The Pandemic’s Virtual Learning is Now a Permanent Fixture of America’s Schools
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The rocket’s engine ignites with a mighty roar, and within moments, it begins its ascent from the launchpad. On the flight deck, a video captures the visage of an anxious astronaut behind their helmet visor, their bug-eyed expression betraying their discomfort from the acceleration forces. However, this astronaut isn’t experiencing a queasy stomach. In the world of Kerbal Space Program, a rocketry video game, this astronaut is a Kerbal, and their green complexion is simply a part of their identity.
In Ben Adler’s 8th-grade science class at Downtown Charter Academy in Oakland, California, students are immersed in a project centered around gravity and kinetic energy. Armed with Macbook Air laptops, they design, construct, and launch rockets while endeavoring to keep their "Kerbonauts" safe and on course for various space missions.
This approach to learning is both clever and engaging, reflecting the new norm in American schools in 2023. While the pandemic prompted the reopening of many campuses due to concerns about the effectiveness of virtual learning, the integration of digital tools has become pervasive in late pandemic schooling.
For the past three years, Americans have viewed schools through a binary lens, categorizing them as either open or closed, in-person or virtual. However, with schools now operating in a relatively normal state, these distinctions have become blurred. Rather than simply returning to traditional, in-person instruction, the past few years have witnessed a fusion of virtual learning with physical classrooms.
Kerbal Space Program has become emblematic of this new normal in American public education, which is characterized by both opportunities and complexities. Having visited nearly 100 public school classrooms in three states over the last six months, I can attest that computer screens are a ubiquitous presence, projecting educational content at the front of the room. Lessons frequently incorporate videos sourced from curriculum vendors or the internet. Even early elementary students can be seen unlocking laptops with badges hanging from their necks, engaging in interactive learning experiences. Written assignments and quizzes, including rocketry projects like Adler’s, are often completed on laptops and submitted online. Meanwhile, teachers utilize online timer videos with animated graphics and sound effects to keep students engaged as they type.
Undoubtedly, the pandemic has had a profound impact on schools’ digital infrastructure. The extraordinary challenges of the past three years prompted significant investments in closing the digital divide. Policymakers and schools allocated emergency funding to purchase devices such as laptops, tablets, Chromebooks, and internet hotspots to ensure that all students can access online lessons. Although supply chains struggled to keep up, these efforts made a notable dent in long-standing digital disparities. Nevertheless, a survey conducted in January 2021 revealed that 35% of teachers still reported limited internet access for their English-learning students.
The implications of this digital transformation for the present and future of American public education remain uncertain. Teachers I’ve spoken with express mixed feelings about the pervasive presence of digital technology on campuses. While acknowledging its potential for enhancing learning experiences, they also recognize the challenges it presents.
When Downtown Charter Academy closed its doors on March 13, 2020, it provided students with two weeks’ worth of assigned work. As the severity of the crisis became apparent, the school acquired digital devices and hotspots to ensure that all families could engage in distance learning. Within a few weeks, the school successfully transitioned its pre-pandemic schedule to an online format. "Initially, it was a 20-hour workday," recalls Director Claudia Lee. "But it gradually became more manageable."
According to DCA teachers, the transition to online learning went relatively smoothly, although they did encounter challenges commonly experienced in virtual learning nationwide. Student engagement was a struggle, with some students attending sporadically and others choosing to turn off their cameras due to slow internet connections. Some students were also learning in noisy and distracting environments, such as kitchens, prompting the school to allow a small number of students to return to campus for virtual learning while maintaining social distancing.
Although the school reopened for in-person learning in the fall of 2021, it was far from a return to normalcy. By the end of the school year, DCA students’ academic performance exceeded that of their peers in the surrounding school district. However, teachers observed a concerning trend during discussions in a professional development session held in January. Students were easily distracted online and had become increasingly skilled at using digital tools and resources to avoid completing their classwork. These habits carried over into their in-person classrooms.
During the professional development session, a teacher emphasized the importance of recognizing that one’s choices define their identity. For example, consistently lying or cheating will lead to being known as a liar or cheater. The teacher cited George Santos as an example of the consequences of habitual lying.
Despite the challenges, there are also benefits associated with the use of digital tools. Teachers have embraced platforms like Google Classroom, which streamline student assignments, grading, and data analysis. These tools also facilitate effective communication with students’ families. Many families have become familiar with online communication tools such as email, school communication apps, and video conferencing, enabling them to stay informed about school activities. Zoom parent-teacher conferences have proven to be more convenient and equitable compared to traditional in-person meetings.
To capitalize on families’ digital literacy skills, teachers discussed ways to enhance engagement and communication. They acknowledged the need to reach out to more families through the school’s communication app and brainstormed strategies to ensure accountability. For example, the 7th-grade team decided to create and share a weekly video explaining the upcoming week’s curriculum with students’ families. The teachers also recognized the necessity of conducting a meeting to familiarize families with the school’s digital platforms.
Furthermore, the use of digital tools in education has shown positive outcomes. In the case of Kerbal Space Program, a notoriously disengaged student became captivated and performed well on subsequent assessments. Students demonstrated competency in the subject matter, even without explicit instruction, as evidenced by their correct identification of terms such as "apoapsis."
These discussions raise important questions about digital literacy and whether digital tools are crutches or essential skills for students. It is a topic gaining national attention, alongside concerns about teenage mental health, artificial intelligence, and the state of humanities education.
Although there are no clear answers, there is a pressing need to reconsider our approach to educational technology. After three years of pandemic-impacted K-12 education, it feels as though we have passively accepted any and all digital learning tools without critically evaluating their purpose. It is time for educators, policymakers, and families to make intentional and informed choices when it comes to education technology, avoiding blind reliance on these tools and considering their true value.
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