Schools Squandered Virtual Learning
Mar 2021

Schools Squandered Virtual Learning

A timid response, with lessons for the future

Advocates of digital learning have long clamored for technology to play a central role in schools. Using technology, however, is not the goal in and of itself. Rather, it is a means to their ultimate end: remaking a public education system built for an industrial society, not the current knowledge-based one. In such a system, learning would be optimized for individual students to boost their enjoyment and academic progress in school.

The pandemic has ushered in a world of near-ubiquitous digital learning nearly overnight. It could have been an unexpected opportunity to create this future of learning, now. But the signs haven’t been all that positive or promising that much of a remake is underway. Parents, for example, report in the latest Education Next survey that although they are satisfied with their children’s schooling, there’s a lot less learning happening (see “Pandemic Parent Survey Finds Perverse Pattern,” features, Winter 2021). Indeed, a recent study of reading performance in Ohio suggests a decline in student achievement equal to about one-third of a year’s worth of learning for all students and half a year’s worth for Black students.

Rather than look for the silver lining in the sudden switch to technology-enabled learning over the past year, many educators have—perhaps understandably and predictably—squandered the opportunities for innovation. Even in ordinary times, schooling communities tend to favor stability over dramatic innovation, and that has apparently ruled the day yet again. But there are a few bright spots that can inspire hope for at least some tinkering toward utopia, even if there won’t be mass transformations of schools as we know them.


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