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Don’t Waste the World’s Great Online Learning Experiment

Clara Ferreira Marques

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Bloomberg Opinion will be running a series of features by our columnists that consider the long-term consequences of the crisis. This column is part of a package on transformations in the way in which education is structured and delivered. For more, see Michael Petrilli on how older students can benefit from reduced school schedules. When we were told over the Lunar New Year holiday that schools in Hong Kong would be closed to prevent the spread of a then still-distant illness, I went through all the stages of grief. Shock, denial, anger, bargaining. I settled on depression for a good while. With three primary-age children, my vision of juggling a new job, school, chores and a bad-tempered dog was one of Brueghelian pandemonium. I had little faith in the quality of education my kids would receive online.

Four months in, my skepticism has in large part faded. What’s allowed me to accept, and then embrace, the educational havoc wrought by the virus has been its unexpected impact on my middle son, a 9-year-old on the autism spectrum. With a more flexible approach, he’s been able to cover the curriculum with a combination of live and recorded assignments provided by school, and find space for niche interests in a more creative, student-led set-up. We’ve recruited outside support that has helped to reinforce corners of math which eluded him first time around. Our new, fuzzier world allowed him to catch up, and thrive. 

My son’s experience with remote learning is in many ways exceptional — but it may also provide clues to how school systems around the world can harness the potential of technology to improve outcomes for all students. The quality of education students have received during this crisis has been uneven. The digital divide, and the related homework gap, are painfully real. Wealthier parents can afford to stay home; they are more educated and better able to support their children; they have enough laptops, steady Wi-Fi and live in homes where there’s a modicum of personal space. In Hong Kong, nearly 97% of less-well-off children in a March survey by the The Society for Community Organization reported problems with distance learning, much of it related to poor internet connections. Even those who overcome that obstacle cannot always unlock online opportunities without extra help.

That doesn’t mean that the greatest learning experiment in history is doomed to fail. There’s a very real possibility we will see more disruptions, whether driven by extreme weather or pandemics, and we can’t afford to have hundreds of millions of children falling behind. With the right infrastructure, it’s possible to rethink academic structures that have in many ways been unchanged since the Victorian period, and come out with options that are more inclusive and flexible. It won’t be cheap, but in the age of multi-trillion fiscal stimulus, it may be the best investment we make.

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Almost everyone I’ve spoken to, from head teachers to students and parents, has expressed frustration over the abrupt switch to virtual schooling during the current health crisis. Most institutions were ill-prepared to move to online instruction. In part, this comes from our overoptimistic views of how easy it is to teach and learn online. That’s not new: Radio, then television, and later mass open online courses, were also supposed to provide high-quality free education for all, yet haven’t quite lived up to expectations.

Distance learning comes with inherent limitations. In China, online tuition is a 500 billion yuan, or nearly $71 billion industry, but even at that size, virtual lessons don’t make the bricks-and-mortar alternative irrelevant. Schools help children turn into self-sufficient beings that can thrive in society. They teach and model good study habits. They also allow parents to work, and in many places, they mean shelter and nutritious food that is otherwise unavailable. Physical schools played these critical roles before the pandemic, and these functions will be even more essential after it passes.

And yet the traditional schoolroom is far from perfect, as students with learning challenges know. It’s also unclear if the current model is the one best suited to produce the workers of the future. Sugata Mitra, a computer programmer-turned-educational researcher famous for his Hole in the Wall experiments in India, argues that the current set-up is the product of an imperial era, geared toward training human computers with neat, legible handwriting and quick arithmetic. Our modern economy, on the other hand, requires innovative, collaborative, problem-solving workers.

So what kind of system should we aspire to build, when the pandemic ebbs?

First, we need to adapt schools to work better online, even when classrooms are open. Early-childhood instruction has to be grounded in core numeracy and literacy, and it's true plenty of motor skills are best taught in person, but online options can encourage more independent, problem-based learning, where children solve challenges themselves.Some of this happens already, but the virtual tools we are now all familiar with open up more choices as they get older, plus the possibility of collaboration across schools and ages. Better yet, by leaning into this sort of activity when stuck at home, we overcome the pedagogical limitations of wall-to-wall Zoom lessons.

As we figure out how to get there,  it’s encouraging that one consequence of this outbreak has been increased collaboration among teachers, schools, students and parents, to identify best practices. In Hong Kong, that’s been fostered by the Centre for Information Technology Education, but also through countless informal Facebook groups.

Second, we need to recognize that successful online teaching requires helping hands. We know from past studies and current experience that hybrid or blended teaching — a combination of online classes and more engaged, in-person and group work — produces the best outcomes, so the role of human assistance should not be a surprise. It becomes crucial, though, when designing a set-up able to include children who are vulnerable, or have special needs of any kind. 

For me, it was a semi-retired teacher who lives nearby and has the patience to handle both my child’s intense interest in Medieval history, and his struggle with more abstract mathematical concepts. A willing grandmother supported too, via FaceTime. Online platforms, with support from local authorities and schools, can make this kind of supplemental instruction accessible to many more, ensuring we don’t leave kids lagging in times of disruption.

A policy proposal from Reform Scotland, a think tank, suggests connecting sheltered-in-place retired teachers with children who have educational gaps, special needs or are otherwise at risk. Countless retired or trainee nurses around the world have answered the call to serve during this pandemic; it’s reasonable to assume that many former teachers would do the same.

Finally, getting good outcomes online, as in the classroom, requires planning. Hong Kong schools, stung by closures during anti-government protests last year, were better equipped to deal with the transition to online learning than counterparts elsewhere. Substantial, sustained public investment will be necessary to get educators, families and students ready for next time.

What to spend on? We need to start by getting a better understanding of the technological disparities students face — schools very often have no idea how kids are set up at home — and then provide equipment, and access to the right software, much of which already exists. Then comes the support. For teachers, that’s extra tech (and tech teaching) skills. For children, that’s investing in those willing helpers, virtual or otherwise. Absent trained educators, governments can provide guidance so even relatives and community members  play a similar role.

Once released from shelter-in-place orders, we might find our children have shorter classroom schedules, but more learning hours. They may have more agency, and move more easily between online and offline options. Having witnessed the social divisions laid bare by the pandemic, we may finally widen access to assistance that closes the attainment gap. Not a revolution, but a welcome evolution.

For us in Hong Kong, in our fourth month of home-working and e-learning, there has been no miracle, and plenty of difficult days. None of this has miraculously fixed my son’s attention span or his ability to do messier word problems. He is, though, more relaxed, in charge of his own time (now a necessity), thrilled with his projects and the obstacles he’s overcome. He’s almost cracked fractions, too.

Just don’t ask him about the best thing about homeschooling. He’ll just say it’s the food.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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