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Two Years of Online Learning – How did we do and where do we go from here?

By Amanda Robertson

I have spent my career designing online learning experiences, so I may have been better prepared than most for the impact of all the time we’ve spent learning and meeting and communicating solely online these past two years. And I can probably understand better than most what it would mean for some people to have to actually teach and learn solely online, too. It isn’t for everyone. But some people love teaching and learning online. They love how it expands who they can teach – both expanding the numbers of students, and also where their students live. And the students love how it opens doors to who they can learn from and therefore what they can learn. And they both love the flexibility. And the technology. There’s some cool technology out there that really makes learning fun and engaging. But…

My sister-in-law retired as a public school teacher in the early days of the pandemic because teaching online caused her so much stress. She taught 2nd graders. She is an amazing teacher. But how many 2nd graders learned how to read in an online class last year? And while teaching and learning online may be challenging for many, I think what is really at the heart of what we faced last year – and what we are facing this year as a society – is what the experts are calling learning loss. Because for many, sadly, there wasn’t any learning at all. 

This is deeply sobering, but there is also reason to believe that we have hit a crescendo – a tipping point – to finally prioritize education in this country. I believe that concerns around learning loss have pressured states to invest in education like never before. Legislatures are pouring money into developing cutting-edge reading programs to educate public school teachers and to support our learners in the classroom. Corporations with philanthropic arms are putting together grants to promote development of new literacy programs to be delivered online and across media platforms. So, I am hopeful. And I am deeply proud of how so many rose to the moment to support learning during perhaps the most challenging period in our lifetimes. 

Because of my business I have been well-positioned to both observe and support organizations as they evolved in order to rise to this moment and deliver learning online. This can be a monumental shift for an organization that hasn’t delivered anything online before. 

Take The Barksdale Reading Institute in Mississippi: They were founded by the former CEO of Netscape, James Barksdale, in 2000 to improve Mississippi’s reading scores. They have made huge strides these past 22 years serving the state’s reading teachers and developing and supporting education programs to help young readers. And they have become a model for this work across the country. But they have always done this work in person, holding training workshops and classes for teachers across the state. So they were stopped in their tracks when COVID shut down their in-person instruction. But early in the pandemic they purchased a subscription to a Learning Management System (LMS) and we began working with them in August 2020 to help design their training to be offered online. 

Similarly, Teach For America (TFA) had to scramble to rethink their Summer Institute – an intensive in-person summer education program delivered to about 3,000 new college graduates every year – which suddenly had to be delivered fully online. Summer Institute prepares their corps members in a variety of subject areas to teach in K-12 classrooms around the country, reaching some of our most at-risk kids. We were supporting a team of national reading experts to develop their Science of Reading course. But again, that was only one course of many. It was a herculean lift for TFA, and a successful one! Yet within a couple of months of all of this learning their corp members also had to be prepared to teach entirely online themselves. 

COVID also had an impact on those who were already delivering some of their instruction online. Take the entire University of North Carolina System of Community Colleges and Universities; while they already had thousands of courses offered online in the state, it was not enough to support all students enrolled across the curriculum. The Farthest Pixel supported a collaboration between PBS NC and Rhombus Learning as they brought online learning to hundreds of NC faculty to teach them how to develop and teach their own online courses in a huge “teach the teachers” effort!

We’ve also been working with Hill Learning Center in Durham, North Carolina. Hill supports K-12 students who have learning differences, and they teach the teachers who instruct these students through their HillRAP program. Hill already had many online course offerings when COVID hit, but this meant their entire program now had to be delivered online. We entered the Designing for Good competition in Summer 2020 and were awarded funding to support this nonprofit in their important work. And today, their HillRAP program is offered fully online.

The Future?

So, where will we go from here? Well, take Teach For America for example; we supported them again last year to deliver the Science of Reading in their fully online 2021 Summer Institute program, and they plan to continue doing so – permanently. It’s a solid business model for them. The Barksdale Reading Institute is working with new partners to expand their online teacher instruction through a new vision for Reading Universe, a program they started many years ago that will soon be available through PBS affiliate, WETA. So, many companies will continue to invest in online learning solutions. And many K-12 school districts plan to continue offering online options to their students, too, even though most students are back to in-person instruction. Online learning is a great solution for many students for a variety of reasons, but also a good option to manage situations like snow days, where kids can now learn at home instead of making up those days on Saturdays or in June, well after they should be out for summer break. Who knows what other creative opportunities are happening out there!

I believe we will improve our K-12 instruction through many of the investments happening now, but I hope states and institutions will continue to invest in our public schools and in our teachers, and strive to meet the needs of our youngest learners. This will continue to be our biggest challenge. Too many families in this country do not have affordable Internet access; and for many, their Internet service just isn’t fast enough to participate in online learning opportunities. Identifying a path for young learners to learn outside the classroom will be critical. For example, we supported PBS North Carolina last year in their work with the NC Department of Public Instruction, animating nearly 200 K-5 math and literacy video lessons that were then broadcast across the state and beyond. This program helped meet the needs of some of our youngest learners who lacked Internet access. We must ensure that all states are prepared to roll out a similar program if the need arises again. And experts say that it likely will. So let’s prepare. 



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