Some Worrisome Results and Exciting Possibilities – For Adults and Children
A Framework to Consider Remote Learning
We now have 9 months of experience with remote learning in schools. We have seen it from elementary to collage. By “we” I mean the world. Americans are examining what we are finding out, but so too are others.
The Dutch are an interesting case in point. This is a small, wealthy country. They early on ensured the technology infrastructure was in place. Authorities made sure that students had the equipment they needed. The Dutch had a pretty well performing student population going into all this. What they found is informative.
This is of interest beyond schools and students. Remote learning has real world implications right now for adults, businesses, communities. Learning has important knowledge, community, and mental/emotional health implications. We need to get this right.
What Are We Finding Out About How Remote Learning is Going?
Well, in a nutshell, it’s doing pretty terribly. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the results are not very good. This is the case almost everywhere (including in that ideal near ideal Dutch setting). What is going on here?
Let’s look at the easy problems to define first. A lot of communities do not have broad band access; some do not even have dial in access. Many students do not have computers or internet access in their homes. I have spoken with people who travel long distances to a library or workplace to get connections.
We are making good progress on this, with innovative public and private contributions. But we are not anywhere close to the goal yet. This whole solution set needs to be a priority for the new Biden administration.
There are Deeper Issues to Address
The evidence is substantial that younger children are not doing well with all this. In addition to the lost social interaction, it appears that learning is not going well. Children get distracted and bored. They feel isolated. There are real indications of a number of children facing depression.
On a practical level, it appears that learning is not happening on a consistent basis. Absorption of information appears low, thought processes of analysis and application are lacking.
Right or Wrong in Closing Schools?
As this pandemic began spreading, it seemed only a basic precaution to close schools. This was a setting of a large number of people close together for hours at a time. Even with the aforementioned setbacks, caution made closing the schools the right choice. But as time has passed, there are distinctions to note.
This is not an easy discussion to have. Why? Because a lot of people who called for schools to be open are the same ones who thought nothing should have closed. They think masks should be a personal choice. They wanted everything open for all the wrong reasons. But on this one issue they may have, quite by accident, a point.
What Has Changed?
We now have enough reliable data to understand that there are important distinctions. There are significant outcome and risks differences for elementary vs. older children.
The infection rate for children attending elementary school is miniscule, around .19%. Equally important, the adults around them are at about the same level, coming in at about .25%. Given the problems in learning, it is difficult to make the case for closing elementary schools. New York City just did so, because the city has a greater than 3% infection rate, even though the schools have a lower rate.
Older children are a different story. Mostly because of after class socialization, their infection rates are compatible to adults. They are also more subject to super spreader event examples.
Europe is facing a resurging virus too. But they are generally taking a different approach. Restrictions and closures for commercial and social gatherings are back in force. But schools are the last to be closed. So far, it seems to be working.
Any Other Options?
For the short term, no. We either close schools or we don’t. The case seems to be made to not close elementary schools. Put in place good safety protocols, and track the results. The opportunity to improve learning, socialization, and give parents relief makes the risk worthwhile.
But for the long term, yes – we do have options. Here are three worth trying:
- Access: Meet the commitment to ensure every every home has broad band access. Ensure children have the computers they need. Distance learning is here to stay. Let’s equip ourselves for it. This is a burning national priority, right now.
- Improvements: Let’s improve the current system. Are teachers and their aides able to watch each child on the screen to look for signs of disengagement? Can the children expect to be called upon often and unpredictably? Are there small but helpful suggestions about the setting for the student and what is seen on screen?For example, many of us have learned that the Gallery View in Zoom lets you see a large number of people on screen. That gives you good control as a teacher, but as a student, makes everyone look small and remote. Changing to Speaker View fills your screen with one person. This provides something like eye-to-eye contact. Small touches can make a difference. Teachers and others need instruction in such things.
- Technology: Unleash the technology. There are artificial and augmented reality systems on the market today that could be game changers. With a not too expensive headset and the right software, the student could find herself “sitting in a classroom.” Her classmates would be in the normal places. They could walk around, see each other, talk to each other. Think what this would do to ease the remote learning shortfalls.
One More Reason This Deserves Resolution
The importance of remote learning will not go away once the pandemic is in hand. Other crises will arise. We will always have people living in remote areas that could benefit enormously from quality remote learning. And surely the spinoffs will be innumerable all across society.
The technology is so promising. Shame on us if we fail to tap into it fully. Challenge industry, government, and educators to step up. The children have every right to expect we will do right by them.
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