The Covid-19 pandemic brought sudden and near total disruption to the K–12 system. Almost every single school in the country had to figure out how to serve students at home. Few succeeded.
Many school systems have announced they will start this school year online, but it’s clear that educating kids at home is going to be with us at scale for a prolonged period. A recent Washington Post poll showed that 44 percent of parents want a mix of virtual and in-person instruction this school year, while 39 percent want all-virtual instruction. It’s not really an option: School districts simply must be able to deliver a quality online academic experience to their families, not just in September, but for months and years thereafter.
The question is how.
We at Pearson, where I’m head of Online and Blended Learning District Partnerships, have some relevant experience. The network of Connections Academy schools that we support has been teaching students online for two decades. As the guy in the insurance commercial says: “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”
The lessons we’ve learned can help school districts as they go down this path. Here are a few of them:
- Traditional classroom-based schooling cannot be replicated online. If the plan is for instruction to be delivered through full-class, teacher-led Zoom-like sessions, either live or recorded for later viewing, get a new plan. It’s not feasible for kids of any age to sit through hour after hour, day after day of Zooming. Quality online school programs include a mix of synchronous and asynchronous experiences, group work and one-on-one time with students.
- A high-quality virtual program requires a digitized curriculum that students work through primarily in “asynchronous” mode. The curriculum has to be rigorous but also entertaining. It mixes activities, videos, and independent offline reading. Few districts have the ability to do this with their existing print-based curricula, which means in the short term they may need to work with a provider that has a digital curriculum aligned to the standards in their state.
- The platform that delivers the digitized curriculum is critical to the quality of the learning and teaching experience. It should have a parent/student dashboard that is intuitive, easy to use, and clearly plots and manages the path through the lessons. The dashboard should make it easy to track all student progress and flag those pupils who have fallen behind. The platform should have formative assessments integrated into the lessons, with analytics for the teachers so they can quickly arrange special help for students with learning gaps. The platform should also allow teachers to customize lessons, and should have a secure internal communication utility that allows students to safely reach out to teachers and other students.
- A high-quality online program integrates the social aspects of school in ways obviously different from, but in some ways better than, face-to-face schooling. There should be a wide variety of student clubs that meet virtually and possibly include students from other schools. There should be regular field trips—masked for now, of course—where students have a chance to meet each other and teachers in person. Events like graduation and even proms can be part of the experience.
- Special education and student counseling services can also be effectively delivered in an online environment. Some services required by an IEP (such as certain types of occupational therapy) do require face-to-face contact, which can often be contracted for with a provider near the family. Others services, such as speech therapy, can be done online. Online schooling can be a godsend for students with ADHD or who are on the Autism spectrum because there are far fewer distractions than being in a classroom of peers.
- Teachers have to learn how to teach online. Their role is different. The pedagogy is different. This requires some dedicated training, but it is a transition that many teachers have made and many more can make. A big lesson we have learned might seem counterintuitive. It's not about the tech; it’s about the relationships enabled by the tech—the ability to tailor learning for each child, to engage with students one on one, and to engage the family in a more personal way. Online teachers often say they know their students better in the online classroom than when they taught in a traditional classroom.
Online schooling can be a rich experience, both academically and socially. It’s not optimal for every family, of course. But Covid-19 has made it absolutely necessary for every district to teach some kids online all of the time, and probably made it necessary to teach all kids online some of the time.
The good news is online learning can be much better than the “emergency distance learning” parents and teachers experienced this spring. Schools and districts looking for partners in making this happen successfully can look in many directions. We at Pearson are happy to help.