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Is Virtual Learning Preparing Students for Telework?

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced students to adapt to new classroom technologies and learning platforms, but educators are skeptical the experience will translate to job skills later in life.

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It's been a year since public schools across the nation closed their doors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing millions of K-12 students to adapt to resuming their coursework virtually from home. And a handful of those students have become more tech savvy throughout that process.

But while it’s tempting to imagine that a year of remote schooling could prepare students for an increasingly digitized workforce, education and career experts say it may be wishful thinking to search for a silver lining against a backdrop of negatives associated with remote learning, including learning loss and disparities in resources.

According to research from the consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics, nearly 60 percent of workplaces are compatible with a remote or virtual workplace model. Despite this compatibility, the firm only projects that up to 30 percent of employees from these entities will remain home by the end of 2021. A February report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that number to be somewhere between 20 to 25 percent.

Tony Lee, editorial vice president for the Society for Human Resource Management, said many companies still aim for an in-person “at-work culture” that's more conducive to collaboration. For the most part, he said, employers hope to “return to normal” following the public health crisis.

“There are a lot of students who are suffering because they’re having to remain virtual. They just don’t get the same educational experience when they’re physically in a classroom. I guess there’s some silver lining in that they’re becoming more skilled at communicating virtually, but I’m not sure that’s really the ‘new normal,’” he said. “There are a lot of companies that are already saying that they plan to — once the pandemic passes — go back to the way things were.”

Lee noted that most of today's remote students won’t enter the workforce for at least a few years, making it difficult to gauge the benefits of temporary virtual learning, particularly among younger students not yet in high school. He was skeptical that the skills they've learned in adapting to virtual learning will have a significantly positive impact on career readiness after the pandemic, especially in what he called a "typical workplace."

“Certainly, there will be more remote and virtual meetings, but people forget there were a lot of those before the pandemic,” he said. “If you weren’t very good at having a virtual meeting then, you sure had a lot of practice in the last year, that's for sure. But it’s a skill set that’s kind of always been needed in the workplace.

“I think the skill sets are going to focus on all of the things they always have — their ability to do the job, their ability to communicate effectively, to write effectively,” he said. “There’s going to be some elements of remote work that will absolutely hang on ... But for the most part, employees will be in offices and at work sites again four or five years from now.”

Lisa Fulton, a school counselor at Eastern Lebanon County High School who serves on the American School Counselor Association Board of Directors, said some students have learned important workplace skills through the process of using new digital devices and learning platforms. She also said that many students have learned to communicate with others via email at a younger age than before.

However, she said, it’s difficult to determine just how much these new skills will outweigh the downsides of virtual learning for millions of K-12 students as a whole.

“We’re sort of mixed,” Fulton said of her conversations with students and other counselors. “They definitely learned new skills when it comes to technology, but the question is if that’s really going to benefit them based on all of these other issues that have come up around this last year.”

According to research from McKinsey and Company, learning loss has been a primary concern for remote students, ultimately affecting college readiness and employment prospects later in life. Learning loss has been especially prevalent in schools serving large numbers of students of color, where scores were 59 percent of previous averages in math and 77 percent in reading. Much of this has been exacerbated by digital inequities that most affect students of color, rural students and low-income students.

“There are so many downsides about the range of experiences and how so many students are being left behind, how much learning loss there is and how much disparity there is,” Fulton said. “I just think our students have lost so much.”

There is, however, a small minority of students who have preferred resuming courses on their own time, outside of brick-and-mortar schools. Fulton said some of those students may already be considering telework employment opportunities following high school.

“I do think there’s been a small percentage that has really thrived in this environment,” she said. “There’s definitely some that have found this to be [helpful] for a lot of reasons, and that could be for the [interest in] technology or just the students that have social anxiety, not having to worry about coming in and having those social interactions and being able to work from home.”

Cassie Poncelow, a career pathway counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins, Colo., said virtual learning may help prepare some students for companies looking to stay remote following the pandemic.

“When I talk to students about the ways that they have grown over the past year, many reflect on the ways that they have learned to be flexible and adaptive,” Poncelow said in an email to Government Technology. “There are a lot of skills that they have learned that are typically reserved for that first job experience, such as managing a virtual calendar or generating an online presentation in a team, that they have instead gained as freshmen in high school.

“As we approach nearly a year of learning this way, I do see that kids are learning skills like online collaboration, [using] Web-based tools and furthering their research skills,” Poncelow continued. “The key is that these skills do have to be explicitly taught and with that, there has definitely been a learning curve for educators and for students alike.”

Poncelow said digital learning could also help students transition into universities and colleges, which offered online and hybrid courses before COVID-19. Poncelow also believes it may still be naive to ignore the negatives that come with little to no in-person instruction.

“The social interactions and the emotional well-being of our adolescents have definitely suffered in this time, and we know that their social and emotional health is at the core of their learning,” she said. “It’s hard to learn new skills when you are struggling."

Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.