When Online Learning Works

by James A. Bacon

Trenell “Tre” Milana, a Richmond-area teen, has a number of learning disabilities including autism. His local school system tried mainstreaming him, but he couldn’t keep up with other students. Despite low grades, the system socially promoted him through the 6th grade.

“With the processing delay, you would tell him something and go onto the next subject, and then the next subject, and all the kids are keeping up but Trenell is still trying to figure out the first thing you told him,” his mother Latoya Milana explained to WWBT television. “When he was in mainstream he would fail; 50s and 60s from November until May.”

In 7th grade, the working single mom decided that something had to change. She enrolled Tre in Virtual Virginia Academy. He thrived. “I think he finished with all A’s and B’s in 7th grade,” she said. “That has never happened with him.”

Tre’s story reflects the experience of just one kid, and one should be careful drawing broader conclusions. With that caveat, permit me to make a few observations.

First (and this hits close to home due to my flogging last year by the autistic-mom Twitter Outrage Mob), mainstreaming may not be the best option for an autistic child. Undoubtedly, every child is unique, but in Tre’s case, taking him out of school removed distractions that hampered his learning.

Second, despite the widespread belief that online learning is inferior to in-person learning, home clearly is a more appropriate learning setting for Tre. Virginians should be open to the possibility that online learning can be beneficial to many other children, depending upon circumstances.

Third, we should consider the possibility that it is easier in an online environment to maintain class discipline. “The teachers have it in a controlled environment,” Milana said. “If the kids are getting rowdy and not paying attention, they shut down the chatbox, shutdown the webcams.” Who benefits the most from this arrangement? Students who otherwise would be subjected to frequent outbursts from problem kids. 

Meanwhile, virtual learning has gone mainstream as many school districts have chosen to cope with the COVID-19 epidemic by closing the schools and teaching online. The first few days have been marred by numerous glitches — failure to connect to WiFi, devices not accepting login credentials, and the like — as teachers and students get the technology to work. School systems are far better prepared, however, than they were last spring when they scrambled to convert to online learning. The spring experiment is widely regarded as a flop. This fall the true test begins.

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11 responses to “When Online Learning Works

  1. Thank you for this post.

    Different kids learn different ways – most teachers will tell you this and that’s a challenge for a classroom teacher. It’s one of the first things a Title 1 teacher does – is try to determine where the problems are – that a classroom teacher can’t do and still be fair to the other students.

    What a computer can do – even if not online – is tutor (with good software) – it can patiently work with the kid on issues they are slow on. The software can – by looking at the answers – determine what kinds of learning problems are involved and target those areas with more practice, testing and answer analysis.

    We have an entirely too negative mindset about “virtual” IMHO.

    I believe that after the pandemic ends – we’re going to continue to use virtual for homework and for additional “help” for slow students.

    Finally, in a COVID19 world – it becomes a game of priorities.

    It’s more important to get the reading and math than it is the history and social studies – not that the other does not need to be done – but right now – the most important thing for many kids is reading, writing and math and those things can be done on a computer – even with young kids, most of whom are very comfortable with computers and related devices.

  2. Yep, reading ‘righting and ‘rithmatic.

    The state was deeply into setting up this virtual option long before the pandemic, and I agree with Larry (returning the favor) that the virtual approach is here to stay to some extent. It is just too convenient. Different kids work best with different approaches, and finding that is the key. The other key is parental focus and involvement, which this kid clearly enjoys.

    • Readin’, rightin’, ‘rithmetic, and rhythm… don’t forget sex ed.

      Virtual makes it more akin to Montessori, eh?

    • Years ago there was “distance learning” which consisted of books and tapes mailed to the student. That’s been largely replaced with online instruction. In Higher Education today, most in-person classes are a blend or hybrid containing elements of both in-person and online.

      For K12, positive parental involvement is key either way. When our children were growing up the neighbor next door was bright, but was given almost no restrictions or parental support for school. We tried to get him to come over to study with our boys, but he declined. He had trouble in school and eventually dropped out.

  3. “Second, despite the widespread belief that online learning is inferior to in-person learning, …”

    You need to take a well constructed online class. What the schools in Virginia are doing is not online learning. It is in-person training broadcast over the internet. A class built to be taught online from the “ground up” is, in many ways, a far better alternative to in-person teaching. For one thing, the students can self-pace.

    What the teachers’ unions should really fear is not Donald Trump but a competent set of online training courses that will cut the need for live teachers by far more than half.

    Do you really think it’s only travel agents and bank tellers who will be largely replaced by technology?

    • Though the tenor is a little rough – the substance of what DJ says I agree with. Virtual is off to a rough start but it will improve. I don’t know how motivated public schools are, and all they have to do is agree with the critics about how bad it is to not want to improve it – and keep their day jobs.

      And yes, I do take “online” courses and do agree they are much better when they are much more than a teacher in a “zoom” type window.

      The thing is – such software already does exist. It’s just not yet incorporated into the public schools – but you may well see it in private schools.

      I keep saying – this is where the public schools are going to have to step up or the tide is going to go around them.

      Classroom teaching in-person is still important and the best for some kids but it’s not the best for kids that are behind – and behind the others in class – that’s where virtual has promise as individual tutor – again – it does not have to be “online” – that actually goes to DJ’s comment that “virtual” is not a TV broadcast of “in-person” – it’s much different and if done right – very good.

      Ya’ll are gonna see – this is going to play out in successful ways. Just has a rough start like a lot of new things do.

  4. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    No doubt that Tre is going to be a success now. He seems to have found his niche for learning and absorbing knowledge. I still think live teaching is going to be important. I think the best live teaching is going to move to non institutional settings.

  5. “What the schools in Virginia are doing is not online learning. It is in-person training broadcast over the internet. A class built to be taught online from the “ground up” is, in many ways, a far better alternative to in-person teaching. For one thing, the students can self-pace.”

    I agree with this 100 percent.

  6. 50 years ago… and yet we are still behind

    https://www.britannica.com/topic/PLATO-education-system

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