New research suggests students are learning considerably less from virtual environments



More than 55 million K-12 students in the US have transitioned to online classrooms during the coronavirus pandemic, but research from education nonprofit NWEA suggests that these students are learning considerably less from virtual environments than they had from in-person classrooms, according to The Wall Street Journal.


As a consequence of the switch to remote learning, US students in grades 3-8 are anticipated to make only an estimated 70% of the reading gains and 50% of math gains compared with what they would typically learn in a school year, according to NWEA estimates based on a national sample of 5 million students. The study also suggests that low-income students — who are more likely to lack internet access — will be disproportionately hurt by the transition to online education.


Remote learning represents a significant revenue opportunity for big tech and telecoms alike. For more than a decade, big tech companies including Apple and Google have targeted the education sector as an opportunity for growth.


The onset of the pandemic has simply accelerated what was expected to be a gradual shift to remote learning, and in response, companies have attempted to grab a larger share of the market: Google Classrooms and Zoom extended free services to schools, for instance, while Verizon and Charter partnered with school districts to expand internet access for education purposes. These initiatives have often yielded outsize returns — Google Classrooms, for instance, surpassed 100 million active users by April 2020, doubling its pre-pandemic user base, according to Bloomberg.  


  • Children's ability to socialize and play is restricted by online environments. These elements are critical to students' ability to develop emotional and social intelligence, and likewise have been shown to improve children's ability to learn throughout the day. Some schools have turned to informal video conferencing sessions to create a social environment, but this is an imperfect solution — excessive screen time for children has been linked to anxiety, depression, and suppression of curiosity. 

  • Teachers struggle to deliver personalized instruction to students in virtual settings, and the responsibility instead falls to parents who may not be up to the task. Delna Bryan, a middle school teacher from Dallas, told The Wall Street Journal that remote learning limited her ability to read students' body language, which is often critical to assessing their comprehension. Schools have called on parents to assist with in-person learning, but this often isn't feasible in many households, putting children at a disadvantage.

  • Many students' homes are not conducive to learning. Schools provide resources to students that may not be available in their homes, including access to free lunches, school supplies, and library books. Students' baseline feelings of safety and security are essential to learning, and teachers have less control over these factors when students are dispersed unevenly across different learning environments. 

To effectively address the education market post-pandemic, tech companies and telecoms should design their remote learning products with these inherent limitations in mind. This means their products should attempt to complement the in-person classroom experience, rather than offer a substitute for it. For instance, educators likely won't be rushing out after the pandemic to buy VR headsets to simulate an in-person classroom, but they may be inclined to use G Suite to collect students' homework or track and distribute grades. For telecoms, the continued use of online technology, even to complement in-person classrooms, will bolster initiatives that have emerged during the pandemic to lessen the connectivity divide.

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