Warm sunshine was exactly what Christine Graziano’s son needed last winter. The mornings were feeling relentlessly gray in Pittsburgh—a place that’s full of beauty but happens to see more cloudy days than any other city in the nation. That, coupled with the pressure of the pandemic, had this normally cheerful 8-year-old struggling.
So the family made a choice that would have been impossible during a conventional school year: They went to Florida to stay with relatives for several weeks, schooling and working remotely while soaking up warmth, sunshine and connection with family in a COVID-safe bubble.
Within days, her son’s mood brightened, Graziano remembers, and “I saw him blossom in academic ways.”
She is eager to point out that there is real privilege in being able to load up a car, drive a thousand miles and visit relatives. This isn’t something every family has the option of doing.
But for all families, Graziano sees a groundbreaking truth in the experiment of remote learning: As imperfect and messy as the upending of traditional schooling has been, that disruption brought much-needed flexibility to a system long focused on rigidity.
Until last year, most kids were being educated from a perspective designed a century ago. At many schools, children of the same age were expected to move at the same rate through the same work in the same room at the same time.
Meanwhile, our world continues changing at an increasingly stunning pace. People change jobs multiple times during modern careers, and today’s students will pursue jobs that no one has even imagined yet. They will need to think flexibly and solve problems creatively.
For millions of children, the flexibility of online learning is a vital step in preparing for the future that’s steaming toward us all. It’s also a key to personalizing learning and making it more culturally responsive.
Graziano clearly isn’t alone in seeing these possibilities: Last October, the National Parents Union surveyed 1,000 parents from diverse backgrounds and found that the majority want schools to prioritize high-quality distance learning and to continue offering some form of virtual instruction after the pandemic ends.
Nearly two-thirds (64%) of those surveyed agreed that “schools should be focused on rethinking how we educate students, coming up with new ways to teach children moving forward as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.”
Research done in October and November by the RAND Corporation found a similar appetite among families and schools. One of their key findings: “About two in 10 districts have already adopted, plan to adopt, or are considering adopting virtual school as part of their district portfolio after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. District leaders cited reasons related to student and parent demand for continuing various forms of online instruction in future years.”
In the Pittsburgh area, districts are already thinking creatively about the potential power of post-COVID online learning.
Just one example: Innovation Works and Allegheny Health Network (AHN) have opened an incubator called AlphaLab Health to help innovative healthcare and life sciences startups grow. It’s located just a five-minute drive from Northgate High School.
Those running it are open to welcoming high schoolers who could gain real-world experience and discover potential careers during internships. This educational experience—and all the informal mentoring and motivation that comes with it—could help lift students out of poverty, says Dr. Caroline Johns, superintendent at Northgate.
But when this idea first surfaced before the pandemic, there was a huge roadblock: If you bring students to AlphaLab Health offices for part of the day, how would they make it to their other classes?
Technology changes all of that: Post-pandemic, a group of students could go to the new complex, spend one or two class periods doing their internship, and then log in via laptops to attend their other classes via Zoom.
Online learning, says Johns, has solved the previously insurmountable problem of “they need to be back for sixth period.”
This kind of program would leverage technology in the service of real-world, face-to-face learning out in the community. It would give students the chance to grapple with complex problems, develop their teamwork skills and make connections that could change their lives.
Online learning has its pitfalls, to be sure. In the past year, millions of children have missed out on valuable social time with their peers and teachers. The digital divide remains a massive and growing problem that must be tackled. Schools and families have only just begun to sort through the best ways to use technology in each community.
But at this malleable moment in history, we have the opportunity to ensure that each and every young person experiences learning that ignites their passions, cultivates their curiosity and builds their skills. Technology, used with care and with equity in the service of deeper human connection, can help us make that happen.