Educators Ponder Online Learning As Response to Lost Market Share

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s experiment with online learning in public schools during the COVID-19 epidemic has been widely panned as a poor substitute for in-person learning. But many school superintendents, spurred by the loss of thousands of students from public schools, are thinking that online learning may be here to stay, at least in a limited capacity.

In Virginia Beach the University of Virginia K-12 Advisory Council hosted Friday about 60 senior school administrators, mostly superintendents and assistant superintendents to discuss lessons learned from the COVID-19 experience. As part of the process, the organizers white-boarded suggested topics for breakout groups to discuss. There was a widespread sentiment that the epidemic had forced administrators to re-examine established ways of doing things.

Perhaps most remarkable was the recognition that public schools need to think about their “market share” in the educational marketplace. Apparently, the loss of 3% or more of student enrollments to private schools and home schools in some districts has been a real wake-up call. The decline in enrollments translates directly into a loss of state dollars.

One set of questions asked, “How may you position your district to sustain/regain market share if it is threatened?” The school superintendents were thinking like business people worried about the competition! Here are some of the discussion points listed in the digital white board that was shared with Bacon’s Rebellion:

  • “We must rethink our delivery systems to provide the same advantages to students and families that they get from homeschooling.”
  • “Virtual options that are high-quality and meet students’ needs (Virtual Academy is an example) will attract students and families.”
  • “Market share is also an issue from the perspective of staffing shortages. How many teachers would rather run a home schooling pod?”

What a breath of fresh air.

Another basket of questions: What parts of “normal” are worth rushing back to? Which past practices might not continue?

The superintendents agreed that face-to-face interactions between students and colleagues is still important, and also that physical schools and classrooms create a sense of community that cannot be replicated online. But, the document said, “virtual instruction is not going away.”

Administrators also have awakened to the idea that calendars and schedules can be far more flexible. The potential exists to move towards “differentiation and choices in learning environments rather than locked-in calendars.”

There was some discussion as well about how online learning can be a tool for reducing racial/ethnic inequity. Some results of online learning have been profoundly discouraging. In district after district, preliminary testing has indicated that a significant percent of young students, mostly poor and minorities, have lost ground in their reading skills. There is acknowledgement that the quality of virtual instruction has got to get better. One potential advantage of virtual learning would be to “more equitably distribute your most effective teachers.”

From my personal perspective, the most fascinating thing was to see administrators thinking of parents as customers (although that word was never used) rather than people who have to take what is given them. “Flexible learning experience is important for us to provide,” says one bullet point. “A subset of parents and students want it.”

Short-term, the COVID-19 school closings are a disaster. But they could prove to be a blessing in the longer term if they motivate substantive reform.

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16 responses to “Educators Ponder Online Learning As Response to Lost Market Share

  1. I’ll take all of the silver linings I can get these days. Hopefully this brainstorming session- and similar ones across the country – can help schools figure out how to better meet the needs of their communities going forward.

  2. Despite the vitriol and conventional wisdom that online/virtual is a fail, I think otherwise. The key is that online has to be high quality, much higher that what most systems were offering flatfooted.

    It can’t be video lectures… it’s got to be much more interactive and it needs to be each kid specific… keeping a record of what the kid did, what they are good at, what they have trouble with, etc…

    It will get better and as it does, it’s going to be folded into many Schools basic services.

    I see where Northam is considering Year-Round School. I thought that was already an option from VDOE. Do that this summer and keep going to help kids catch up a little.

    • Online learning can certainly be a successful, if very different, learning experience from in-person learning for certain subjects and age groups. One of the biggest issues right now is of course that teachers’ methods and their lesson plans were all designed for an in-person learning experience. Strategies for successful online learning programs are very different from those for in-person learning, and most teachers had no training or preparation time for the transition. How could they hope to be successful in such a context?

