Commentary: Biggest limitation to online learning may be our imagination

Commentary: Biggest limitation to online learning may be our imagination

This article by Ron Stefanski, Executive Director of Centric Learning, was first published in Crain's Detroit Business.


As we let our imagination play itself out regarding the upcoming school year, we need to ask ourselves: Are we going to see children getting a great education, or are they going to fall behind?

For parents who balanced the demands of doing their jobs remotely this past spring with children underfoot, often watching them disengage after hours on the computer, many have concluded that remote learning doesn't work.

But is that really true?

If your child spent hours without interruption in front of a computer, they may have been watching their teacher and class on Zoom, but they were not necessarily experiencing remote learning. Since the inception of e-learning, technology has delivered increased bandwidth and more engaging multimedia tools. Innovative instructional methods supported by a growing body of best practice have advanced the efficacy of remote learning.

So, if we worry that e-learning doesn't work, or will re-create educational inequities, perhaps we need to ask ourselves instead: How do we accelerate learning to prepare children for the wired global workplace they will inhabit?

Great teachers answer this question readily:

  • Engage students directly in their own learning and help them think independently.
  • Excite students' natural curiosity and appetite for learning.
  • Adapt their teaching to students' needs and use creative alternative approaches.
  • Nurture relationships and assist children in doing so.

The truth is: this is how effective learning takes place online as well. Multiple options for learning online are now readily available and will continue to evolve. These programs are designed to pair students with highly trained teachers or coaches. The current rise of micro-schools and learning pods speaks to the growing interest parents have in ensuring that their children are learning. This will continue to prompt innovation as we marry teaching and technology in forward-thinking ways. Research shows that the average adult maintains their attention span for 20 minutes. If true, how can we expect anything different for younger students? Yet in many cases, we left teachers, without training or guidance, to recreate an effective learning environment online with little time.

We are also hearing warnings about equity as we transition to online learning. Countless school districts have identified problems implementing online learning for every student when many, especially those in urban and impoverished areas, lack the bandwidth or the devices required. Yet there is a far more pernicious equity issue in play that online learning can actually help us address.

Since "A Nation at Risk" was first published, school districts still see significant performance gaps among students of color. Clearly, numerous factors in play contribute to systemic racism in schools (higher rates of detention and suspension top among them).

As my colleague Caesar Mickens, a former administrator for the Detroit Public Schools, points out, a key to solving the performance gap is increasing "time on task." In the simplest terms, spending more time learning and studying leads to better outcomes. So how might online learning help close this achievement gap? For students falling behind, accelerating learning by increasing their time on task is the key.

By applying gamification in learning, an entire industry has formed around employing a similar program logic that engages children to play video games for hours on end. These online resources can be effective because students remain engaged longer and begin to catch up and progress.

Another extremely promising area for increasing and sustaining student engagement involves project-based learning, which shifts the educational paradigm and focuses on how students learn. Instead of memorizing subject-specific facts, students are posed a series of driving questions.

Through guided activities, working with the teacher as an expert guide and facilitator, students are propelled by their own desire to learn. Instead of testing students on their retention of the material, students create projects that demonstrate their mastery. They are assessed on their competency, rather than their retention or time in class. The result: Increased engagement and learning across the curriculum.

As we think about options for engaging students, one thing is clear. The effectiveness of online learning may be limited only by the bounds of our imagination, and not by technology. As students spend more time learning on their own terms, we can imagine education differently.

Our creativity in finding new ways to deliver a high-quality education may turn out to be the biggest breakthrough we see during this pandemic. Imagine that.