When the coronavirus took the world by surprise in the early months of 2020, schools were among the first entities to close their doors, ceasing operations as normal. While a small percentage of schools, especially those already employing a robust one-to-one device program, were positioned to transition to remote delivery immediately, most schools needed at least one or two weeks to put in place even a basic plan for the massive conversion. Those plans were insufficient to make the instant 180-degree pivot from in-person to remote schooling.
The Past Nine Months
The summer break served as a time for reflection of the prior few months of makeshift remote learning and an opportunity to adjust and improve the plan for schools that opted not to reopen on schedule for the 2020-2021 academic year. However, the widespread consensus is that the continued remote learning plans and associated execution have been subpar at best.
As a result, there has been a mass educational exodus from schools, with over three million students taking flight. Of those maintaining enrollment, student absenteeism has skyrocketed. A host of reasons have contributed to students not showing up to their remote schooling — lack of internet connectivity, inadequate home learning environment, caring for siblings, and an overall lack of supervision due to working parents. Student engagement has plummeted. Similarly, teachers are exhausted — further perpetuating the problem.
Can remote learning be an effective educational delivery method? Can students thrive in that learning environment? Can teachers connect authentically with students? Can students connect meaningfully with their peers? If so, what conditions positively foster these elements? A look to our neighboring nation to the north provides a shining example of remote learning working well.
A Remote School Model Worth Replicating
Located in picturesque Kelowna, along the eastern shore of the breathtaking Okanagan Lake in the province of British Columbia, Heritage Christian Online School (HCOS) offers a remote learning model worth noticing and replicating. Launched in 2004, HCOS is a frontrunner in serving K-12 school students remotely. Their distance learning model, commonly referred to as distributed learning, starts with a personalized learning plan custom-built for each student. This is no small feat as enrollment numbers exceed 6,000 students.
Elementary and middle school students have a variety of learning options for parents to select from, ranging from parent-directed learning kits to a hybrid model, as well as online courses starting in grade five. Learning kits utilized in the younger grades make distance learning hands-on, engaging, and age-appropriate. This is a far cry from the all-too-common attempt in U.S. schools to confine a five to nine-year-old child to a chair for a slew of Zoom meetings — the platform and delivery model used by adults working from home.
At HCOS, high school students have state-of-the-art online courses, which have been built and continually refined over many years. Each course is designed specifically for the online modality as opposed to taking a face-to-face course and attempting to convert it for online delivery. This is a critical difference.
The traditional K-12 one-size-fits-all model is not a part of the HCOS education approach. Rather, teachers work closely with each family to design the customized learning plan and curriculum based on the individual student’s needs. The high degree of one-on-one communication with the family is paramount and includes regular progress evaluations based on the student’s unique learning plan.
Student learning groups are also created to provide a variety of face-to-face learning opportunities with peers. These shared student experiences cultivate meaningful connections between students and create opportunities for students to develop interpersonal skills.
The curriculum contains hands-on learning and project-based learning, and is adaptable to serve students of widely ranging abilities. Cross-curricular connections between subjects are made. According to Academic Head of School, Sara Kraushar, “Students are exposed to big curricular ideas explored through inquiry-based projects which intentionally develop core social and emotional competencies.”
Serving Special Education Students
Remote learning triggered by closed schools in the U.S. has especially failed special education students. As outlined in the recent Executive Order on Expanding Educational Opportunity Through School Choice:
A recent survey found that 80 percent of children with special needs are not receiving the services and supports to which they are entitled and that approximately 40 percent of children with special needs are receiving no services or supports. Moreover, the survey found that virtual learning may not be fully accessible to these students, as children with special needs are twice as likely to receive little or no remote learning.Executive Order on Expanding Educational Opportunity Through School Choice
Again HCOS provides a positive example to emulate. Thirty-six percent of HCOS students have special needs, ranging from a learning disability such as dyslexia to quadriplegia. The school coordinates and provides the full range of therapies these students receive, exceeding the services traditional campus schools offer. These include speech and language pathology, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, behavior intervention, vision and hearing support, counseling, behavioral consulting, and tutoring. Craig Kwiatkowski, Business Head of School, highlights that “with the academic and professional supports provided, our students are thriving. Their parents are grateful for the schools’ comprehensive plan for their child.”
As Phyllis Lockett describes in Forbes, in the typical in-person to remote school conversion, “many schools are attempting to replicate the traditional one-size-fits-all classroom experience in their remote strategies—lecturing to students in rows of Zoom tiles instead of desks.” Conversely, for the HCOS student, learning is about exploration, not just sitting in front of a computer screen or working through a workbook. Learning camps, co-ops, and one day a week community connections face-to-face classes round out the HCOS academic experience.
Differing Skills Needed & the Role of Motivation
A commonly overlooked reality is that teachers’ job functions and skillsets for excellent remote learning instruction and facilitation differ from those of a traditional classroom teacher. HCOS considers this important factor in recruiting and hiring, as well as training, for remote learning. In short, the teacher’s transition to remote instruction, just like that of the student, necessitates training, support, and, most importantly must include, motivation by the individual.
A foundation element for the superior success witnessed by HCOS students is their selection of the school. In other words, the family intentionally enrolls their student in remote learning. This vested interest by the parents and students changes everything. The avenue of choice is a motivator by nature. Student motivation is directly linked to student performance. This link between school choice and student motivation and performance has been witnessed widespread in charter schools, as Thomas Sowell explains in his texts Discrimination and Disparities, and Charter Schools and Their Enemies.
The same is true for the teachers — those choosing to work for HCOS have specifically opted to teach in a distance learning environment, which is significantly different from an in-person traditional classroom environment. As with students, teacher drive and engagement are higher when allowed a choice of job function. COVID-19 school closures have thrust upon students and teachers a school experience they did not choose and that many find disagreeable. It’s no surprise that student and teacher performances are negatively impacted.
As Phyllis Lockett summarizes, “schools focused on personalized learning have a tremendous advantage in this era of remote instruction. Students steeped in personalized learning are agile, digitally fluent and in command of their own learning—the very skills that are proving essential to succeed today…teaching also is more productive, since the personalized-learning approach fosters a collaborative problem-solving culture.”
Transferring the Model to the U.S.
Wondering what the tuition price tag is for this personalized, private K-12 education offering? Most would assume it is highly expensive. Actually, it’s provided at no cost to families or in some cases a mere $200 per year thanks to British Columbia’s public and private education funding policies. While private schools receive less government funding per student than public schools, they creatively work within their budgets to provide a competitive offering. A free market K-12 education model allowing parental school choice is another principle the U.S. would be wise to replicate.