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5 Reasons to Be Optimistic About Distance Learning

As students return to screens this fall, data suggests this isn’t terrible news.

Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Learning anywhere, anytime.
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

As COVID-19 continues its ugly spread, some 60% of the world’s student population is facing a school year like no other. Suddenly “back to school” is looking more like “back to screens,” and that’s got a lot of parents worried. In state-wide polls, “Nearly 9 in 10 parents are worried about their children falling behind academically due to coronavirus-related school closures, ranking higher than any other financial or socioemotional concern,” according to The Education Trust. Additionally, data from statewide polling reveals that “8 in 10 parents say their child(ren) are experiencing heightened stress levels.”

This state of affairs makes everyone want to cry into their coffee. But before you do, please consider five reasons to be cautiously optimistic about a school year that, for many, will include some sort of distance learning:

1. Thank goodness for screens. Whatever your pre-pandemic feelings were about kids and screens, you’ve got to admit this … devices do a darn good job at delivering educational content. Even before coronavirus hit, many young people were heading online to learn new things or to pursue interests that weren’t being addressed in school. Some kids (visual learners, like my own daughter, for example) may even learn better online. Kahn Academy, the online site packed with free lessons on nearly every subject a parent could hope for, was already a familiar presence in many a household. Now, for students whose classrooms are closed, it is a lifeline to learning.

Sal Kahn, the founder of Khan Academy, told CNBC that while online instruction can’t fully replace the in-classroom experience, there are ways to maximize the benefits for children. According to Kahn, “We’re not going to replicate school, even when that school is doing a perfect job so people shouldn’t expect that.” In an article about remote learning in Education Week, Chris Dede, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said, “… too often the focus is on what’s lost and not on what’s potentially gained.” He’s among a number of experts who believe students with so many tools at their disposal can have meaningful learning experiences whether they’re in school physically or not. They suggest there is reason for measured optimism.

2. Teachers will be better prepared. When schools began closing in the spring, teachers were caught largely off guard. Since then, many have had time and been given the resources to learn how to better use videoconferencing tools like Zoom and Google Meet, to figure out how to deliver lessons in engaging ways, and to come up with ideas on how to combine much-needed face-time with hands-on activities. “Ideally, it’s interactive,” says Kahn. “Teachers are asking students to answer questions, (and) work with each other in the virtual breakout sessions.”

According to Parentology’s Rick Andreoli, “The thing that parents are forgetting is that school districts and teachers have been thinking long and hard about how to better deal with things this fall. So, they might have everything parents need to be successful—both in terms of their own curriculum but also with additional free resources as well. Our biggest suggestion is for parents to take a deep breath, look at what their kids' school is offering, ask about additional online offerings, evaluate all of these things.”

3. There’s a wealth of free learning resources online. The number of organizations offering free educational resources and opportunities online is staggering (find a list here). “Museums, zoos, and online tutoring companies jumped in to help parents with a kind of 'We're all in this together!' mentality, says Parentology's Andreoli. "Non-profits like museums are still offering different educational "field trips" in art, history, and science, and major companies like Amazon are currently offering free online courses in coding and science.”

Likewise, parents and students are slowly getting used to the delivery of lessons online and figuring out to avail themselves of these resources. Formerly tech-adverse parents and teachers are warming up to the idea of learning online too, many are improving their own digital skills in order to help their children and students. These are positive trends that will stay with us long after the pandemic is over.

4. We’re finally recognizing the “digital divide.” Across the country, and the world, many households can’t afford high-speed internet, don’t have computers or connected devices handy for learning, or live in areas where connectivity is unreliable. This pandemic has shed a glaring spotlight upon this “digital divide.” About 53% of parents report challenges with distance learning, according to The Education Trust. “Roughly 1 in 5 parents who reported having challenges with distance learning reported that they didn’t have reliable high-speed internet access or enough devices at home,” they say. This is a problem that has long-needed addressing, pandemic or not. Thankfully, organizations are stepping up to the plate to help. Everyoneon, for example, is one of many bringing low-cost Internet and computers to those in need.

5. Youth are finding solace online. The Connected Learning Lab just released a timely report—Social Media and Youth Wellbeing: What We Know and Where We Could Go—that analyzes adolescent social media use, its benefits, and potential downfalls. Pre-pandemic, young people already spent a boatload of time online connecting with peers. Now, for many, their screens are the only way they have to stay in touch and maintain important friendships. According to this report, “Most teens and tweens say social media helps support social-emotional wellbeing, boosting confidence and alleviating anxiety, loneliness, and depression.” This is important during these stressful times, especially for those who already suffer from anxiety or depression. According to this report,

“… some of the most vulnerable youth have the most to gain from online information and support for mental health. Scholars generally agree that, both online and offline, vulnerable youth are actively discussing mental health. Those with lower social and emotional wellbeing are more likely to report going online to seek support and to feel better about themselves, and adolescents with moderate to severe depressive symptoms may be two times more likely than their peers to turn to social media for emotional support (Rideout and Fox 2018).”

The Takeaway?

Another school year of screens instead of classrooms is certainly not the ideal. But children everywhere are counting on us to model resilience during these challenging times. Let’s show them that learning can, and should, happen anytime, anywhere. Not even a virus can get in the way of that.

References

Cabrera, J., Conaway, E., Cross, R., Hernandez, M., et. al. (2020). Social Media and Youth Wellbeing, What We Know and Where We Could Go, Connected Learning Alliance, Irvine, CA.

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