Covid-19 Boosts Remote Learning

After Covid-19 spread throughout the country and shut down schools this past March, school districts quickly embraced remote learning as the only viable alternative for the remainder of the school year. If the ensuing months have taught us anything, it’s that very few school districts in the United States will get through the 2020-21 academic year without some form of online learning. Nevertheless, some educators see virtual instruction as an opportunity for schools to break free from traditional education models that have held children back for decades.

Big picture

Online Education Goes Mainstream

Even prior to the coronavirus outbreak, education technology already experienced widespread growth with the overall market for online education projected to reach $350 billion by 2025. Everything from virtual tutoring, language apps, and online learning software have all surged in demand since Covid-19 shuttered schools. In other words, the coronavirus might only be accelerating changes in education that were inevitable.

Remote Learning Challenges

Nevertheless, the transition to remote learning presents a number of challenges. The initial shift to online instruction this past spring was hampered by minimal training, insufficient bandwith, and very little preparation. Furthermore, many students from disadvantaged backgrounds still lack reliable internet access or the right technology to participate fully in digital learning. For students starting the college selection process, this difficulty is compounded when standardized testing centers suspend in-person testing in lieu of in-home options. Consequently, educators fear that a renewed emphasis on distance learning will only widen the gap between privileged and underprivileged students.

Is Remote Learning More or Less Effective Than In Person?

Early research indicates that online learning may be more effective than the traditional model. Indeed, some studies show that children retain more material with online lessons versus being in a classroom. One of the main advantages is that students can tailor the experience to their own learning style. They can go at their pace and re-read or skip through the lessons as they choose. As a result, online learning often takes less time than classroom instruction.

Effectiveness Varies with Age Groups

The effectiveness of online learning tends to vary among different age group. Younger children, who are more easily distracted, rely more on their senses to learn new things. For this reason, it is crucial for technology to make learning fun in order to be effective. Educators have observed a higher level of engagement among younger students when incorporating games and fun exercises into lessons. For them to benefit from e-learning, it must engage them in a way that goes beyond bringing class lectures into the home.

The Rise of Learning Pods

Because of the uncertainty surrounding school openings this fall, parents are banding together to form learning pods. Essentially, a pod is a learning group created by desperate parents who either aren’t equipped or don't have the time to home school their children.

Parents pool their resources to hire an in-person teacher who can follow their school’s online curriculum and help students get through their lesson plans. For example, a teacher may come to one of the students' homes from Monday through Friday and teach from 9 am to 2 pm. This kind of instruction doesn’t come cheap, however; individual costs to participate in a learning pod can vary from as high as $100 an hour to as low as $100 a day. Of course, it becomes more affordable as more families participate.

Tutoring and Test Prep Centers Lead the Charge

While the pandemic has pushed many businesses to the breaking point, many tutoring and test prep centers have stayed busy by developing professional learning pods. While many school districts have indicated that they will offer some in-person instruction this fall, many parents are looking for tutoring for the days their children would be at home under school districts’ hybrid programs.

After parents form their own learning pod, a tutoring center will help put together a weekly schedule, tailor the curriculum, and give personalized updates and feedback from the pod’s instructor after every session. Parents have the option of choosing from their local school’s curriculum, small-group tutoring, or a home-school curriculum chosen by the learning pod. Naturally, they are responsible for enforcing appropriate social distancing, mask-wearing and state and county guidelines regarding group sizes in order to provide a covid-free learning experience.

A Rocky Start to School Openings

Furthermore, some families are planning to keep their children at home full-time both for health reasons and in anticipation of schools closing down again. Early school openings suggest they may have a point. In Alcoa City Schools in Tennessee, a couple of students tested positive soon after classes began. Moreover, in Gwinnett County, home to Georgia’s largest school district, approximately 260 employees tested positive or were exposed to Covid-19 prior to the start of the school year.

Chicago, for example, wanted to implement a hybrid learning model for this year but has decided to stick with remote learning for all students instead. New York City, on the other hand, still plans to hold in-person classes in the fall while the Los Angeles Unified School District will start with virtual classes. Out of the 101 largest school districts in the country, nearly two-thirds will begin their year online.

Normal Is A Long Way Off

Unfortunately, recent school openings have shown that it is just not possible to reopen safely during the pandemic. As school districts experiment with different approaches, it is becoming more likely that most of them will have to stick with remote learning until they can safely introduce a hybrid schedule later in the school year.

Although remote learning solutions may highlight the inequalities between students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds, school systems face little choice as the coronavirus rages throughout the country. For this reason, virtual classrooms, online lessons and tutoring via learning pods may become the new normal for an educational system that may never return to the traditional model after the threat of Covid-19 dies down.