It’s easy to view remote learning through the lens of its deficits. After all, there’s really no substitute for the face-to-face rapport with an excellent teacher. As an educator supporting public charter schools across the country through the transition to virtual instruction this year, I’ve seen a lot of promise too. This may not be a perfect situation for learning, but we’ve adapted, and the lessons we’re learning on family engagement, adapting technology and virtual instruction will transform our schools for decades to come.
As this year comes to a close, it’s important to review what we have learned about education during the pandemic.
It’s critical to ground this conversation in equity and justice. Like so many other aspects of the pandemic, the shift to virtual education has exposed fault lines of privilege and prejudice in American education. For students like ours at KIPP, systemic racism and income inequity mean they simply can’t count on things their more privileged peers take for granted—like access to technology and connectivity for learning, or parents having the job flexibility to help with schoolwork. These inequities require structural solutions.
In the meantime, schools are doing what we can. At KIPP, we have done our best to ensure more than 110,000 of our students have the devices and tech support they need to learn at home. KIPP regions made sure to distribute not only device for every child, but to achieve a ratio of 1.25 devices for every child, knowing many devices needed to be replaced.
Other regions focused on investing in hotspots and covering the service charges for families. We had assistant principals and regional leaders in Massachusetts answering the more than 400 calls and emails for tech help from parents on their first day back to school. Our regions created hotlines, tech help emails, explainer videos and took part in socially distant home visits to ensure connectivity. Our schools in Washington, D.C. even distributed headphones so students, who often had siblings taking part in remote learning side-by-side, could focus on their work.
So what have we learned? While we certainly look forward to returning to in-person instruction for as many students as possible, our use of technology has accelerated learning in three key ways:
Deeper Family Engagement
We already knew the importance of cultivating deep connections with families. In fact, our mission begins with the words, “Together with families and communities …” But as parents have become co-teachers from home, our communication practices have transformed. Gone are the days of waiting for parent-teacher conferences to talk about students’ progress, or for end-of-year surveys to collect parent feedback. Now, schools are holding regular parent meetings and info sessions, covering everything from tech literacy to curriculum updates, mental health to bedtime stories. And holding these meetings virtually means we can engage parents who might not otherwise have been able to meet in person. We expect that these connections will only get better and stronger with time.
More Strategic Use of Technology
If not for the pandemic, we might not have made such a wholesale investment in technology. But the payoff has been so clear that we’re keeping it up! Teachers are finding that online tools can help them more efficiently organize student work and evaluate it in real-time, giving them a better window into where students are doing well and where they need support right away. We are preparing for a future where students and teachers make extensive use of computers in the classroom as well as at home. That means adapting and developing curricula that can be used both in-person and virtually, as well as hiring and training teachers to teach in both settings.
Opportunities Beyond School
Technology is enabling us to expand learning well beyond the constraints of traditional brick-and-mortar schooling. While we’ve found that in-person instruction is especially important for the youngest grades, older students can harness technology to expand their learning outside school walls: from deeper dives into academic subjects, to a wider variety of extracurricular activities, to opportunities for internships or career development. And for students who can’t get to a physical school building, remote instruction helps them keep learning without interruption. (Though students may not like to hear it, snow days might just be a thing of the past!)
Technology in the classroom is here to stay. We can dwell on the drawbacks of remote learning, or we can adapt, pay attention to what works and apply those lessons moving forward.