Carrie Gold: Online education can be the key to better learning

In this March 17, 2020 photo Elliott Bucks, works on an online class assignment from his sixth grade class at Arco Iris Spanish Immersion School in his bedroom in Beaverton, Ore. Oregon has shut down schools through April 28 and some districts have put optional activities online, though they are not meant to replace the regular curriculum.(AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

During a Costco run the other day, I looked around and noticed that, even though it was noon on a weekday, many customers were paired up with their school-age children. It was a reminder of how one of the most dramatic changes to our daily life caused by coronavirus happened when our children were sent home and school moved online.

Watching my stepdaughters study at home, I’ve been impressed with their public school teachers who have risen to this challenge. It’s proving something: Online education is very possible. With perpetual underfunding of K-12 education, ever-higher college tuition and student loan horror stories, we must carry that lesson beyond coronavirus. To do so, however, we need to abandon the idea that online education is just classroom teaching moved to a website. It is not — and if we make changes accordingly, online education could be the key to better learning, improved access, and dramatically lower education costs.

But first, the changes.

Change number one: Forget the traditional system of one teacher creating one class. Our children’s teachers are working hard, but the fact is that they are having to create online content from scratch at the same time their colleagues are doing so for the same grades and subjects.

Rather than individual teachers continuously reinventing the wheel, education resources need to be front-loaded, funding teams with teachers, other learning experts, professionals working in the subject’s field and multi-media producers, who together create courses that are engaging, high-quality learning experiences that can be used over and over for many more students than a classroom can hold.

Secondly: Realize online learning does not have the same limits as a physical classroom. Online courses so often simply mimic the traditional but outdated teaching modality that has students listening to an instructor (video) lecture, then completing one-size-fits-all assignments.

Why have students sitting in a virtual desk when we could have them virtually touring workplaces, hearing from experts and professionals, exploring caves or dissecting bodies — and doing computer-adaptive homework assignments that react to what a student demonstrates they know, and that give extra explanations and practice for the concepts they don’t.

The third change: Courses must be validated. Have you ever seen your child complete “busywork” assignments, or heard them complain that a teacher is unfair? When online courses are created by teams, piloted and data is collected, we can identify their weak points and improve them — consistently lower scores for particular concept or test question show there is something wrong with the course, not the student.

Finally, scale up online learning — big time. When excellent courses have already been created, with many assignments that are computer-adaptive and computer-graded, skilled teachers and professors can support thousands, not dozens of students, dramatically dropping cost per student while improving learning outcomes.

This modality of learning is not suited for all subjects. But when we begin creating these courses for classes like math, basic sciences, programming and 100- and 200-level college classes, the payoff is more learning for less money. Those savings can then go towards fair tuition costs and overall more efficient education spending — which would also mean adequately funding classes like language arts, science labs, foreign languages and others where students still need in-classroom learning and/or a high level of interaction with their teacher and peers.

Coronavirus has caused changes we have never seen to our communities. Let’s make one of those, the move to online education, permanently change education for the better. Online learning is the answer we need for more efficiently using limited funding, lowering tuition, improving learning outcomes, expanding access and, ultimately, for improving our society.

Carrie Gold

Carrie Gold is a master’s-level educator who taught Spanish and French in Utah’s public schools for five years. She blogs at www.TheBlueAndTheGold.com.