Responses from Brian Galvin, chief academic officer, Varsity Tutors.
Will more schools embrace distance learning once we’re beyond the pandemic? If so, what will that look like? Will some educational entities move beyond physical classrooms altogether?
While we in ed tech have been thrilled to see students engaging with interactive, personalized content, the other side of the story – and likely the bigger story – is that everyone is realizing just how integral physical schools and teachers are to daily life. We’ve seen the importance of the meals they provide to at-risk students, the way that kids crave the socialization and recreation aspects of the school day, the sheer awe that parents have for teachers having had to walk a few miles in their shoes each day. I don’t think we’ll get to the end of this and be ready to replace physical schools anytime soon; if anything it seems like we’ll have a newfound appreciation for schools and teachers.
What I think will change are a few things: For one, distance learning for supplemental education will boom. Parents are seeing even the youngest kids fully engage in online reading and math programs, fully comfortable with the technology and as a Virtual School Day kindergarten reading teacher put it ‘when they get to talk in front of classmates on a webcam they feel like little celebrities on TV.’ We’ll see online summer and after school programs surge for educational enrichment, not just for remediation. A full day of summer school, for example, is a drag; an hour of reading a few mornings per week, however – with parents not having to drive across town to make it happen – is a recipe for turning summer slide into a summer acceleration.
We’ll also see more and more assignments move online to become personalized and adaptive. When kids receive assignments that adapt to their ability level to keep them challenged but not bored or overwhelmed, homework is more efficient and much less tedious. When programs can remember which skills a student should see again in certain increments — and serve those skills up in small but significant doses – short-term memory becomes long-term mastery. Every ed tech company that has its act together is investing in personalized learning, in creating more content to allow for more adaptivity — when we get through this period we’ll find that much like World War II left us with a surplus of manufacturing capacity, COVID-19 will have left us with lots of personalized learning capacity for schools to tap into.
And we’ll see affordable, small-group personalized learning boom, too. At Varsity Tutors we’re watching classroom teachers flock to online teaching to fill their days and bolster their bank accounts — and they love it. And we’re seeing parents grateful for free online classes and adaptive lesson plans, but craving some personalized attention on particular learning objectives.
One response we’ve had to that is to create a small-group tutoring program, where parents can split the cost of one-on-one tutoring with other families to create really affordable small group sessions. And we’re working to help parents identify other families with learners looking for the same instruction at the same level so that we can not only pass along the savings, but organize meaningful, personalized instruction. That’s tough to do without a large pool of families each seeking out particular assistance so that there are matches — and great instructors — for each. But COVID-19 has created that critical mass, and what we’re seeing is that as people see the benefit, they’re eager to continue it through summer vacation, into the next school year, and beyond.
Schools — not to mention teachers — has so many benefits to our way of life that they’re not in danger of being wholesale replaced anytime soon. This era will certainly steer schools toward more and better technology usage in classrooms and for assignments, but when that first bell rings after quarantines are lifted, most students and parents will be thrilled to get back to normalcy.
What we’ll likely see, however, is a lot of schools develop distance learning plans for things like snow days or elective classes — if a school can’t afford to offer as many Advanced Placement classes as students might like, for example, distance learning has proven to be a viable way of aggregating a handful of students from each of a dozen or more schools and offering that class where it might not have been a possibility before. Summer school might become more of an option that way, too — much like a college student might knock out a class like organic chemistry at a local community college over the summer to avoid a stressful semester, high schoolers may add to their transcript with one class each summer. We’ll see online education supplement the classic school routine, and add a lot of benefits to students who can take advantage of more options and modalities. But that bell is going to ring to start the 2020-21 school year and people are going to rejoice.
In essence, what is the future of classroom-based learning and the technology that plays a role in providing instruction?
There’s no doubt that 1) the world is having educational technology forced on it right now and 2) the vast majority of people are going to really like it, or at least really like certain portions of it. So this era will leave a legacy, to be sure. But while we’ve been talking about the flipped classroom and the completely online high school for years now, the research shows that the standard school experience is still more effective in most cases and we’re also seeing the societal benefits of in-person schools, too. So for the near and medium term, we’ll see technology enhance and supplement the traditional school experience – but not replace it. Technology offers immense opportunities for personalization – whether adaptive assignments, small groups focused on similar ability bands, or diverse offerings to fit interests and abilities – and we’ll see school districts avail some of that potential and lots of parents tap into the supplemental education aspect of it, as well.