. Valetsianos (2011) suggests the following when designing a course using a digital learning environment:

  • Designing Opportunities for Transformation in Online Learning Contexts
  • Design Opportunities that Allow Engagement Beyond Course Activities
  • Design for Lasting Impression
  • Design for Intrigue, Risk-taking, and Challenge
  • Design for Engagement
  • Design for Reflection

Furthermore, how to implement social forms becomes vital as the digital learning environment enables social interactions outside the classroom and immediate physical vicinity. Anderson and Dron (2014) in Teaching Crowds describe social forms as:

  • Sets are social forms where people may have no knowledge of others in the set but are clustered by commonalities between them. This may lead to strong identification and trust in some cases, but not typically.
  • Groups are social forms where individuals deliberately join others with shared goals and identify with group norms and behaviours.
  • Nets [or Networks] are social forms where the connections between individuals and sometimes clusters of individuals are what bind them together. (p. 82)

A traditional classroom is a hierarchical group because there is a person in a leadership role, the teacher, and a strong sense of structure. Many learning management systems are designed around this established hierarchy and, in many cases, are used effectively, yet this approach limits learner autonomy. Courses or lessons may be better delivered by utilizing a network; for example, students using social media to understand the similarities and differences the COVID-19 pandemic had in different countries.

Instructors and content creators looking to engage learners in the digital space will need to consider the perspectives, prior knowledge, and skillsets the learner has already acquired. Korhonen et al. (2019, p. 760) recommended that instructors follow five stages when developing online learning: (1) set up the system to be welcoming and encouraging, (2) socialize with online learners and establish social and cultural norms, (3)  exchange information by supporting the use of learning materials and sharing tools, (4) construct knowledge by collaborating and facilitating learning processes, and (5) further develop student understanding by supporting learner development. Following this model, the role of the instructor changes as the learner develops their online identity and schema. In the earlier stages, direct instruction could be used to familiarize learners with their new environment. As the learner progresses, the instructor gives them more autonomy by using a constructivist approach.

Appendix C

Understanding the Constructivist Theory

“Constructivism is an epistemology, a learning or meaning-making theory, that offers an explanation of the nature of knowledge and how human beings learn” (Abdal-Haqq, 1998, p. 2). A constructivist believes that learners construct knowledge based on their understanding and beliefs through the interactions they experience. In a school setting, the role of the constructivist teacher would not be to manage knowledge but to help guide and explore with learners while they develop their schema. Emphasis is placed on the process of learning rather than the correct result. Learners are given more autonomy and must be active participants to construct their understanding. To create an environment conducive of a constructivist approach, instructors should focus on (McNeil 1986; Dewey, 1961 and Rovai, 2003 as cited in Ültanır, 2012):

  • Instructional emphasis: Knowledge construction an environment, which supports active and collaborative learning.
  • Classroom activities: Learner centered, Socratic, authentic, individual and group work
  • Instructor roles: Focuses on the student in learning, collaborator, facilitator, encourager, community builder,
  • Student roles: Active, collaborator, constructor of knowledge, self monitoring. (p. 205)

Practitioners new to the constructivist theory can have a binary view of its implementation, attempting to use it as a panacea for best practices. A constructivist approach naturally aligns with the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, such as synthesis, because participants are guided into constructing their knowledge. It requires learners to have a strong understanding of the content and its application or be able to apply an innovative skillset; if a learner does not have this foundation or is unable or unwilling to participate, the constructivist approach will be inadequate. It becomes the instructor’s responsibility to acknowledge and scaffold content to meet the needs of their learners, and this may mean alternative methodologies or theories will need to be applied.


Abdal-Haqq, I. (1998). Constructivism in Teacher Education: Considerations for Those Who Would Link Practice to Theory.

Alberta Government. (2020, June 3). Student learning during COVID-19.

Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2014). Teaching Crowds: Learning and Social Media.

Korhonen, A. M., Ruhalahti, S., & Veermans, M. (2019). The online learning process and scaffolding in student teachers’ personal learning environments. Education and Information Technologies, 24(1), 755–779.

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 1997(74), 5–12.

OECD. (2020). Schooling disrupted, schooling rethought: How the COVID-19 pandemic is changing education.

Ültanır, E. (2012). An Epistemological Glance At the Constructivist Approach: Constructivist Learning in Dewey, Piaget, and Montessori. In International Journal of Instruction (Vol. 5, Issue 2).

Wilson, B. G., Switzer, S. H., Parrish, P., & Balasubramanian, N. (2006). Transformative Learning Experiences: How Do We Get Students Deeply Engaged for Lasting Change? Association for Educational Communications and Technology.

Wilson, B., Parrish, P., & Veletsianos, G. (2008). Raising the Bar for Instructional Outcomes: Toward Transformative Learning Experiences. Educational Technology, 48(3), 39-44.

Veletsianos, G. (2011). Designing Opportunities for Transformation with Emerging Technologies. Educational Technology, 51(2), 41–46.

Veletsianos, G. (2016). Digital Learning Environments. The Wiley Handbook of Learning Technology.

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