Now Is the Time to Make Online Schools Available to Everyone

Written: March 25, 2020

Originally published in OneZero

The spread of coronavirus in the United States has prompted thousands of schools and universities to shut down and move online, leading us to rethink the future of our education systems. A worldwide shutdown of schools at this rate and volume has been unprecedented, and now we can begin to imagine a possible dystopian future where similar shutdowns will become more commonplace due to climate change, pollution, or other pandemics. There’s no better time to talk about the need for an equitable, inclusive, global, and fully remote education system.

Remote education, or distance learning, was first introduced in the United States with the establishment of the U.S. Postal Service in the 1840s. “Instructional missives” were distributed via the postal service between students and professors through “commercial correspondence colleges.” Currently, there are 276 accredited online education programs recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

One such online college is Columbia Southern University (CSU), where my mother has been a physics professor for nearly a decade. Despite the fact that CSU is an entirely online university, the faculty and students face technological challenges on a near-daily basis, such as issues with CSU’s Learning Management System (Blackboard) and glitches in the recording software. According to my mother, at least one instructor at every faculty meeting asks the same questions about how to perform simple operations on the platform. In order to increase student engagement, the university has encouraged professors to hold weekly office hours. These “office hours” are open conference calls that any of the students can join to participate in conversations or ask questions. The problem is that no one joins. Perhaps this is due to the difficulty of managing the logistical issue of time zones; perhaps this is due to the unfriendly interface and experience of virtually interacting with strangers you have never met in person.

The majority of schools tend to use technology to enhance or extend existing educational systems rather than envisioning the possibility of an entirely new system.

Previously, I worked as a software engineer on the education team at Microsoft, where I worked on a learning platform built on Microsoft Teams. One of my main observations was that the majority of schools tend to use technology to enhance or extend existing educational systems rather than envisioning the possibility of an entirely new system. Platforms like Teams were great for encouraging technology usage in the classroom, however, they essentially enable students and teachers to do the same things they are already doing (grading or turning in assignments) but on computers instead of on paper. The systems themselves haven’t changed much.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), such as Coursera, EdX, and Udacity, are online platforms that allow students to learn a wide variety of subjects online, often for free. However, one of the main criticisms of MOOCs is that they mimic the traditional college course model — the only difference being that they’re online — and therefore share many of the latter’s problems, such as long recordings with little guidance or learning support, lack of interactivity, and lack of relationship with other people in the class.

What the online colleges, platforms like Teams, and MOOCs share is that they aim to project existing education systems onto the online space rather than to envision an entirely new system. How do we foster engaging discussion through online platforms while simultaneously managing students located in different time zones? How do we build flexible systems that can handle the scale of hundreds of thousands of students? How can we ensure a smooth transition for traditional pen-and-paper teachers to online methods of teaching? As more teachers are forced to bring their classes online for the foreseeable future, they are facing technological and logistical challenges that must be overcome before remote education can truly improve student outcomes in innovative ways. Merely moving a lecture online or allowing online assignment submissions does not necessarily create a new system of inclusive remote education.

Imagine a fully remote education system, where any student can access their classroom materials from any location in the world. Students with physical disabilities, chronic pain, unavoidable travel plans, bullying experiences at school, or long commutes would be able to participate in classroom assignments without missing education time, just like any other student. Such a system would be more inclusive, more accessible, and more global. No one would have to forgo their education for external reasons. In this way, a fully remote system would imply an equalizer of education opportunities for all.

Paradoxically, a fully remote education system would also reduce accessibility and inclusivity in some ways, due to the way that our education system is currently structured. Physical school buildings are important to the community partly because of the infrastructure and services they offer, such as meal distribution, childcare, social activities, and a physical space supplied with services such as internet access, air conditioning, and heating. These functions are important to the community and are often coupled with the physical school buildings. For students who reside in unsafe living conditions, who may not possess the necessary facilities for online learning (such as reliable internet access), or those who rely on schools to provide free or reduced meals, an entirely remote learning system would be a detriment to their learning environment.

With this paradox in mind, a truly inclusive global remote community could mean students learning in siloed bubbles, with their faces in their screens, avoiding social engagement and interaction, like the people of the 2008 dystopian Pixar film Wall-E. Or it could mean that anyone can live and attend school from anywhere and engage in social activities that are community-driven or geography-driven rather than school-driven. Perhaps the onus of offering the important functions currently offered by schools (that is, social activities, meal services, child services) can be decoupled from the school system and offered by local communities or other organizations. There are more questions than answers, and we are only beginning to have the many conversations we must have as thousands of schools and universities scramble to address the scope of moving online.

It is a time of chaos, confusion, and panic. Things are changing very quickly; every hour, more schools or universities are announcing closure. However, it is also a time for open conversations and experiments. Schools across the United States will endeavor many attempts to continue the school year online, and a high percentage of those attempts will face many problems. But these efforts will open new conversations and directions in education we haven’t even considered. These are conversations that we must continue to hold in the coming months and years as we battle the pandemic that has swept across the world and as we struggle to determine what the future of our education system will look like.