      • I’ve taken “software” courses for 20-30 years and there was no “teacher”, just the software, originally a tape, then online. I’m of the view that good online software does not really need a human teacher and that’s where things are different where some think that “online” should be somewhat like a standard teacher-on-one-side and student(s)-on-the-other and in my mind that’s not an effective model and I agree teachers were never trained to do that to start with.

        They also not trained to write high quality software. That job takes a gifted software developer – working in tandem with a gifted teacher for the content.

        The two methods are really different. Online needs to be more like a personal tutor not a standard teacher interaction – in my view.

        Good software is interactive software that also is assessing the student continuously, i.e. seeing what he got wrong and right and going back to what he got wrong and bringing up some more examples to teach, perhaps easier ones or several to see if it can find out what kind of problem she is having.

        Teachers can do that also – if they have enough time from trying to teache 10-15 at a time. The class is given an exercise to do while the kid with problems gets a personal tutor and/or gets sent out to see a Title 1 teacher. The problem is that neither the teacher nor the Title 1 can over see a certain number and if there are too many, not all kids may get enough help. That’s where software can leverage resolurces – and I think that’s what some of the school leaders might be thinking about.

        It’s also where non-public school alternatives might also leverage limited resources.

        It’s happening already but not as a teacher teaching on a computer monitor screen.

        • “Plato” was fully interactive online learning in the mid-70s. By 1980, it was using touch screens. When I saw it (demo), it was hosted on a mainframe at UoI Urbana-Champaign and you logged in over a phone cradle modem at a whopping 1200 baud.

          The story that was told in the demo was that they installed a Plato center in an inner city school in Baltimore as a test. After some time they noticed that CPU hours were exceeding school time wall clock allotment. **The kids were breaking into the school at night to learn.**

          They’re sponges, trite but true. Kids will adapt to online, no problem. The hard part seems to be making it fit the archaic classroom format, and any hands-on necessity, e.g, team activity, drama (theatric not teen), labs, shops, PE and filling in the social contact necessity to keep from creating a society of Skinner-baby Kaczynskis. .

          The available online content is massive, certainly exceeding anything and everything any BR contributor ever saw during their K-12 experience by truckloads.

    • Online laboratory is right out. Can’t store some of those chemicals under the sink, ya know. Now, biology lab, meh, that reminds me. Need to clean the fridge.

      The success of online depends on the same things as success of in-class. Number one is teacher enthusiasm.

    • Video learning is not a fail. Video learning the way it was practices across Virginia throughout the COVID-19 disruption is a fail. It was video lectures, it was not interactive and was not kid specific.

      • Sure. But it was doomed to fail because almost no teachers had received proper training, sufficient time to change their teaching practice, sufficient resources and access to helpful software, or knowledgeable experts to help them change how they teach. This is the same across the country and the world. I just don’t know that it was ever possible in most places to do this well. I know a lot of people think that schools should be open, and I can understand why.

        • For a proper timeline of the failures, when did the Gov. and his cabinet decide in person learning wasn’t going to be full time. I will go out on a limb and say it was long before August.

  3. The dying gasps of the last dinosaur, public k through 12 schools in Virginia, have begun, for those districts that do not jump in line behind innovative revolutions of South/West Virginia. Meanwhile the ideologues inthe state government continues to hack away at dying beast.

  4. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Hmmmm. How much you wanna bet that Mr. Northam and Superintendent Lane permit localities to use 2019 enrollment numbers so they don’t miss out on state funding?

  5. Online learning… The weaponization of Montessori.

    • Really? The Montessori learning that I am familiar with (granted, that was 45 years ago) relied heavily on tactile learning and social interaction. If it is going to be online, parents will need to invest in a lot of fairly expensive teaching aids.

  6. IF you have:
    A good Internet connection
    Students who want to learn and do the necessary work
    Parent(s) who will guide the students and make sure they are actually doing the program instead of playing games

  7. There seems to be no consideration of minding the children. If both parents work, so the children are home alone, will students (especially students with behavior problems) pay attention? They do spend much time playing games, but games require little intellectual development.

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