Mar 9, 2020

Can tech keep learning on track during COVID-19 spread?

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It depends not only on the access to online learning tools, but also that students and teachers are prepared for an online environment.

If you’re a parent in a state hit by COVID-19, you might have gotten an email like the one I got last week, saying that the school district is considering closing schools, either to clean them or to control the spread of the virus. Worldwide, some 300 million children are out of school, and some schools in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area have closed. Some districts are hoping that remote learning can fill the gap.

In some places, virtual classrooms with video and animations and group chat already exist. In others, not at all. I spoke with John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group, which conducts research on K-12 digital learning. I asked him if American schools are ready for long-term virtual learning. The following is an edited version of our conversation.

John Watson (Courtesy of Watson)

John Watson: I honestly don’t know, and I think the more interesting answer to that question is I’m not sure that anybody really knows. The reason I say that is because there’s different elements in terms of preparation for schools closing. You need to understand how many students have access to devices, which may or may not be supplied by the school. You need to understand whether students have internet access at home or if they have other places that they’re able to get to as well. Even more so, you need to understand whether the teachers have some level of comfort with teaching online.

Molly Wood: I would imagine the digital divide must play into this in a huge way. Kids have to have access to devices and the internet to take advantage of these tools that they’ve rolled out, right?

Watson: Equity and access is probably the single biggest challenge that a school has to think about in this situation. In particular, when you’re talking about a school closure because of coronavirus concern, you can’t necessarily have those students going to a public library, let’s say, to access computers there, or to a coffee shop to get online if they have a computer but not internet access at home. There are some schools [that have] arranged hot spots for students, they have arranged some places that those students would be able to go. It’s still a challenge to think about doing this at this kind of scale and this type of time frame that they’re thinking about.

Wood: You went exactly where I was going, which is if widespread school closures happen and they happen for a long time, do you think it’s realistic in smaller districts or bigger districts — or nationwide — that we’ll be able to maintain the same level of education?

Watson: This may not be a very satisfying answer, but I know of districts that have invested enough in thinking about online learning that they will be able to make this shift and do so fairly successfully. I know of districts that undoubtedly won’t be able to make that shift. What I don’t know is what percentage of districts fall into each of those categories. We, unfortunately, may be on the brink of an unplanned experiment in how prepared districts are.

Wood: Is it an opportunity, or is it fair to say it’s a little past due for schools to do this? My 13-year-old was home sick yesterday, and I thought, I’m surprised that there’s no on-conference line for him to dial into the classroom.

Watson: It’s an opportunity, because I think this is showing schools that there’s a need. I should be clear about this: There are plenty of schools, including plenty of brick-and-mortar schools, that are engaging in online instruction in some form. This is a little bit different if you’re trying to shift the large majority or 100% of instruction online. I do think that there’s going to be an increased number of school leaders who, coming out of this, will understand a bit more about what the options are, a little bit more about what the challenges are as well. When I see some stories about school closures and the opportunity to use online learning, some of them are a bit shallow. They focus on the tools solely — and there’s no question that the tools exist. The challenges are around making sure teachers are prepared to teach online and also making sure students and parents and families are prepared to learn online as well.

Wood: I would imagine there must be companies offering these types of services that potentially stand to benefit?

Watson: There’s no doubt that the companies that are involved in online learning will have some opportunities. Part of the reason for that is simply — as we’re talking about this issue — raising awareness about the possibilities of online learning among students, parents, educators. They, I think, are now understanding how much online learning, how many tools and resources are readily available. Having said that, it’s also a challenging situation, because the challenges are not so much around the tools and the content as much as they are around changing the way that teaching is done and changing student and parent expectations. There’s not a silver bullet for being able to do that. The smart companies that know this, they’re handling the messaging well, and we’re seeing that already. They’re talking about what they’re capable of and not overselling what they’re capable of. I am a little bit worried about the possibility that some companies may take advantage of the lack of understanding and oversell what they’re capable of. I think there’s undoubtedly a level of “buyer beware” in terms of being careful about going with the companies that are being a bit more measured in what they’re saying they can do and being really careful about any that say they can handle this 100%. I think it’s a bit more challenging than that.

The Italian government is closing all schools and universities in the country until at least mid-March in a bid to contain COVID-19. (Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

You can read the letter from the superintendent at the Bothell school district here. The town is located near the epicenter of Washington’s COVID-19 outbreak. Los Angeles is also telling parents to prepare for possible school closing, as is New Jersey. Education Week had a post last week about how most schools will not be prepared for remote learning if they have to close for a long period of time.

Last week, I talked about telemedicine and how companies and public health groups were asking for loosened restrictions on signing up for and getting reimbursed by Medicare for those services. And, in fact, that is part of the $8 billion coronavirus package passed by Congress and signed by the president last week.

Also watching

Tech companies in Seattle and the Bay Area are continuing to either order their employees to work from home or give them the option. That list now includes Apple as of Friday. Microsoft, Google, Twitter, Amazon and Facebook all said they plan to pay the wages of their hourly workers, even if they have reduced or no hours because of campus closures or working from home. Microsoft led that charge and the other companies followed soon after, which, I have to say, is real leadership.

In prepper news, eBay on Friday banned all new listings for face masks, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes because anybody who is listing that stuff now, all of a sudden, is just trying to make a buck and should maybe be banned from humanity.

Also, in the midst of everything on Friday came a story that said Amazon is working on a secret skunkworks project to try to cure the common cold. Which, OK. Why not.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer