The pandemic’s sweeping shutdown of school buildings led many districts to hastily put up emergency virtual learning services to continue providing lessons to students.
For many teachers, students, and families, virtual learning was a negative experience. Some reports have linked virtual learning with declines in academic performance and enrollment.
But for others, virtual education was exactly what they needed to thrive. The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress scores showed that higher-performing students were more likely to have access to laptops or other computing devices, an internet connection, a quiet place to work at home, school supplies, and daily, real-time lessons than lower-performing students.
“We should not confuse emergency response online [learning] with virtual learning that is systematic and coherent,” said Patricia Brantley, the CEO of Friendship Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., during a SXSW EDU session on March 6.
Students and educators at Friendship Public Charter School already had 1-to-1 computing and blended learning before the pandemic, so they were prepared for virtual learning when brick-and-mortar schools shut down, Brantley said.
D’Andre Weaver, the chief digital equity officer for Digital Promise, agreed that the reason virtual learning didn’t go well for many schools was because teachers weren’t properly prepared.
“It felt like we gave the keys to teachers and told them to drive a car they weren’t prepared to drive,” Weaver said. “And if we don’t have prepared teachers, there’s no way students can learn at high levels.”
It’s a shame, according to the panelists, that the emergency remote learning that happened during the pandemic is what most people think of when it comes to online learning.
“Online learning is the solution” to many of the challenges plaguing K-12 schools, Brantley said.
For example, it could help with equity and accessibility, she said. Friendship Public Charter School has a partnership with the District of Columbia’s traditional public schools that allows students who aren’t enrolled in the charter school to attend its virtual classes. This gives DCPS students the opportunity to attend classes that their school doesn’t provide.
A virtual solution to teacher shortages?
Virtual learning could also help with the teacher burnout and teacher shortages schools are experiencing.
Technology has given students the opportunity to have a quality learning experience, anytime, anywhere, Weaver said. Schools need to train teachers to use the technology to let students “learn beyond them,” so that teachers can be facilitators instead of the sole knowledge-holder, he said.
Victoria Van Cleef, executive vice president of learning, impact, and design for TNTP, explained how schools can leverage virtual learning when there are teacher shortages in specialized subject areas.
For example, a school in Indiana has a partnership with Purdue University, where high school students get virtual lessons in economics from a Purdue professor, Van Cleef said. There’s still a teacher in the classroom who facilitates the learning, but the direct instruction comes from the professor.
At the end of the day, Brantley said, the question educators need to answer is: What are you designing for? What works for one school in Washington, D.C., might not work for another school in Indiana. Each school or district needs to think about what works best for their students, families, and communities, she said.
Using virtual learning or other technology tools in the classroom also needs to have a clear purpose and all the tools need to be coherent and aligned with student outcome goals, according to Weaver and Van Cleef.