Pandemic Exposes the Limitations of Online Education

Schools are closed for the rest of the school year in most places, and despite herculean efforts of school teachers to transform school activities online, there are widespread problems.  What are the challenges for the nation’s over 90,000 public schools and 50 million public school students?

Schools everywhere are trying to adapt but are handicapped by the limitations of online education and vastly unequal access to broadband internet.

Learning online, whatever the platform, isn’t the same going to school.  Spontaneity and personal connection are harder to achieve, however skilled and imaginative the teacher. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss quotes Jack Schneider, Assistant Professor of Leadership in Education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Director of Research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education, commenting on overall problems children have with remote learning: “Face-to-face interactions, personal relationships and human cues matter tremendously in the education of young people…. While virtual schools may be cheaper to operate—a major attraction for those looking to wring a profit out of public education—they are hardly an adequate replacement for their brick-and-mortar counterparts… Across time… the public has valued a broad range of outcomes—from the nurturing of creativity to the fostering of interracial friendships—that go well beyond content standards. Mindsets, dispositions, social skills and the like are simply much harder to teach online.”

Even more daunting is children’s unequal access to the technology that makes online schooling possible.  As online learning was launched in New York City two weeks ago, NY Times reporter Nikita Steward profiled a child discovering that she couldn’t use her iPad because the homeless shelter where she lives entirely lacks broadband access: “Shuttering the vast system, which includes 1,800 schools, was a serious challenge for the city, and the large-scale, indefinite school closures are uncharted territory, altering the lives and routines of 75,000 teachers, over one million children, and well over 1 million parents… On the first day of remote learning, while some parents in the city were posting cute photos of their children waving to their classmates and teachers as lessons were streamed live, Allia and thousands of other children living in New York City’s shelters and in overcrowded apartments did not have devices with built-in internet. There are about 450 shelters for families and single adults in the main shelter system, and most of them do not have Wi-Fi available for residents.”  Stewart reports that the school district is scrambling to provide devices for wi-fi access. In the New York City schools, the number of homeless students reached 114,000 again this year, 10 percent of the student population.

In school districts across the country, as in New York City, the coronavirus-driven school closures are exposing alarming inequality.  Last Friday for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell examined disparate access to education across the Cleveland Public Schools and some of its thirty neighboring suburban school districts: “In some cases, the differences between district plans are minor. Schools may be using different programs with different features. Some are distributing laptops to students this week, while others had already made one-to-one technology—providing an Internet device to every student—part of their academic plan long before the pandemic. Some teachers are offering ‘synchronous’ lessons online, classes in which both teachers and students are online at the same time and teachers can respond to questions as they lecture. But in most cases, teachers are recording short lessons in advance, letting students view them on websites like Google Classroom or even YouTube at any time. They then hold scheduled office hours on Google Meet or Zoom to talk to students or parents.”

The Cleveland School District seems to have fallen behind: “While other districts already have been giving online lessons and told parents of their rollout plan long ago, the Cleveland schools had not announced any plan for next week as of Friday morning. The district’s only official lessons have been paper packets of exercises, though students and parents have reported that some teachers have done more on their own. After a few days of paper lessons sent home when schools closed, parents and students must pick up new lessons at the 22 schools giving out free meals.  But with fewer than10% of district students picking up meals each day, it is unclear how many also picked up lessons, let alone completed them. This week, the district and the Cleveland Teachers Union had teachers trying to collect updated phone numbers addresses and email addresses for students—a challenge in a district whose students move frequently.”

O’Donnell adds that the Columbus School District has made a little more progress: “Columbus, Ohio’s largest district, had enough laptops and tablets for every student. But it has not solved the problem of Internet access for its poor students. One solution: upgrading wi-fi at its schools so students can do online lessons outside the locked buildings.”

For the Los Angeles Times, Sonali Kohli and Howard Blume report: “When school shut down last month, the district began distributing computers and arranged for free internet access—moves that have helped many. But the swift transition to online learning has presented massive challenges in the nation’s second largest school district, which serves mainly students from low-income families… About 15,000 Los Angeles high school students are absent online and have failed to do any schoolwork, while more than 40,000 have not been in daily contact with their teachers since March 16, when the coronavirus forced campus shutdowns… The 40,000 who are not in daily contact with their teachers represents about a third of all Los Angeles high school students.”

Kohli and Blume quote Janelle Scott, a professor of education and African American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley: “Certainly there are kids that are just disengaged from school… but a lot of it has to do with hunger and housing insecurity…. This crisis has laid bare what we always knew—how equitable opportunities are so dependent on parental background and wealth and access to resources… These inequities do become deeper and broader during this time…. Having a physical school does really matter and having caring adults around who can support children and family is vital.”

Recently an unforeseen issue has arisen: security problems with Zoom, one of the online teleconferencing platforms adopted by thousands of school districts. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reports that at the end of last week, the New York City Schools banned the use of Zoom for online schooling.  Strauss explains that last week: “The FBI issued a warning to the public… about the ‘hijacking’ of online classrooms and teleconferences after it received reports of disturbances by people shouting racist and threatening language and displaying hate messages It said saboteurs were hacking into online meetings in a phenomenon now called ‘Zoombombing,’ because Zoom has become the most popular teleconferencing choice for K-12 schools and colleges and universities during the pandemic.”

Strauss describes Zoombombing of online schooling at the University of Florida and in public schools from New York City to Los Angeles to the Alpine School District in Utah to the Edmonds School District in Washington state.  Strauss  reports that Zoom appears to be addressing security problems.


2 thoughts on “Pandemic Exposes the Limitations of Online Education

  1. This is true, that the pandemic is exposing the limits of online education. On a related note, the pandemic has also exposed how lacking we are in terms of even basic infrastructure for poorer people that many of the rest of us take for granted.

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