Online education has been growing in popularity for years, as it generally allows for flexible schedules and has allowed more people to access a high-quality and affordable education, using sites including Khan Academy and edX, and live streaming platforms including Zoom and Google Meet. edX and Khan Academy have a combined reach of over 124 million people (1), providing accurate and easy-to-access curricula over an extensive variety of subjects, including language arts, math, science, and more. However, online schooling has swept the nation in recent months due to school closures as a result of the coronavirus pandemic currently ravaging the US and the world. According to a study conducted at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, when adequately prepared, students who predominantly learn in traditional settings can be just as successful and perform even better academically in a virtual setting. Unfortunately, many schools have poorly executed distance education programs, which has led to a reduced efficacy in learning and a negative experience for students, parents, and educators alike.

Many students have expressed concerns about distance education - for some, it isn’t exactly the democratizer that education needed. Many students do not have access to the technology needed to effectively access distance learning services, disproportionately affecting lower-income and rural students who may not have access to reliable internet connectivity or technology such as computers, tablets and webcams. According to data from Pew Research Center, even after initiatives by the FCC to spread high-speed internet connectivity across the United States, only 63% of rural Americans say they have access to broadband internet (2), and 10 million students didn’t have an adequate device at home (3), as reported by Common Sense Media in 2018. In addition, many of these device manufacturers have seen a significant increase in demand from education and enterprise administrators looking to purchase devices for their students and employees. There has been a 46% increase in demand for Chromebooks and other low cost computing devices compared to 2019. (4) Some devices are even back-ordered, with devices currently available generally being tailored to highly-specialized and/or high-demand workflows, making them significantly more expensive than the general-purpose computer and increasing the difficulty of obtaining a device. This can likely be attributed to lockdowns in China, where many parts and machines are sourced and assembled. (5) Now that those lockdowns are being lifted, production is beginning to ramp up, but it’s unfortunately too late for most districts to obtain devices for the beginning of the school year.

Secondly, many schools rushed to implement distance learning and did not adequately prepare teachers for the unique pedagogical and technological challenges that distance learning presents, resulting in a lower quality of education for all students. According to a survey of educators published by the Phi Delta Kappan, an academic journal oriented toward K-12 teachers, only 49% of teachers felt at least somewhat prepared to deliver instruction remotely. (6) In the same survey, many educators felt they couldn’t keep students accountable due to changes in grading policies and that they didn’t have enough time or resources to teach remotely. This has caused the general population to look negatively upon virtual learning and to believe that face-to-face instruction is better, which is not entirely the case. When done correctly, virtual learning allows for flexibility for both students and educators, 1:1 feedback and assistance when needed, and makes it even easier for educators to differentiate instruction, which means educators are able to tailor instruction to meet individual needs. A lot of these techniques involve using digital tools that would simply be impractical to employ in a physical classroom.

I can personally confirm the positive effects that a good online classroom can have on students. When I was in 6th and 7th grade, I attended a charter school which employed a number of digital tools, including IXL, goFormative, and Google Classroom. These tools had features that made it easy to communicate with instructors, adapted work difficulty based on past work and progress, and made learning genuinely enjoyable, while allowing teachers to focus on the students and provide support. While this was not a fully virtual experience, it does show the impact that these technologies and techniques can have when used adeptly.

However, because of the circumstances under which this transition took place, teachers have been unable to take advantage of the unique opportunities that online schooling presents. Charles Hodges, Professor of Instructional Technology at Georgia Southern University, argues that we should be referring to virtual learning, as it is now known, by the name ‘emergency remote teaching’, (7) or ERT for short, in an effort to maintain online learning’s positive reputation while also accurately describing the position that educators find themselves in.

When implemented correctly, distance learning can have a huge positive impact on students, allowing students to learn and excel in an environment that might be more familiar to them, especially those who wouldn’t be able to access traditional education for one reason or another. But in its current state, distance learning is not optimal for students, parents, or educators.

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