As we reach the end of August – and summer vacation for most students (and some school systems already back in session) – the debate continues over whether it’s safe to get back to in-person learning. There are very few people who argue virtual learning is a better option under any circumstances. That is not to say it can’t be done. Certainly, plenty of technology is readily available to provide the same level of learning virtually as in-person. Rather, it’s that most schools haven’t created the right infrastructure or trained faculty on how to use them effectively.
But, the question of in-person vs. virtual, it seems, is a largely moot point at the moment, with COVID-19 still wreaking havoc across the country. We’ve already seen what can happen when students get back to public school buildings and university campuses, and the same scenarios are likely to play out in schools across the nation in the coming weeks.
Many school systems have delayed their first days of school, presumably to further develop their strategies, or to simply buy more time to make final decisions whether to adopt fully in-person, hybrid, of full virtual models.
The feeling of school administrators speaks volumes, though. Only 35% of principals feel somewhat confident (23%) or very confident (12%) their schools will be able to effectively provide a safe environment for students and staff this fall.
Considering the lack of confidence from principals, along with what we’ve already seen happen in schools that have already re-opened, it’s not hard project a very large number of schools being forced to return to virtual settings before the end of the year. The problem is – and this holds for all those systems that plan to start with some form of hybrid scenarios as well – that virtual learning was largely ineffective when schools shut down in the spring.
If you don’t believe it, listen to the teachers: 27% say they did not cover new material at all with distance learning, and 56% said they covered less than they usually would have. That means students weren’t getting the education they need. I’m guessing that won’t change when virtual learning comes back this semester. I suspect most schools are pressing on with re-opening because they haven’t invested in the solutions to create effective virtual learning environments.
It’s not for lack of options. There are so many tech companies that have tried to make it easy for schools to bring virtual and in-person closer together.
Take NTT Data, for instance, which has created a Classroom in a Box bundle for school systems, including the hardware, services, and support to help school systems, teachers, and students bridge the gap between in-person and remote learning.
NTT DATA’s Classroom in a Box is a complete, secure and integrated at-home learning environment, including:
- Collaboration and communication tools and services
- 1:1 devices for all students
- Robust video and audio devices and support for teachers
- At-home technical support for students and teachers
- Home Wi-Fi for all students, teachers and administrators
- A cost-effective per-user, per-month fee
Early on during the pandemic, the company helped the largest public school system in the country transition to distance learning. It helped the New York City department of Education deliver 300,000 iPads to students, and more than 3,500 devices to teachers. It also handled some 30,000 support calls to help people get started.
Nobody wants to deal with virtual schooling. But, it’s apparent that it’s going to happen to some degree – whether schools choose or are forced to go all-virtual, or whether they are able to make some form of hybrid scenarios work. So, the only way to truly make it work is to make sure that distance isn’t an obstacle to teaching and learning.
Much like in-person education is a daily activity that is built into students’ and teachers’ routines, virtual learning, too, simply has to become something the do… without struggle. That means making sure both sides have the right tools and a well-defined process to transform remote learning into a true education.
For those of us who have been working at home since March, virtual meetings have become the norm and, with the right technology, they can easily be as productive as in-person meetings (sometimes even more so, since there are fewer distractions). So, why can’t similar tools make distance learning a positive experience? They can – schools need to realize it’s their responsibility and make the investment. It’s the right thing to do – for teachers and students.