There’s a slew of disruptive technologies from videoconferencing to online delivery that benefited from the COVID-19 Crisis, but the largest failure thus far is clearly virtual K-12 schooling. Here’s some major reasons why teaching tens of millions of students from kindergarten through 12th grade using remote learning did not work based on our conversations with teachers and recent research (links at the end):
#1: Access: Not all kids have access to computers or the internet at home. Projects that require hands on learning such as science experiments also prove tough online as not all students own or can buy the necessary materials.
#2: Participation: Not all students engage in online learning fully or at all despite teachers’ attempts to reach out to the kids and their parents. Many teens also figured out a way to log in but then walk away by turning the video functionality off. The teachers we reached out to said some students were afraid to ask questions in an online forum in front of peers. They also largely lacked the ability to see who is absorbing the information and who is struggling.
#3: Quality: Even with students completing the work assigned at home, not all produced the quality of work they could have with the structure of a classroom. Additionally, not all students had parents who could help, especially those who had to handle both child-care and working all day. One English teacher we spoke to said the breakout chat rooms for small group discussions worked okay, but she couldn’t monitor them all at once. It was also more difficult to work with her +100 students in private writing sessions via video because it is too time consuming, whereas she could usually work them into class schedules.
#4: Lack of privacy: Some teachers reported that kids lack the privacy of learning without siblings or parents listening in. Many students also preferred to leave video off because they felt awkward or uncomfortable, sometimes because of their home environments. It was also frustrating and distracting for students who were interrupted by members of their families.
#5: Grading: The teachers we spoke to said it was difficult to grade due to rampant cheating. They also did not want to hurt students for missed work or projects who did not have access to the internet, computer, certain materials or help from parents.
Miscellaneous, but important: The teachers we reached out to – particularly those of high school students – noted that kids get into fights and bully each other on the chat function. They unfortunately lacked the disciplinary power they typically have in the classroom.
So how are American schools responding given these failures? Addressing these problems will not be easy, because administrators and teachers are trying to prepare for either online only, a mix of in-person and online learning, or only in-person classes this fall. Here’s some of the adjustments they’re considering:
- Districts focused on online-only are using this summer to adapt their curriculum and train teachers on how to properly use the technology that enables remote learning. One simple example in the NYT showed how a teacher eventually realized shooting instructional videos directly onto the teaching site as opposed to uploading them made her sound much clearer and audible for students to understand.
Districts are also working on purchasing kids the technology they need to take school online; those that can’t afford it are trying to receive funding from the government for this purpose. Otherwise, some districts printed work packets out for students without internet, while others put buses with Wi-Fi in parking lots for students to connect in their parents’ cars according to the WSJ.
- Schools opting for a mix of online-schooling and in-person classes are exploring rotating kids to the classroom on different days. This way, they can divide classes so half of students are in school on certain days while the other half are remote learning. This strategy could enable students to better socially distance, but still receive in-person teaching at least a couple of days a week to supplement online learning.
Other districts are also considering allowing the youngest students who need supervision to attend school, while having older students virtually learn at home. This strategy could enable the students who need direction in school the most receive it, and also eases the burden on parents.
- Teachers will have to evaluate the proficiency of students after exiting school a few months early. Should kids start a new grade or go back to the curriculum they left off at in March? One way districts are getting ahead of this is by offering remote summer school to try to give students more time to catch back up before the fall.
Bottom line: virtual schooling should have worked given that it follows Clayton Christensen’s classic “Innovator’s Dilemma” paradigm by leveraging technology to address a low-end market more efficiently. In the case of remote learning, it targets primary and secondary education by taking advantage of technology through online platforms. The problem: it did not work at scale because it failed to meet the needs of its target audience effectively, especially with no time to plan or train once the pandemic hit. Remote learning clearly needs a new paradigm to better address the new normal. On the plus side, districts can use the time they have over the summer to improve upon the methods that did not originally work.