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by Dominic LoBianco | June 05, 2020

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In the face of widespread changes that have resulted from the global COVID-19 pandemic, most schools and offices have been forced to enter a virtual working environment. For many colleges, online learning was offered but not emphasized before the virus. Now, they’re all working entirely online.

It’s a massive challenge for these schools, but it’s also a chance for innovation. There’s a massive demand for a comprehensive educational experience—even a virtual one—and it’s not going away any time soon. The key is to understand the limitations that certain students might face and to offer a comprehensive experience that meets students where they are.

Highlighting Barriers to Online Education

Some school systems are better equipped to implement distance education programs. As a Johns Hopkins professor explains, traditionally schools with more resources—things like a higher endowment fund or a strong alumni base—have more cash on hand to facilitate an infrastructure change. These schools also have students who traditionally have laptop and internet access at home. However, not everyone has these luxuries.

Even schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, who have billion-dollar endowments, have students from underprivileged backgrounds. One-in-twenty students at Ivy League institutions hail from families in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution. How will they address resource access problems for students? Additionally, not every school has the infrastructure in place to provide all students with a level playing field.

One of the best ways to level this field is for educational institutions to collaborate and offer to share resources where possible. For example, a university with the digital infrastructure already in place might “host” another university’s classes through their system, or offer consulting or referrals for another university to build their own system.

In this vein, plenty of colleges have offered free classes during this time - not only to their own students, but to society as a whole. If resources are limited, other colleges can look to these courses to supplement their own curriculum.

These solutions don’t do anything to help students who lack the finances to own a computer or internet access, however, and that’s another major factor of creating a virtual learning system that works for everyone. For students, they’re going to have to find a way to make it possible to receive an education remotely, and that may not be possible in the home. Companies and private citizens have started to donate laptops and hotpots to students who need them for school. There’s still a need for public locations where students can socially distance, but still have access to a quiet workspace. Ideally, schools can use the summer months to work with their local governments to make that possible.

Providing Utility

A reasonable professor would not test their students on material they have not been taught. Similarly, it doesn’t seem justified to provide material or resources online in a manner where all students cannot access them. While they are available in abundance on typical college campuses, the following resources below can otherwise extremely difficult for students to obtain:

  • Wireless access
  • Peer-reviewed academic journals
  • College/Major Specific Technology (CAD for Architecture, Video/Editing Software for Journalism, Cadavers for Medical Students)
  • Tutoring

University campuses are dense with resources that are otherwise unavailable for students. So how do we bring them those same opportunities in an online environment? Should resources like internet access be a service that the university provides with the price of tuition? There’s already a conversation about the merits of making broadband internet a basic home utility; this would be a good way for universities to go the extra mile during trying times for their students.

Additionally, universities would have to dedicate more of a share of their budget towards IT in order to increase their networks to hold the increased flux of online traffic and to help students who may be unfamiliar with virtual learning interfaces.

Embracing Asynchronous Learning

Even before the pandemic, students used various programs to conference with family and friends. However, sheltering-in-place has dramatically changed—and increased—the use of these programs. After all, it’s the best way to socialize or communicate during these times.

The interesting thing is that, in a vacuum, using these tools may provide a better education to students. The North Carolina State University Department of Education says that there are many benefits to online learning that you don’t get in a standard classroom; in particular, asynchronous learning can have a dramatic effect on a student’s ability to learn.

Asynchronous learning is a type of learning that does not require face-to-face meetings. Instead, teachers prepare written lectures for students. Think of things like PowerPoint presentations with corresponding documents that also feature walkthroughs to help students maximize learning potential. When these materials are available at any time of the day, it allows a student to work at their own pace without comparing themselves to their peers. That’s a formula that can bring the best out of students, each of whom has a different style of learning.

Now with that said, asynchronous learning does have its drawbacks. The opportunities for students to get distracted are much more common than in a standard classroom. But at a time where schools are trying to synchronously teach their students from remote locations, embracing some asynchronous tools can really help.

So how can schools use this to their advantage? Some schools are using video conferencing to simulate a traditional classroom environment. Allowing previous lectures to be accessed on demand would be a great way to start. That way, when a student finds themselves struggling on a certain assignment, they can backtrack and take the steps they need to take to learn without worrying about their peers. For something like math, a teacher could also provide extra work that’s voluntary for students. It gives students the ability to practice without needing to receive a grade, and also allows for one-on-one communication that’s solely meant to benefit the student.

Changing the Attitudes Surrounding Virtual Learning

While online classes and educational opportunities have been around for decades now, we’re only now experiencing an overwhelming need for this service. In the past—and the present, if we’re being honest—people have questioned if an online education would allow students to learn as much as a traditional school. Now that so many students have adapted to the current challenges of society, it's made the students themselves realize that online school can be beneficial.

The key for any school or university is to attack any potential exclusion barriers aggressively.. What resources do they need to learn remotely? What do they lack? How can the university or school in question help solve those problems?

The reality is that there will be a lot of schools that don’t have the means to eliminate all of these barriers. But that’s where it’s important for schools to be flexible with their curriculum, continue to adapt, and to do everything they can to meet students where they are. By providing students with the resources to succeed, they can maintain some semblance of normalcy for the fall semester.

Conclusion

The truth is that the current educational landscape isn’t ideal for anyone. Despite the benefits of online learning and the perception that it levels the educational playing field, so to speak, the combination of underdeveloped online programs and varying levels of privilege among students creates an imbalance in the learning environment. And yet despite those challenges, students and teachers across the globe made the most of the challenge to start this year and made it work.

The summer months should give educational institutions the time to make changes for the better. The key is collaboration; by sharing research and resources where available, schools nationwide can make the most of a difficult situation and give students a wonderful education once schools are back in session.

It’s not just schools who need to invest in virtual learning, however. Local governments should prioritize it as well and do their best to offer safe places for students to work. Charities and local businesses can help provide materials to those who need them most. And perhaps most importantly, parents and guardians can make changes around the house to give their children the structure they need to succeed.

The convenience of online learning cannot be beaten. It’s given adults the ability to go back to school remotely and advance their careers. And if our society prioritizes education during this time, that convenience can be matched with quality.

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