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ILA’s Road Ahead

By Marcie Craig Post
 | May 13, 2020

Important AnnouncementThis column will be appearing in the May/June issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine, set to publish on Friday. Please visit the ILA 2020 Conference site for more information.

We’re living in an unprecedented rate of change with the world at a standstill.

What you knew to be true before you went to bed on Monday is likely to have shifted by the time you woke up on Tuesday—or was it Wednesday? For those of us confined to our homes due to shelter-in-place orders or self-imposed isolation, the days seem to blend into one another. (If it wasn’t for Outlook reminding me of conference calls and Zoom meetings, I’m not sure I’d automatically remember which day it was either. One of those round-robin social media posts asked what movie best describes how you’re feeling right now. My response? Groundhog Day.)

Education as we know it has been upended. School closures that were initially thought to be short term have been extended indefinitely. Some school systems have already taken the action to close through the rest of the school year. As of mid-April, UNESCO was reporting that more than 1.5 billion learners—that’s 91.3% of all enrolled students across 191 countries—have been impacted. Some universities are preparing for the possibility of campuses remaining closed long term and are expecting at minimum a 15% drop in registration for fall 2020.

Long term, there is no way to predict how this global pandemic will impact the way we teach and the way students learn.

Short term, there’s urgency to address some very specific challenges around equity and access. These areas of weakness “exposed” by the coronavirus aren’t novel to educators. In our 2020 What’s Hot in Literacy Report, released in January, we shared that both ranked in the top five most critical issues in literacy education. We also found that the top professional development need of survey respondents was on using digital resources to support literacy instruction.

What is new is the urgency we’re seeing to shore up those weaknesses. And the big question on everyone’s mind is how.

At ILA, we’re focusing on what we can do to meet your needs—not only the ones you have today but also the ones you’ll have in the future during the post-COVID-19 recovery phase. Here are some of the steps we’ve taken so far:

  • We launched the ILA 2019 Replay. For the months of April and May, we are offering open access to six of the top sessions livestreamed from last year’s conference.
  • We held the first ILA Edcamp Online. Registration for the inaugural event, held on April 7, sold out within hours of going live. Look for more of these live, participant-driven events in the future.
  • We accelerated the timeline on our digital events program. This includes interactive webinars with literacy leaders such as Timothy Shanahan (May 3) and Donalyn Miller (May 31). Each are free for members and available to nonmembers for $45.

Sensing a trend?

Streaming recorded sessions and delivering live webinars are standard practices for a professional organization. Adding online peer-to-peer learning and virtual networking opportunities help round out the mix.

And in the coming months, you’ll see more and more organizations either launching or augmenting collections like these. The value of high-quality content that’s accessible with a device and a reliable Wi-Fi connection has never been greater.

But for us, the work doesn’t end there. In fact, it’s only just beginning. Each challenge we’ve encountered has given rise to a new way of thinking about what we do and how we do it.

This magazine, for example. We announced in April the decision to discontinue the print version of Literacy Today. There are several reasons for this, but one of the driving factors is that a number of members receive their subscriptions at their schools or universities—buildings they won’t be entering again for an indeterminate amount of time.

Innovation was another factor. For the past few issues, we’ve been testing features for the digital version, such as adding exclusive online content and embedding links to videos. We asked ourselves what we could do if we weren’t limited by print. How could we increase value to members by shifting our efforts in this other direction? The possibilities excited us.

Around the time we were having discussions, we received word from Wiley, the publishing company that prints and distributes our journals, that they would be shifting to a digital-only format until COVID-related restrictions eased and operations could resume as normal. Although this didn’t directly influence our decision about Literacy Today, it did underscore for us that there were definite advantages to a digital publication that didn’t depend on print presses and postal service.

We applied this kind of thinking to other areas as well, such as our conference, set to take place from October 15–18 in Columbus, OH. From the beginning, when early reports of this devastating virus surfaced, our staff has been in close contact with key officials from the city of Columbus, the Ohio Department of Education, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We have been tracking guidelines and recommendations from the CDC and the World Health Organization. Even though the event wasn’t scheduled until October, we knew from the start we did not want to put on a conference that wasn’t safe for our attendees, exhibitors, and staff.

Safety has been a top concern of ours from the start. On March 1, ILA suspended travel for staff and members of the Board of Directors. Not long after, we went to a 100% remote work environment. We also increased the flexibility of our workday to ease the burden on families impacted by sudden and wholly unexpected closures of schools and childcare facilities.

On March 23, Delaware Governor John Carney issued a shelter-in-home order for the state (where our headquarters is located) to remain in effect until May 15. At the time, it was one of the more conservative measures taken. Carney told reporters, “I don’t want Delaware to be the example of what not to do in this crisis.”

We can say the same for ILA: We do not want to be an example of what not to do. And so in the end, we made the heartbreaking but necessary decision to cancel this year’s conference.

Many organizations facing similar scenarios have opted to relocate their in-person events to virtual platforms or create hybrid conferences with both face-to-face and digital components. We considered those options but ultimately decided to go in a different direction.

At this time, we are working on a new model for professional learning—one that allows us to be incredibly responsive to what is going on in your classrooms, your schools, your communities, and the world at large.

It takes some of the best of what an ILA conference traditionally offers and combines it with new, progressive formats that provide a deep, personalized learning experience. In addition, we’ll be launching new members-only benefits in the coming months, including digital resources informed by responses received from the 2020 What’s Hot in Literacy survey.

Right now, when everything is or feels at least a little new, we at ILA are embracing the opportunity to turn to a blank page. What we were is no longer as important as who we can, should, and will be.

In the eight years since I became the executive director at ILA, I don’t know that I have ever felt so much possibility and promise. I sincerely hope that each and every one of you joins us in forging this new path and, in the process, help us be better in service to you and our profession.

Marcie Craig Post is the executive director of the International Literacy Association.

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