What if you can’t go to school?

This article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, Bay Area Schools Reconsider Swine Flu Closures,  is a good example of the importance of developing a resilient public learning system.

“Federal health officials are considering whether to stop recommending closure of schools where students test positive for swine flu, a move that could unburden parents from Brentwood to San Jose who are scrambling to provide last-minute child care.”

The article describes the burden placed on families to provide care for their kids while their parents work and schools remain closed for as much as two weeks.  Some parents think the decision is appropriate, while others think it is an over reaction.  Parents with strong social networks (as the family pictured in the article) were able to develop “cooperative” child care arrangements, a sort of rotating play date to cover the days while school is closed and parents work.  Those parents without such a social network have had to cope themselves (like the single mom described in the article).

As a working mother, I recognize the child care concern expressed in the article, but this is about much more than flexible child care.  What happens if our kids can’t go to their school for long periods at a time?  How do we flexibly provide consistency and quality in kids’ learning experiences as we respond to a variety of system shocks  (pandemics, climate change, extreme weather, energy shortages, etc) that we are likely to face in the future? What happens when we concentrate the learning experience to one mode or format – in this case a bricks and mortar school?

What is exciting is that we have an emerging set of digital media tools & applications (from mobile phones to Twitter to wikis) and new collaborative and cooperative social forms (like smart mobs, swarms, MeetUps, avatars and gaming guilds) that can help us create flexible ways to organize and coordinate learning experiences. How can these tools and social forms help us reconfigure and reorganize learning in response to big disruptions?  How can parents and educators develop and leverage a “smart education grid” comprised of distributed resources (digital, human, curricular) and diverse modes of learning?

What if instead of the progressive childcare described in the article:

“Today, Jack Macy has to go back to his job coordinating recycling programs for the city of San Francisco, so the girls are headed for classmate Kiki Valenzuela’s house. A babysitter has been hired for the Wednesday shift, then it’s on to Caroline’s house, and, on Friday, Rachel Aronson’s house.”

the giggly second graders got to continue with their reading and writing through a neighbor to neighbor literacy volunteer program that got alerted through Twitter when the school closures were decided, or worked on their math puzzles posted their work on the math class wiki for their teacher to review and comment on, and then discussed it on the phone, or a webconference, (like Elluminate).  There are many options to think about for reorgnizing learning in a more bottom up way, and I think we will see it coming from creative parents, classrooms, and educators who want more than a “school is open or closed” world.

We need to move from thinking about email and cell phones as a way to arrange on the fly play dates and coordinate summer camp schedules, to thinking about how we can use the full range of mobile, participatory, and collaborative media to create a new resilient public learning infrastructure.

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