By Carl Kurlander, senior lecturer, University of Pittsburgh and founding producer, The Pittsburgh Lens Center for Creativity

This article, which has been picked up by 28 publications since appearing in The Conversation last week, is based on the work of Remake Learning here in Pittsburgh, says the author. “Gregg Behr reminded us how Fred Rogers used the new technology of his day — television — to reach young people and challenged all of us — educators, parents, technologists, media producers, and others — to think how we could use the new technology of our day to change the way we educate a generation of digital natives.”

Many of the nation’s 57 million K-12 students will spend at least part of the 2020-2021 school year either dealing with distance learning or a hybrid model that keeps them out of classrooms several days a week. They’ll spend lots of time using teleconferencing software, with teachers either convening classes live or pre-recording lessons.

Getting children to excel won’t be easy. Zoom and similar programs can be challenging for teachers and boring for “digital natives” accustomed to watching more entertaining stuff on their devices.

Based on my experience both as a writer and a producer of films and TV shows in Hollywood and a lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh — where WQED, the nation’s first educational television station got started — I recommend four creative ways to overcome this problem. While challenging, this disruption in education can be a unique opportunity for innovation.

The made-for-TV French class produced by WQED was an early attempt at accessible distance learning.

1. Tap star power

What if the producers, directors and writers who are skilled at explaining ideas visually over digital platforms — many of whom are currently sidelined because of the coronavirus pandemic — teamed up with teachers to make education more entertaining and engaging?

Having worked in both worlds, I can attest to how some TV and movie producers have no idea what a curriculum is, while even the best teachers and professors struggle to engage their own students with distance learning. But imagine a ground-up collaborative process, where educators who know the material they need to convey partner with the best storytellers who know how to get information across in the most compelling way?

Admittedly, it’s unclear where the funding might come from. But a burst of collaboration between educators, entertainment professionals and perhaps parents and students could create high-quality educational programs that could be accessed everywhere. The resulting online lessons could assist hundreds of thousands of educators and reach millions of students. Imagine the potential, especially if one or more networks or studios took part.

There have been some notable experiments along these lines such as Khan Academy enlisting basketball star LeBron James to illustrate probability. But what’s needed with the swift pivot to online education is a wide-scale collaboration to give teachers and students engaging educational materials.

Why not have comedian Dave Chappelle explain the theory of human computation developed by Luis von Ahn, the Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor who co-founded the Duolingo foreign language learning app? Or how about a physics class with Billie Eilish singing a Schoolhouse Rock!-style song about Einstein’s theory of relativity?

Khan Academy enlisted LeBron James for a lesson about probability.

2. Unleash student creativity

The advertising company J. Walter Thompson and Snapchat together issued a report in 2019 called Into Z Future. It documented how the digitally adept generation born approximately between 1995 and 2012 is the most creative the world has ever seen.

Because I see the same kind of promise in today’s young people, I believe that schools should help unleash their creativity and encourage them to become active participants in making and sharing media as part of their learning experience.

I witnessed just how much students are capable of while producing a film about the development of the polio vaccine, “A Shot To Save The World.” It features an interview with the philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, talking about that important scientific breakthrough and today’s efforts to combat infectious diseases.

The film aired on the Smithsonian Channel and the BBC. We also used it as a prompt for a viral video competition called Take A Shot At Changing The World.

Students from middle and high schools across Western Pennsylvania were challenged to make their own short films about the development of vaccines. The winners and their schools got cash prizes and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website featured their videos. In visually explaining how vaccines work, eighth-graders suddenly learned a lot about in virology and immunology.