Last March when students and teachers learned they would not be returning, districts scrambled to put distance learning plans in place. Some educators resorted to thick packets which were as ineffective as they sound. Most people quickly came to the conclusion that e-learning was the only real way to have any kind of long-term success with students out of the building. Schools leaders struggled with implementing this.
Fast forward to August … many districts have decided that it is still not quite safe to return which means more e-learning. It would be easy to anticipate more of the same when it comes to online instruction. However, it is important to note that e-learning in most places will look different this fall than it did in the spring. There are reasons to be optimistic and reasons to be cautious.
There is one huge reason to be optimistic about e-learning in the fall: trial and error. There is zero chance that e-learning will be perfect. But from a technology and logistic standpoint, it can’t be any worse. Most schools districts learned that they would be engaging in long-term distance learning strategies the same way you did, via an announcement from some government official. There were suburban schools that had dabbled in e-learning for snow-days and what not, but rural and urban schools were left to figure that out as they went, and it showed. Institutions that two weeks prior were primarily concerned with teaching geometry were now pivoting into public utility service in an attempt to close the digital divide … and also while still teaching geometry. Predictably, many students were left without the necessary tech or internet to complete their schoolwork.
But over the course of the last two months of school, districts got significantly better at e-learning. Technology was distributed to students and families. Arrangements for internet were made and systems around instruction were created. This isn’t to say that the digital divide was closed over spring break and instruction was already far from perfect before it was forced onto the internet, but it suffices to say that schools will not be reinventing the wheel this fall.
However, just because schools have a better grip on the logistics doesn’t mean that there will not be new obstacles that come about. Chief among these are relationships.
Last time around schools were scrambling to distribute tech and provide internet, but they weren’t scrambling to get to know students. Teachers had already been with their students about 75% of the year. This made communication with families and students easier. It also made instruction easier. While schools will be better prepared for the logistics this time around there is no question that it is significantly harder to get to know students over zoom calls. It is nearly impossible to examine their work in real time to find misconceptions or errors.
This is the new frontier with e-learning. This time we aren’t supplementing traditional learning with online resources. We aren’t providing extension lessons or remediating. We are starting school online. The foundation for the entire school year will be digital, and this is decidedly different and more difficult.
Schools would be wise to make sure the logistics of the e-learning roll-outs are smooth, so they are able to better support the gaps that come from the first day of school being on a computer screen.