Is digital learning the solution? A few things to consider before making the call.


Is digital learning the solution? A few things to consider before making the call.


school closures or scheduled school closures due to coronavirus
school closures or scheduled school closures due to coronavirus

The spread of the coronavirus has led to over 1,500 school closures or scheduled school closures across the country, and that number is rapidly climbing. As of today, over a million students are affected by schools shutting down, with many schools closing their doors for unforeseeable lengths of time.  

To mitigate disruption in student learning, many school leaders are turning to digital learning as a solution. But is digital learning the right course of action and are U.S. schools and communities prepared to take on the immense undertaking of quickly moving teaching and learning online?

School systems in countries that have been severely impacted by COVID-19—such as China, Japan, and South Korea—have engaged in a massive experimentation in distance learning, providing U.S. schools some insight into what to anticipate when scaling digital learning. Below are several lessons from these regions that schools should keep in mind before making the call.

Be open to old-school communication methods


children live in households without broadband
children live in households without broadband

Digital learning poses an equity problem for many school communities. Nearly 12 million children live in households without broadband, and many lack access to the necessary technology. While schools in China and some schools in the U.S., such as Miami-Dade Public Schools, are able to lend out technology and Wi-Fi-hotspots for students in need, many school districts are not.

In light of inequitable technology access, some school communities in Mongolia are sending assignments and audio recordings by mail and offering a series of telephone conference calls to provide lessons. Teachers are also experimenting with non-tech-based assignments, such as using existing materials that are likely in every household.

Plan for significant delays in curriculum progression

Most teachers, along with students, will likely experience steep learning curves with using digital learning platforms for the first time. Several international school representatives in Japan and Korea reported that many elementary teachers are now working up to 18-hour days to transfer the curricula to online lessons.

Despite teachers’ long working hours, the pace of teaching and learning remains significantly slower. Representatives from these schools recommend prioritizing teaching less-complex concepts and setting up online educator communities via Seesaw, Google, or Facebook for teachers to exchange lessons and questions amidst uncertainty.   

Digital learning may not work for all students

A growing body of research suggests that digital learning is primarily beneficial for self-sufficient learners and less effective for the most vulnerable students. In fact, Justin Reich, an education technology expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recommended on Twitter recently that schools should reconsider relying on tech-based teaching during this time.    

At the end of the day, are all K-12 schools prepared to adopt and scale digital learning as rapidly as needed to mitigate student learning loss? For some districts, the honest answer may be “no,” but that does not mean there is no other way forward. Some schools may find that old-school communication methods or make up days later in the year may in fact be the better call.

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