Virtual Learning Woes

For those of us on the East Coast schools abruptly closed in mid-March and remained closed for the remainder of the year. Basically overnight, school districts were thrust into developing virtual distance learning plans, addressing tech and online access inequality, all while figuring out how to keep children engaged and progressing without in-person instruction.

How did virtual learning go? The Wall Street Journal on July 28th declared, “The Results Are in for Remote Learning: It Didn’t Work.” The WSJ goes on to explore how the challenges in student motivation, unimaginative teacher engagement and inconsistent access to technology resulted in the “COVID slide,” the erosion of student advancement once stay-at-home orders were put in place. So, where do we go from here?

Across the country, local government, educators and parents are discussing the path back to in-person education. As Dan Rather put it on Twitter, “…there’s no debate about whether people WANT schools to open. EVERYONE wants schools to open. The question is whether it’s safe.” And with most school districts nationwide implementing some amount of virtual learning, it’s clear that not everyone feels it’s safe to go back into a school building. Eight of ten parents surveyed by ENGINE’s ongoing Pulse of the Consumer research say that at least some virtual learning should be implemented to start the school year, with just under half (47%) reporting that school should be all virtual to start the year.

Much of the conversation in the press has been around how to open schools safely, rather than how to optimize the virtual learning environment. Based on these results, schools should be focusing resources on how best to meet the needs of students at home. Where should they concentrate these efforts? Parents’ concerns point to where these efforts should focus.

What concerns do parents have around virtual school?

The biggest concern is the lack of social interaction. As a parent myself, I agree with the 52% of parents who are concerned that the lack of social interaction will have a negative impact on social and emotional development. With little work and creative thinking there are ways that schools and teachers can facilitate social interaction online. One of my son’s teachers, for example, reserved her Friday Google Hangouts to focus on social interaction, engaging the kids in topics they’re interested in, like Minecraft and Pokemon, to spark conversation among the students. This may not be optimal, though it was certainly effective (these were the only classes I could hear, from my basement office, my 6th grader from his room upstairs). My son engaged in peer conversation, healthy social interaction where an adult could call out negative behavior and often spurred peer interaction outside of “class” in 1:1 or group chats with friends to continue the conversation.

Parents are also concerned about the lack of motivation from students and 1:1 attention from teachers. Here too there are strategies and tactics some schools have used successfully, which could be leveraged more widely. The New York Times reported that two of the most authoritative studies to date on virtual learning found that, “students tend to learn less efficiently than usual in online courses, as a rule, and depending on the course. But if they have a facilitator or mentor on hand, someone to help with the technology and focus their attention — an approach sometimes called blended learning — they perform about as well in many virtual classes, and sometimes better. The article goes on to provide examples, not only of more traditional blended learning with some in-person component, but also virtual-only strategies such as having a set schedule for the day, establishing virtual office hours, proactive teacher contact when student engagement slips and leveraging a learning coach to help teachers adjust. Many of these strategies won’t require more money, though maybe more planning and effort to effectively implement them.

The absence of physical activity is another top concern. And while 44% of parents are concerned about the lack of gym class or organized sports, only 34% agree that organized sports should resume in the fall. With all this concern, parents and schools can work together to develop at home programs to ensure that children get the benefit of physical activity while socially apart. Creating games and challenges, perhaps borrowing from some social media influences (e.g., TikTok-esque dance challenges) could help keep students engaged in the activity and with their peers.

Opening schools over the next few weeks is going to be tricky. You just need to look at what’s happened in manufacturing plants that have opened or the recent positive COVID-19 tests of 16 Florida Marlins players plus 2 coaches to see that having people in close contact indoors will likely spread the disease. As we saw in March in the Northeast, closing schools halts the spread of disease, though also causes major disruptions to families and student progress. Planning for virtual classes, and devoting significant resources, plus a little creativity, will help ensure that the experience has the results parents seek.

I, like many of us, do not anticipate virtual learning will be permanent, though some form of it may be necessary until a vaccine is available. When forced with the decision of whether to send children into school or risk contracting COVID-19, 85% of parents are concerned that their children will get sick and bring the disease back into the home. If Americans want our children to stay on track, we will need enhanced virtual learning now.

Written by David Albert, Managing Director at ENGINE Insights.