May 9, 2020 - Technology

Rethinking virtual education

Illustration of a computer keyboard in abstract colors and shapes

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The sudden shift to remote learning has exposed cracks in today's digital teaching strategies, as parents and teachers struggle with the challenges of recreating the classroom experience online.

Why it matters: School closures have affected 72% of the world's student population, per UNESCO. With uncertainty clouding the prospects of a full return in the fall, there's a renewed focus on content and techniques that actually work.

What's happening: School districts that moved classrooms online early encountered challenges in trying to replicate a school day on a screen.

  • "Just taking everything we used to do and trying to wedge it into a new virtual reality is not a promising practice, it doesn't work," says Michelle Reid, superintendent of the Northshore School District in the Seattle suburbs, which launched remote learning March 9.
  • The district shifted its focus to critical content on a project-based manner, with both real-time learning and go-at-your-own pace assignments.
  • The sudden shift also meant that teachers used whatever platform they felt most comfortable with. But Reid says the district is contemplating consolidating educational tools so parents with multiple kids don't have to juggle different platforms.

Demand for ed tech services has surged, as has interest in training for teachers to work online.

  • Outschool, a business that offers live online classes for kids, saw a spike in enrollment since mid-March, CEO Amir Nathoo tells Axios, with 3- to 8-year-old kids as the fastest growing segment.
  • Parents are looking to supplement what schools are offering as they try to occupy young children who learn better with hands-on activities. “The way it’s framed and who it’s with are key to engaging young kids,” Nathoo says.
  • Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda said the online platform has seen increased interest in courses for educators that aim to help make online teaching more engaging and effective.

What's next: To prepare for the fall, school districts should vet and limit which products they use, says Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

  • “We’re going to have to have a real conversation about what are acceptable business models for ed tech — because if we don’t have those conversations, the business model is going to be advertising-funded education,” Golin adds.
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