The academic spring semester took an extraordinary turn as the coronavirus pandemic swept the world. State shutdowns and stay-at-home orders shuttered schools and colleges, with 98% of institutions moving to online learning. Almost overnight, educators went from teaching classes in person to navigating the tides of distance learning. Across the globe, the pandemic affected the education of over 1.5 billion schoolchildren.
This past spring semester provided a glimpse into the potential benefits and pitfalls of online instruction. For some, the verdict is already in: remote learning has failed. To them, the challenges of maintaining student engagement and training faculty less familiar with technology are too difficult to overcome. However, my own experiences running educational programs these past few months tells a far different story.
The pandemic threatened the ability of my organization, the Foundation for Teaching Economics (FTE), to fulfill our mission of offering economics courses to high school teachers and students. Like most educational institutions, we conducted most of our pre-COVID instruction in-person, with an emphasis on experiential education. Highly effective and engaging, our in-person classroom activities and simulations that teach economics concepts are at the core of our curriculum and are used by economics teachers nationwide. Unfortunately, some of these activities are almost impossible to run online.
To serve our constituents and stay relevant during the pandemic, we rapidly pivoted to an online-only approach with a focus on maintaining our effective interactive pedagogy. Instead of offering just an asynchronous course format, which may limit student engagement, FTE staff created highly interactive “live” synchronous courses. Through the creative use of the Zoom web conferencing platform, as well as the interactive applications Pear Deck and MobLab, we recreated our economics activities for the virtual classroom.
As our summer student courses finish, I am pleased to report that we overcame the concerns that online education cannot meet the challenge of maintaining student engagement. One proxy for student engagement is the level of attrition and no-shows. While many school districts reported significant no-shows this past spring, our attrition rate was less than 1%. Of the 601 students enrolled in our virtual summer economics courses, only two dropped out. Zoom’s breakout rooms and whiteboard features provided opportunities for small group discussions while Pear Deck enabled instructors to create interactive slide decks that kept sessions from devolving into one-way conversations.
In addition to keeping students engaged, technology has enabled us to address the other criticism of online: faculty training. In just the last four months, through web conferencing platforms, we have introduced over 700 teachers to resources on how to teach about COVID-19 and, more importantly, how to use technology to transform their virtual classroom into a vibrant interactive learning environment. This number already surpasses the total number of teachers who participated in our in-person professional development programs in 2019. Although we will not reach every teacher, our ability to use technology to scale our training sessions will go far to improve online education.
Despite all the unexpected challenges that the pandemic has brought to education, our experience shows that [pullquote]COVID-19 has also created room for innovation and growth, by forcing us to rethink not only the importance of education itself, but also how it is delivered.[/pullquote] We must utilize the latest technologies, rather than finding reasons to avoid them. Given that most school districts across the country will continue teaching online this fall, adopting these meaningful changes will pave the way for a scenario where educators and parents perceive both in-person and distance learning as equally valuable.
Although that outcome may give pause to some, it’s far too soon to write off online learning. I believe we are more likely to see a greater expansion of remote education, now that schools and universities have experienced it in action. We educators should take this in stride. By embracing the positive aspects of online learning while preparing to mitigate any challenges it may create, we can continue to deliver a world-class education for our students—whether they’re sitting in our classroom or participating through a computer screen.
Ted Tucker is the executive director at the Foundation for Teaching Economics (FTE), a nonprofit educational organization that promotes experiential learning and the economic way of thinking. FTE was established in 1975 and operates as a program of The Fund for American Studies (TFAS).
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