Emanuel Pariser: To make online learning work, broadband is only half the battle

In rural Maine, where people often live far from neighbors and friends, the COVID-19 pandemic has layered in new kinds of isolation. The impact on school children has been tough: the daily structure, social interaction and intellectual stimulation they get from school was upended overnight.

Emanuel Pariser

While Maine has given a “green light” to re-open schools, some districts don’t plan to bring every student back full-time this fall. That means these challenges will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

We need to begin reassessing education in this light.

Many pundits are looking for simple solutions, such as expanding broadband to homes that don’t have it. The federal government included $14 billion in new CARES Act funding to help students get connectivity and devices and many broadband providers have stepped up by extending free service during the pandemic. The FCC will also start awarding billions of dollars for new rural broadband projects this fall, and leaders in Congress are working across party lines on ideas to speed up that effort. Those are good starts.

But as important as broadband access is, it’s only part of the solution. Most students who aren’t participating in distance education already have broadband at home. To make remote learning work, education leaders also need to provide teachers, parents and students with the tools and learning context needed to succeed in a digital environment.

Teachers have cited numerous issues with remote learning in recent months, including lack of preparation and low student engagement. Attendance may be tracked by as few as 27% of schools, and the number of students logging in appears to vary widely, even across Maine. One poll suggested over 40% of high school students simply don’t show up. Teachers report that nearly 60% of their kids aren’t able to get hands-on support from their parents during the virtual school day.

I have had some experience in working to engage kids learning under challenging circumstances, having co-founded the Community School in Camden, and more recently the Threshold High School program at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley.

Threshold supports students whose life challenges make conventional school attendance difficult or impossible. Students attend school remotely, via online learning, and come into the school once a month to take part in our nature-based program. Each student works with one teacher who is both their adviser and teacher for all subjects. Each teacher works with a maximum of 10 students.

Our school’s deep experience with remote, individualized education gives us a unique perspective on the bumpy transition millions of students have experienced in recent months.

Many of our students didn’t have home computers or internet access before coming to our school, so we have budgeted for hardware and connectivity. Our experience has taught us that connectivity alone isn’t enough to make remote learning successful.

What families really need are individualized, engaging curricula and consistent coaching and contact from at least one primary teacher.

Teachers have to be creative to bolster students’ motivation as teens are often disenfranchised by past school experiences or dealing with harrowing life circumstances. These challenges are unfortunately common across the country, and only heightened during the pandemic.

Distance learning won’t succeed unless we attack these challenges at their roots.

Digital literacy education can support online proficiency for kids and their families, and will pay off for years to come. Community and school outreach can bolster parental involvement and support. A consistent, caring adult teaching and advising students and their families is paramount.

Teaching real-world skills could give online learning more relevance to students struggling through a challenging period. For online classes, smaller breakout sessions and one-on-one instructions with teachers can support a student-centered approach.

The distance learning transition has proven rocky for schools nationwide, but our experience shows learning in a remote format can work even with students who have daunting daily challenges. Roadmaps exist for others to follow. The stakes are too high not to try.

Emanuel Pariser is adviser and school designer at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley.

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