Education Leaders Must Improve Remote Learning. Here’s How

Photo: LawChamps

With the forced transition to online learning, 2020 has been a particularly difficult year for American schools. In particular, shutdowns have affected low-income students with distinct learning losses as educators struggle to keep in contact and engage online. Some more affluent families have withdrawn their children to form “homeschooling pods” but this system isn’t viable long-term. Meanwhile, teachers have rushed to adapt to remote learning with little preparation, expertise, or guidance, leaving some considering leaving the profession.

To make things worse, public schools are facing threats to their funding because of enrollment and attendance drops during the pandemic alongside forecasted declines in property and sales tax revenue. This is fiscally unsustainable.

Ultimately, if schools want to keep students well-served, they need to adapt. Thankfully, experiences from the past months offer insight into how policymakers could facilitate this goal.

First, it’s clear that forming partnerships with organizations that specialize in remote learning and virtual schooling can benefit public schools that would otherwise be left to develop their own remote learning models ‘from scratch’ with last-minute training and preparation. 

For example, Alaska partnered with the publicly-operated Florida Virtual School, which has delivered remote learning since the 1990s. Importantly, this approach offers existing teachers at the school a “buffer” period for improving and developing their own remote education skills. This additional time has proven crucial; many of the nation’s teachers were understandably unprepared for the sudden switch to remote learning; overnight, they had to force-fit instruction and curriculum that they’d developed over a career into an online model.

Second, remote learning can better succeed if it replicates the community-oriented and accessible nature of local schools. In Little Rock, Arkansas, for example, libraries are being converted into “virtual learning centers” with spaces for parents and students to form their own learning pods. If enough municipalities and counties around the nation take the same approach, then it could help stymie the number of kids who fall behind due to family circumstances or transiency. This approach certainly goes further than simply using CARES Act funding to provide families who lack internet access with broadband hotspots.

Third, direct funding could support disadvantaged families with the resources they need to supervise and facilitate their child’s remote learning, or to offset the costs of taking time off work. Idaho recently announced a $50 million plan targeting low-income parents. The program will provide $1,500 per eligible student or a maximum of $3,500 per family in CARES Act funding to cover school-related pandemic expenses. Such grants recognize that families are best equipped to respond to their own unique learning challenges.

Finally, promising innovations lie just over the horizon; schools must be willing to embrace these. For instance, Arizona State University and Dreamscape are developing virtual learning systems for college students that will utilize full-body interactive virtual reality suits. This could eventually be applied to K-12 schools. Thinking smaller than virtual reality suits, even learning about Ancient Egypt from a virtual tour of the pyramids would certainly be a more immersive and engaging experience than a conventional classroom lecture. It would also bring us closer to reducing or eliminating the differences between the in-class and remote learning experience.

Such data-intensive processes will require reliable and powerful communications networks. The federal government can help by fast-tracking the rollout of fifth-generation (5G) wireless communication. At the moment, much of the mid-band spectrum of frequencies that are ideal for 5G development is occupied by the U.S. military. Expediently releasing these frequencies to network providers would better prepare us to make the most of emerging innovations in education technology—even after the pandemic ends.

These reforms hold promise if deployed on a wide scale. They could make all the difference for a potential “lost generation” of American students — a loss our nation simply cannot afford. They also hold the best chance that the American system has of adapting effectively to a rapidly-changing world while remaining resilient to future challenges and responsive to the needs and preferences of students and families.

Satya Marar is a Washington DC-based policy analyst and freelance writer whose writing on education policy has appeared in The Hill, Washington Examiner, The Tennessean, South Florida Sun Sentinel and American Spectator. He is a senior contributor and education policy fellow at Young Voices, and holds a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws with honors from Macquarie University.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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