As both the parent of two high school students and a veteran online educator, I find myself unbelievably frustrated by the current state of our global educational system. For the past decade, I have actively shown students and schools from all over the world how online learning can be effective. I could share countless success stories of how online courses have transformed a student’s entire academic future. Yet, here we are, in the middle of this seemingly endless pandemic, and the state of online learning for me has been one of the most depressing parts of this long saga. What makes it even worse is that I know and believe that it does not need to be this way.
To fully understand why our children are in this mess, let’s rewind to the beginning of COVID-19. Back in March, schools were forced to close with little to no warning and had minimal prep time to transfer their entire academic programs online. Most would agree that this was, at least for most schools, a no-win scenario. Schools were forced to do the best they could under less than ideal circumstances. Even though the quality of the education often suffered, most of the parents, and even school leaders, were willing to be forgiving, as there was no way that the educational system could have been ready for this type of catastrophe. This was seven plus months ago. So, the question that we must ask is, why now, many months later, has the situation not improved? Why are our children still not receiving the quality of education which they deserve?
There are many possible answers to this question, but the main issue for teachers and students throughout the world has been a lack of training and support. Many schools have thrown their teachers into the preverbal deep end and have used the “sink or swim” approach. This is clearly not the correct path towards success. The schools which have invested in proper professional development and support for the online learning experience have in fact been far more successful than the schools who did not take the hint after last year. I have the privilege of working with some of the best Jewish day schools in North America and there is little to no mystery as to why some schools are succeeding while some are not.
Even the most experienced teacher could not be expected to know how to be an online educator. Many of the teachers on my staff for example have been through extensive training and have had years of online teaching experience. The typical classroom teacher has not had that level of experience.
With that in mind, the schools need to provide the training and support that the teachers need to be successful. One school in Florida recently contacted me to help with the transition back to online teaching. This school did the best they could last year, but now that an increasing number of students are learning from home, the school identified some clear issues that needed to be addressed. I was asked to observe some classes and to create a training plan for the teachers to address any issues which I discovered.
While none of the classes which I observed were disasters, it was clear that certain basic training aspects were missing. For example, in one class, the teacher was explaining a math problem on his computer but forgot to share his screen. A simple and easily solvable mistake, but this small issue brought the lesson to a screeching halt, and frustrated a lot of the students. In another class, the teacher lectured to her students for 55 minutes with no break. Now, one could argue that this type of teaching would not work in a regular classroom. Any teacher who has received training to teach online would know that this is certainly not the winning formula for an online session. I was actually impressed with the 8th grade students as it was evident that many were really trying to stay engaged. By the end of the lesson though, even I had a difficult time staying focused.
Another school in the greater Boston area which had ignored the online learning issues since last year, finally realized that they needed to get on board with the idea quickly. Even after the events of last year, this school had never installed an Internet connection for the students within the school building. Funny enough, when the students were all learning from home, connecting to their classes was easy.
When some students were back in the building though, disaster broke out very quickly when the school realized that a hotspot device would not suffice for 55 students trying to connect to Zoom. Now this school had all sorts of reasons for not having Internet and not training their teachers, but at the end of the day, even with the help I was able to provide, the students in this school definitely have not received the educational program to which they are entitled. Sadly, it did not need to get to this stage. This school and many others all had an idea of what was coming. Why wait until October to figure this out?
Despite these depressing stories, all is not lost for our schools and students. There are some schools who have learned from past events and who have made sure that the online education being offered is meaningful and effective. I work with a truly special Jewish day school in Baltimore. This school took the time over the summer to ensure that every faculty member was properly trained to create and deliver online classes. They also made sure that communication between teachers, students, and parents was at the highest level possible. Equally as important, this school has made sure that their faculty continue to have access to training, support, and new information. This is truly the model that every school should be implementing.
Offering training and support to teachers, even at this stage is not an impossible task. It also does not need to be super expensive. There are so many resources available including consultants such as myself, as well as self-paced online courses designed to help teachers make the transition to online teaching. Sometimes, a school may discover a teacher who cannot make this transition. While unfortunate, there are other solutions available as well in the forms of intensive training and third party online courses. While the resources are plentiful, it is time for the global educational community to get serious about the education they are providing to our children. While we may not be able to fix the pandemic, we can improve the state of our educational system. It is time to raise the standards and expectations so that our children receive the education which they deserve.
When I founded my company almost 10 years ago, the idea of learning online was foreign to many schools and students. With experience and perseverance, it became clear though, that if executed correctly, online learning can in fact be an amazing tool. It is time to make sure that our students are receiving the best education possible, regardless of world events. As parents and as educators, this is our job!