Opinion: Quality online learning is possible

Tom Watkins

During this COVID-19 pandemic, children have been forced into remote learning. What has followed are parents pulling their hair out, kids who are bored and education faltering.

There is a lot of finger-pointing among parents, policymakers, local school boards and superintendents about e-learning not delivering the education our children need and deserve. 

Sadly, teachers were asked to move their classes online without additional time, support or resources. What has followed in many schools has contributed to a widespread view that e-learning is mediocre at best and downright unacceptable at worst. 

It does not need to be this way.

I know a bit about online learning. Following my tenure as Michigan’s state superintendent from 2001-05, I wrote a report, “The New Education (R)evolution: Exploring E-Learning Reforms for Michigan.” This report and an earlier one by then-State Board of Education member Michael Warren, “Embracing the Information Age,” outlined a series of policy recommendations that are as relevant today as when we wrote them.

The coronavirus is exposing cracks in our preparedness and grand inequities on multiple levels. Opportunities should be explored to enhance learning, Watkins says.

Fifteen years later, however, many schools were still not ready to switch to online learning when COVID hit. Remote learning programs were launched on the fly.  

To be clear, I am not advocating that online learning replace the human touch that happens with face-to-face teaching and learning. All of us look for the day when our children can return to the classroom. Yet, sadly, few schools have really explored the full potential technology can offer that prepares students for their future. No employer or university is going to give an unprepared student a pass in future opportunities because they came of age during the 2020 pandemic.

The coronavirus is exposing cracks in our preparedness and grand inequities on multiple levels. Opportunities should be explored to enhance learning.

After this crisis passes, it would be wise for the governor, state board of education, state superintendent and Legislature — with the direct input of teachers — to examine the policies, practices and staff development that must be modified or created to allow children to learn at any time, place or pace using online learning tools.  There is no need for learning to stop at any time — beyond the pandemic, this offers an opportunity to extend and accelerate learning during unexpected absences, “snow days” and other interruptions if we prepare now.

When the COVID tsunami hit, I was serving as the China partner and managing director of Centric Learning. This robust, project-based learning Michigan company has been around for over a decade and has tied its offerings to national standards, is international accredited and is being used in the U.S. and around the globe.

We literally switched over to remote learning without missing a beat. Student, teacher and parent engagement continues at a high level today, accelerating both learning and outcomes.

Schools need to evaluate proven online programs that front-load the excitement for learning. Here is how:

►We need to shift the paradigm from comparing e-learning to face-to-face instruction.  Rather, we need to examine where online tools and resources can personalize learning, build greater engagement and support students with different learning styles and needs.

►Schools need to develop e-learning strategies that align with broader district goals. E-learning can play a significant role in reaching disengaged students, accelerating learning where students have fallen behind, and those who find it difficult to prosper in a large school environment.

►Bringing teachers into the conversation. Teachers remain expert at connecting with students, and impacting their performance. Many have considerable experience that can be harnessed to imagine new possibilities in the classroom.  

Technology is best when viewed as one tool, not a panacea to cure all wrongs. Real success in e-learning will come as more districts and teachers work together to embrace new tools that can advance their aims in the classroom, and prepare students for the hyper-competitive, highly wired 21st century economy where ideas and jobs can and do move around the world effortlessly.

Tom Watkins is a former Michigan state superintendent of schools and state mental health director.