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Is the Coronavirus a Watershed Moment for Ed Tech and Online Learning?

In the spirit of not letting a serious crisis go to waste, the coronavirus may provide online learning with a breakout opportunity.

As U.S. schools — both K-12 and higher ed — prepare for the looming possibility the coronavirus (COVID-19) will force them to shut down classes for an extended period of time, they’re scrambling for ways students can continue doing their schoolwork without physically attending school. Enter ed tech and online learning.

K-12 schools that have already done the heavy lifting to implement one-to-one computing programs and coupled them with an online learning component are ahead of the game when it comes to making such preparations. Though urban and rural schools continue to be challenged in trying to fund and implement such programs.

At this writing, there are more questions than answers about how COVID-19 might spread in the U.S. and the impacts it will have on schools. But every state and school district is (or should be) making plans that include hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. And moving into an online, remote learning scenario continues to be talked up at the national level as an option for schools to consider.

In January I wrote about how 12 states currently permit schools to use e-learning days in lieu of snow days. These states allow students in approved schools to complete online assignments on days when schools have closures, and let schools count these days towards the states’ required yearly total, and will presumably do likewise for COVID-19-related closures.

With the unknowns presented by COVID-19, and the possibility that school closures could be prolonged, schools without an effective online learning alternative are working to avoid some of the repercussions — including financial ones — that come with altering their calendars. And states like New Jersey are being pushed to lessen the “make up day” impacts on their schools.

An educator from Australia — which has been especially hard hit by COVID-19 due to the number of Chinese college students studying there but unable to return to Australia after going home over a recent break — wonders if the adaptations their universities are making to accommodate students via online learning will take hold in the long term. He hopefully describes how COVID-19 could be a “black swan” for ed tech — an unpredictable event with major consequences — that could potentially advance how online learning is used in schools and lead to a wider-scale adoption.

And again proving that necessity is the mother of invention, two U.S. universities, Duke and New York University (NYU), with Chinese campuses closed due to COVID-19, in only a few weeks moved their courses online so they didn’t have to cancel the whole semester. And this occurred in spite of almost 90 percent of the NYU faculty having no significant experience in teaching online courses.

Other colleges and K-12 schools are following suit, and the closure list grows daily. Given the challenging transition timelines these schools face, the three weeks Duke and NYU had to move online may seem like a luxury. So we’ll see just how well this works as teachers and students test their online teaching and learning skills and their delivery systems’ functionality.

Understanding that effectively moving classes into a virtual format takes thoughtful planning and an all-hands commitment, a recent article in The 74 describes the steps the Chinese government and schools have undertaken to provide online and distance learning instruction to their university and K-12 students. And the Chinese did so while taking into account that all of their students don’t have computers, smartphones or home Internet access. U.S. schools would do well to examine the Chinese solutions.

Capitalizing on the opportunity, ed tech companies are touting their products as a means to help fill the gaps should schools be closed. The two leading learning management systems (LMS), Blackboard and Canvas, are beefing up their capacity and support for a rapid influx of university and K-12 students whose classes may move online. And Khan Academy is promoting its free online learning resources and hosting webinars to help teachers learn how to use Khan curricula should they have to transition their classes online. K12 Inc., the for-profit online learning company, is also plugging how it can provide virtual curricula to help schools and families address COVID-19-related school closures.

As the impacts of COVID-19 on schools play out, much remains to be learned. But if one subscribes to the belief that a greater merging of online learning tools into classrooms is a good thing — if done well and inclusively — then in the spirit of “You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste,” the COVID-19 emergency could prove to be a watershed moment for education.

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.