Time for Mass. to up its online learning game

Pandemic exposes weakness in a state regarded as education leader

MASSACHUSETTS IS ROUTINELY cited as having one of the nation’s most innovative economies. The cornerstone of that innovation is education – both K-12 and colleges and universities.

There too Massachusetts has done well in recent decades. But one of the things the pandemic has laid bare is the Commonwealth’s failure to keep pace with innovative K-12 online education offerings. This has resulted in an uneven transition to online learning that threatens to cost students a third of their school year.

There are a number of things schools and districts should do to ease the transition to online learning. The first is to understand the level of equipment and internet access their families have.

School districts should conduct a survey of the families they serve to determine who needs devices and who lacks Internet access. The state has begun to do this, while Boston has taken steps to ensure access to digital education by handing out around 20,000 Chromebook laptops to students who need them.

Districts should be aware that even families with a high-speed connection may not have enough devices for multiple children, particularly with so many parents working from home.

Schools also need to be equipped for virtual instruction. That means purchasing a learning management system (LMS) if they don’t already have one. An LMS is the set of tools that houses course content and provides the framework for communication between students, teachers and parents. Many districts choose to stick with basic online options they already use and that teachers and staff are familiar with.

Teachers also need time to acquire some of the skills they need to prepare their online courses and practice teaching online. Principals and school administrators can provide guidance to teachers as they select from the vast number of online lessons, videos, simulations and activities. Additional assistance is available from other online educators such as ASU Prep and Florida Virtual School, which was the first full-time online school in the US.

As many who have only been introduced to working from home in the last month are learning, schedules are important. The same is true for students learning remotely. Clear expectations should be in place for when teachers and students are to be logged on. Some schools choose a morning meeting and an afternoon check-in. Others spread the school day over two days, with classes in the morning and teachers holding online office hours in the afternoon.

Consistency is also important for parents. Very young students may require parental assistance with online instruction, and parents are often managing their own work-from-home schedules.

Even before COVID-19 struck, online schooling was on the rise. Across the US, 2.7 million K-12 students had an online schooling experience in 2019, up from 1.5 million in 2009.

But Massachusetts hasn’t been at the forefront of that growth. In 2013, the Commonwealth passed virtual-school legislation. Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, advised the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on regulations to accompany the new law. She recalls making three basic recommendations: Don’t put any geographic restrictions on the schools, don’t impose an enrollment cap on them, and let the money follow the student. Unfortunately, the department largely ignored her advice.

Over the years, the United States Distance Learning Association has also echoed the same comment about the Bay State being a national leader in education reform, but a laggard compared to other states when it comes to K-12 online learning.

Massachusetts can’t afford to repeat these mistakes when online learning is a lifeline for its K-12 schoolchildren and post-secondary students during COVID-19.

In some ways, online learning isn’t that different from other pioneering educational models. More and more families are seeking educational opportunities beyond their local school. What they’re looking for is a school of one, the school that provides what’s best for their child’s needs.

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For many students, online learning can provide that. Massachusetts should make up for lost time and use its expertise in innovation to make the Commonwealth a digital learning leader.

Dr. John Flores is CEO and executive director emeritus of the United States Distance Learning Association and William Donovan is a free-lance writer in Massachusetts and co-author of “Shifting to Online Learning in the COVID-19 Spring,” a Pioneer Institute policy brief.