COVID-19 & the Future of Remote Learning

The education world will undoubtedly learn a lot from the coronavirus experience, so expect online education to evolve as well. We’re witnessing a newfound appreciation for all of the things we take for granted about schools—they provide childcare, socialization, meals, extracurricular activities. Schools do so much more than just educate and we’re seeing parents, teachers, and administrators really come face to face with all of those other benefits.  

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While I don’t think there will be a mad race to replace brick-and-mortar schools when this is done and think most people will be really happy to see them return, I do think we will likely see more integration of technology into the traditional school experience. If your school doesn’t have the funding or demand to offer more AP classes? You can take them online. Does a student have a specific need when it comes to reading? We now know that it works to put together small, specialized groups online so that across multiple schools or districts we can form groups that fit those exact needs. 

The lessons from this period could make learning more personalized and expose students to more options within the flow of a traditional school day. One other big lesson we’ve learned is how much of a strain it is on parents to facilitate online learning from home for entire days or weeks.  Schools are all at various stages in the life cycle of being remote-ready. That was a challenge for us in launching Virtual School Day, trying to determine where we could help best whether through “office hours” to assist students with lessons and homework they were already getting through school, enrichment-type classes to help fill the day with extracurriculars while core content was delivered through the school system, or core curriculum classes to fill the void left by schools that weren’t yet equipped to deliver remote learning. 

One thing that’s been really impressive is how innovative teachers are, themselves. So many teachers had websites ready to go to keep parents updated, allow for the distribution and collection of assignments, and stay in regular contact. 

The college experience is a whole other can of worms and one that has been due for a major shakeup for some time now. Tuition is rising, the typical bachelor’s degree doesn’t have the same value as it did in the past, class sizes are massive and yet students often cannot get into the classes needed to graduate on time. And don’t discount the fact that we have an entire graduating class, carrying a fortune in student loan debt, coming out into the toughest hiring market since arguably the Great Depression. That combination of a semester’s worth of online classes filling the void and a really diminished ROI on most degrees will accelerate what has been due: top universities really leveraging their brand by offering certificate programs in an online format, innovative colleges driving down costs by making more coursework scalable online, and those that aren’t able to adapt seeing their value proposition look worse and worse over time.

So, can remote learning work? Absolutely. Since schools began to close, we’re already noticing kids love the quick-comment nature of typewritten chat, so that they don’t have to be “on stage” as the sole speaker in the room when asking or answering a question. They’re working through adaptive assignments based on diagnostic quizzes. And, they’re making new friends across the country. Remote learning at its best is highly personalized, highly interactive, and, consequently, highly effective.  

But I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit that we have a huge tailwind: right now, classes are optional so it’s the most motivated, naturally curious students who are joining the most classes and submitting the most assignments. For highly motivated students, remote learning works extremely well. And online learning really does, also, have the ability to help motivate other learners because it can be so easily personalized, more learners get to feel that schools challenges but doesn’t overwhelm them and involves them without the same level of pressure of being on stage in front of potentially judgmental classmates. But that also doesn’t mean it’s a panacea. We all remember that teacher whose side-eye glance could snap a student back in line, or whose friendly hallway greeting could help a student realize that he’s valued and that someone believes in his potential. Online learning has lots of advantages that we’re discovering and accelerating right now, but in-person learning has some very hard-to-replace aspects, too. Ultimately, a system where the two work hand in hand will benefit the most students. 

Brian Galvin is the Chief Academic Officer for Varsity Tutors. A lifelong educator with a Master's in Education, Brian's been teaching and developing online classes since 2009. He most recently helped design Virtual School Day, a free remote learning program that includes live, online classes to help students during coronavirus school cancellations.    

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