Is virtual learning here to stay? Four ways the pandemic could reshape education

Public education for children has changed remarkably little over the last hundred years, until Covid

Today's expression: Space out
Explore more: Lesson #385
July 29, 2021:

For at least 100 years, kids have been learning in schools in the same format: a teacher and a class full of students with little technology. Then, Covid abruptly forced teachers and schoolchildren into virtual learning. This meant many disadvantaged students missed out on a big part of their education, but could some of the advantages of virtual learning stick around for good? Plus, learn “space out.”

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Here are some ways the pandemic might improve education

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, it’s great to be here once again for Plain English, where we help you upgrade your English with current events and trending topics. I’m Jeff; JR is the producer; and this is Lesson 385 on July 29, 2021. You can find the full lesson online at PlainEnglish.com/385.

Coming up today… The world’s schoolchildren have missed out on a big part of their education during the global pandemic. Virtual learning was necessary, but it was a far cry from the in-person experience. Nevertheless, the virtual learning experiment may have given rise to some new ideas that can improve education in the future. We’ll talk about three of those ideas today.

As always, in the second half of the audio lesson, we talk about an English expression. The expression for today is “space out.” JR has a song of the week, too. I’m ready. Are you ready? Ok, let’s get started.

Virtual learning may be here to stay

How will the world change following COVID-19? Most of the time, the answer to this question is about sanitation, travel, and office work. But the lessons of the pandemic may also bring with them improvements to how the world’s schoolchildren learn.

Compared to other aspects of the modern world, public education for children has changed remarkably little over the last hundred years. One teacher, a class full of students, testing requirements, grade level based on age, little technology, and a school year that lasts nine or ten months of the year; this is the model the world has followed more or less since public education took its modern form in the 1800s.

That is not to say that education hasn’t changed; it clearly has. But the structure and the form are remarkably durable. Although people like to complain about it, the education system does the greatest good for the greatest number of people and is convenient for parents. It’s called the “factory model.” In the space of just a few weeks, however, that was all disrupted by the global coronavirus pandemic.

Without warning, most of the world’s schoolteachers had to quickly shift to teaching completely remotely. They were forced to use collaboration tools designed for business, like Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Science labs were canceled, teachers struggled to give students individual attention, and schools placed less emphasis on testing. Many students weren’t able to connect with their courses at all, whether because they didn’t have a stable Internet connection or a supportive home environment. Virtual learning worked well for some students, but by and large, it left a gaping hole in the education of an entire generation of students.

Although, as with most adverse situations, the pandemic has given rise to new ideas about how to improve education for the future. So here are four ideas that have emerged from the ashes of the pandemic.

The first idea is to keep virtual learning for some specific situations. A fully virtual model makes sense for some students with learning disabilities, anxiety, or that already have exceptional motivation for a topic. But virtual learning can occasionally make sense for far more students. For example, when children get sick for a few days in a row or are hospitalized for two to three weeks, they should have access to virtual versions of the lessons they would otherwise miss. It won’t be the same as being in the classroom, but it’s a lot better than missing the material entirely, which is how it often works now.

Virtual learning can also create opportunities that might not previously have existed. Many schools in America offer one or two foreign languages: Spanish and French, say. But if one student is motivated for family or other personal reasons to learn Italian, then virtual learning could allow that student to take Italian from a school in a different town. That won’t be a good fit for everyone, but for that one student, it’s better to learn Italian virtually than to snooze through Spanish in person.

A second idea is to work recorded or virtual lessons into the standard curriculum where it makes the most sense. This is a simplification, but here’s how much of the school day works now: a teacher presents new material during the day, while students listen and take notes. They then go home to work through additional problems at home, where nobody is there to help. This may not work for all subjects, but you can easily imagine that some topics would be better delivered with videos and technology at home, while time in school with the teacher is spent working out problems collaboratively.

I have always thought this would be best for math education. A math teacher explains a new topic once, at one speed, for a class of twenty students. But the reality is that each student will understand the material at a different speed. If one student spaces out for a few minutes, if another student simply couldn’t hear a few words, or if a third couldn’t concentrate because of problems at home, they have no way to rewind the lesson and watch it again. If they miss out on something, there’s no way to retrieve the information.

But imagine the whole year of math instruction also exists virtually. Teachers could use those virtual lessons at key moments. They could assign them to students who didn’t fully absorb the material the first time around. Or they could assign the entire class to participate in the virtual lesson first, and then come in and work through problems in small groups with the teacher available to offer assistance. In no case would a virtual curriculum replace the work of a live teacher, but it would be a tool that the teacher could use during the year to supplement the curriculum.

The pandemic also exposed tremendous inequality and accessibility to educational tools among students. Some students had heavily-involved parents, positive support systems at home, and a quiet place to study. Others had no such advantages. But these inequalities have always existed; the pandemic just exacerbated them. During the pandemic, many parents and schools used individual tutoring if available to help students who struggled with virtual lessons.

The extra tutoring was born out of necessity, but this is an idea worth preserving even after COVID passes. Some kids sail through the factory model and come out the other side with a solid education. Others have a rockier road for a variety of reasons. Prior to the pandemic, individual tutoring was often seen as a tool only available to rich parents to give their children an extra advantage. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If individual tutoring is open to everyone, it can be a way to make up for the shortcomings of the factory model. Why shouldn’t students be entitled to extra individual attention when they need it? Of course, it’s more expensive to administer. But if more lessons are delivered virtually, it can free up more teacher time to give the desperately needed individual attention.

A great way to learn

I’m a little biased because I run an online education business. But I’ll say it anyway, I just love learning this way. I’ve taken a lot of online courses and I’m part of an educational membership program that has helped me tremendously. I know it’s not the same for kids, but I have to believe that using technology, videos, quizzes, and recordings alongside a real teacher in an in-person environment is only going to be a net positive for education—if the schools and teachers are willing to do it. That’s a big if.

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Expression: Space out