Aug 8, 2020 - Economy & Business

The silver linings of online school

Illustration of computer keys spelling out "A+"
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Online learning can be frustrating for students, teachers and parents, but some methods are working.

The big picture: Just as companies are using this era of telework to try new things, some principals, teachers and education startups are treating remote learning as a period of experimentation, too.

  • Some of these creative fixes for kids might even stick around after the pandemic is over.

"I don’t think people have even had the opportunity to think about what could be good about this," says Lee Ferguson, a high school science teacher in Allen, Texas. "This gives us the opportunity to innovate and to do new things."

1. Teachers are taking advantage of the deconstructed school day's flexibility.

  • Jori Krulder, a high school teacher in Paradise, Calif., found time to do regular one-on-one conferencing with her students because of the looser schedule in the spring. She plans to continue through the fall.
  • Other teachers are recording lessons for students to watch on their own time and using their video calls with kids solely for personalized instruction.
  • “The important part is to make sure that every kid is acknowledged and that every kid has time with me,” Krulder says.

2. The forced switch to remote learning is shaking up teaching and learning for the first time in decades.

  • “Now that we don’t have a captive audience in front of us, engagement — or lack thereof — becomes a lot more obvious,” says Krulder. “Kids can easily multitask or not show up.”
  • That’s prompting teachers to think outside of the traditional lecture method. “We’ve already been doing that, but I think this’ll just accelerate it,” she says.
  • Some are even thinking beyond letter grades. Many schools did away with grades amid the chaos in the spring, and now those qualitative methods of evaluating students might carry over into the post-pandemic world, teachers say.
  • And this stint of remote learning could also prepare students for the future of work. Online school "gives us the opportunity to teach students to be better digital citizens," Ferguson says.

3. Pandemic-era remote learning has also spurred innovation and made way for new types of companies.

  • SitterStream, a Boston-based startup that launched at the beginning of the pandemic, is an Uber for child care. It offers on-demand virtual babysitting and tutoring to kids, both individually and in small pods.
    • Founder Stephanie Africk is betting that her company will be popular even after the pandemic ends. "We know this is the way the future is going," she says.
    • Amazon is offering SitterStream as a workplace benefit for its employees with kids.
  • Transportant, a Kansas startup, has been working with school districts in San Antonio, western Kansas, northern Wisconsin and beyond to try to solve some of remote learning's inequities.
    • The company, which outfits buses with WiFi, had to pivot when the pandemic halted travel. So it started working with school districts to turn its buses into rolling WiFi hotspots that service students without access to the internet.
    • One bus can provide high-speed internet to an entire street or apartment building, founder John Styers tells Axios.

The bottom line: While many students and parents are eager for schools to fully open again, some of the lessons from online school might make American education a little better.

  • Says Ferguson: "As much as online learning takes away the proximity to our students, it can create community in ways that we hadn’t even thought of before."
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