OPINION: Online school can work, if done right

(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

Never before have students from across the world turned to online classes to the extent observed during the pandemic. Isolated at home and away from friends, many people dreaded the experience of having class over Zoom. It didn’t help that schools struggled to set up an engaging and organized online learning experience.

If online classes are executed properly, though, they can have many strengths that supplement and improve the quality of students’ traditional in-person education. With the pandemic hopefully winding down, primary and secondary schools should encourage and provide students the opportunity to take online courses in addition to their in-person classes in order to help students break geographical barriers by conveniently connecting them to people from different places across the world for a reasonable price. 

Most middle and high school students do not have the opportunity and resources to study abroad, sometimes making their learning environment feel like a bubble. However, through taking online courses with small class sizes, students can meet peers from different backgrounds and gain exposure to different cultures and perspectives. While meeting people through Zoom or a similar platform is arguably less engaging than meeting in-person, meaningful conversations and interactions can still be effectively carried out on many online platforms, helping students develop a global network and mindset.

For students that are very busy with extracurricular commitments, taking online courses for a semester or a year can also help them better balance their commitments. Personally, I had many high school peers who were busy with long after school training sessions, part-time jobs or internships or frequent travel for athletics, robotics or debate competitions. They were constantly lacking sleep and found it difficult to focus in class. 

If given the opportunity to take online classes for a semester or year when they would have been the most busy, they would have been able to save a lot of time and energy with transportation and work with a more flexible schedule. They could still take class asynchronously and access the recorded lessons when needed. Learning experiences that happen outside of the classroom are extremely valuable as well, so it is important for students to have the option to use online classes as a way to better balance their commitments.  

It should be clarified that online learning should not completely replace in-person classrooms, as in the model of Stanford Online Learning or Minerva University, because students and teachers alike are more likely to pay attention when physically present together, instead of calling in from one’s room filled with potential distractions. Teachers can also read the expressions of their students better, helping them clarify when students look confused or call them out when they become distracted. Staring at a screen does not seem to have the ability to recreate the authentic experience of an in-person classroom. That is why in-person classrooms cannot be replaced, but they can still be supplemented by online classes.

That being said, the reason why many people experienced a rather distasteful online learning experience is because our teachers lacked experience teaching online. There are many instructors who have successfully gone through extensive training to teach online at educational institutions such as Minerva and Stanford Online High School. Instructors effectively use various digital platforms such as the Forum platform to engage a small class size of at most 18 students in seminars by moving fluidly between discussion, breakout groups, debates, simulations, quizzes, polls and team presentations.

During class, instead of giving long lectures, the instructor actively poses questions to students and asks them to respond to polls, to make sure everyone understands the concepts, is engaged and can share their perspectives. Furthermore, the instructor frequently uses the breakout room feature to have students collaborate in groups of two to five to discuss and collaborate on team presentations and documents, making sure that students actively participate through collaboration. Once the class is over, the instructor even takes the time to rewatch the lesson and give tailored, specific feedback based on the responses and work of each student. Thus, the instructor’s deft use of these features to engage students demonstrates that online learning can be effective when the instructors are trained properly to teach online.

Another concern is that incorporating online learning into the curriculum may exacerbate educational inequities for K-12 students due to lack of access to fast internet and technological devices. However, it should be noted that the pandemic has spurred increased attention towards ensuring that more students from different socioeconomic backgrounds have fast internet. President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included a record $65 billion towards making high-speed internet more accessible and affordable. While increasing funds isn’t guaranteed to resolve all inequities, it is a historic step towards making online learning more accessible to all students. 

The strengths of online learning and its ability to engage students makes it a promising supplement to our traditional in-person learning experience. We should not let its poor execution during the pandemic overshadow the benefits that it provides students: breaking down geographic barriers and offering greater schedule flexibility.

Alexander Chao PO ’25 is from Taipei, Taiwan. He enjoys reading about nutrition, watching anime and road cycling.

OPINION: Online school can work, if done right

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