On March 1st, 2020 only 1.6 million K-12 students had taken any course fully online yet within the weeks that followed that number grew not by a little, but by an astounding 45.3 million learners. What did we learn from this sudden experiment with massively scaled online learning and what does it mean for the future of primary and secondary education?
Two decades after the dot com boom, high speed connectivity is often assumed but that was the first flawed assumption of many. Care to guess what percentage of learners aged 6-18 have home Internet access?
33% sounds too low in this always-on era. Maybe 93-98% of school aged children have home Internet access in 2020? Not quite…
Only 78% of school-aged children have home Internet access with the main household device being – a parent or family member’s smartphone. Now smartphones are great tools for learning certain short topics, I recently learned to change the oil on my car with a YouTube video, but I wouldn’t recommend them as a primary form of delivering engaging, supportive, learning for an eight year old to fully replace an entire 8am – 3pm school day. By the way, that also means that 22% of learners did not have home internet access – that’s over 11 million students who were suddenly disconnected from learning, social support and for many a dependable source of food.
While we’ve all read stories of the takeover of online school sessions via Zoom, Skype, Meet or other videoconferencing solutions another item that is not discussed is bandwidth. Bandwidth and Internet access are not (yet) utilities so widespread public access, as we noted above, remains a significant hurdle for scaling digital learning. If you’re reading this with 200Mbps, 400Mbps or even fiber-optic connections of 1Gbps coming to your home as you stream Netflix, listen to a podcast and conduct real-time video calls in HD while continuing to keep up with your email, Slack and other work tasks consider yourself exceptionally fortunate. More than half the population of the United States has a home Internet connection speed of less than 25Mbps. Oh, and Skype recommends a 8Mbps connection for group video calls of 7+ people. With an average K-12 classroom having well more than 7 people, it’s safe to triple that bandwidth requirement and then hope that while millions are working remotely that no one else in the household also needs to use the Internet for any reason.
Oh, but we haven’t addressed the challenges thrust upon the nation’s 3.7 million educators who may have young children at home, older parents to isolate and monitor, and had at most a few days of professional development before teaching fully online. Teaching is far more than dog-eared textbooks and photocopies of math problems, it’s an artful balance of diagnosing each learner’s needs, matching the available resources and tools to those needs all while maintaining adherence to multiple layers of educational standards that must be taught to the dot point. How specific are these standards? Let’s share an example for Grade 8 of a single standard (amongst hundreds) from New Jersey’s 99 pages of math standards:
While it’s true that there are no shortage of learning platforms and technologies that help educators assess students, group them and offer remediation suggestions it’s exceptionally optimistic to believe that every student was armed with a (relatively new) computer, high-speed broadband, food and support at home, and access to teachers, family members or others who could provide social, emotional and educational support.
As we reflect back on the last four months while summer recess is in full swing and the push is being made on many fronts to return students to schools full-time let’s pause to consider what happens if we end up in a fully online learning environment again? How many of the 15,000+ school districts across the United States have used this time wisely and have they been able to make the investments to insure better learning outcomes in a fully online world, should that moment come, as they grapple with declines in state funding due to reduced sales tax collections correlated with the declines in economic activity?
We will get there, together, but in order to protect the learning progress of our littlest citizens let’s do what we can to insure that we’re equipping and supporting educators, opening up (extremely affordable) bandwidth to people’s homes, expanding 1-1 device programs for equal access and supporting stressed educators, parents and family members with a range of back-to-school options this year that work for them.
The author is the founder and CEO of Junction Education, a learning platform-as-a-service company that enables any content provider to quickly build and deliver personalized online courses to schools, college and universities, and professionals in over 160 countries around the globe. He also co-led one of four public-private working groups chaired by the US Department of Education and FCC under the Obama Administration to chart a course forward for accelerating the digitization of the nation’s schools aiming to close the ‘digital divide’.