May 5, 2021 - Economy

How the pandemic could personalize education

Illustration of four different colored apples on different backgrounds

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The pandemic has shaken up the present and the future of education, and one result could be a greater focus on personalized learning.

Why it matters: Education has long been a slow-to-change industry, but the forced introduction of remote learning and the movement of some families out of public schools could lead to a technology-forward approach that is more tailored to individual students — and risks leaving the less advantaged behind.

By the numbers: Data from Burbio's School Opening Tracker indicates that as of May 3, just 3.3% of K-12 students in the U.S. are still attending virtual-only school, compared to more than 60% at the start of the 2020-21 school year.

  • Still, nearly a third of K-12 students are attending hybrid classes that mix virtual and in-person learning, and Burbio notes the percentage of students opting out of in-person education remains over 50% in most cities.
  • A recent poll from Politico and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found 29% of parents want their child to be in remote or hybrid school for the next year, while a RAND Corp. survey from last fall — entitled "Remote Learning Is Here to Stay" — found 1 in 5 school districts were planning or at least considering a post-pandemic remote option.

What's happening: Lingering — if somewhat scientifically overstated — fears of the virus are behind some of that preference for remote, but some parents report their children have thrived with online schools.

  • "There is a minority of parents, a minority of students and even a minority of teachers for whom virtual schooling is the preferred mode," Heather Schwartz, a senior policy researcher at RAND and the director of the study, told the New York Times.

What's next: While the forced march to remote education during the pandemic left both parents and schools unprepared, new tools offer the possibility of a more personalized approach to teaching via online classes.

  • This morning the software company Adobe announced it would be partnering with leading online education platform Khan Academy to co-create online lesson plans that emphasize creative skills.
  • The Khan Academy approach aims to meet students where they are, allowing parents and educators to craft classes to individual skill sets and achievement levels.
  • "Personalization would have been a utopian idea 30 years ago," says Salman Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, which saw its usage nearly triple after schools closed last spring. "But now we can personalize what the student needs versus giving everyone the same thing."

What to watch: The rise of home schooling, arguably the most personalized form of education.

  • The percentage of families home-schooling their children more than doubled during the pandemic to 11% of U.S. households, according to data from the Census Bureau.

The catch: Students from disadvantaged backgrounds — especially those who lack reliable internet access — risk being left behind altogether, and the shift to a more personalized approach threatens to widen the already yawning education gap in the U.S.

The bottom line: As the U.S. grows more fractured and polarized, in-person public education has remained one of the few experiences that most Americans share.

  • A more personalized approach to education will change that — for better and for worse.
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