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Distancing learning could open a brave new world for public schools
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

The last time we had a pandemic hit the Valley was in 1918.

Most people were growing much of what they ate. There was no sanitary sewer system, just outhouses. If anyone “commuted” they did so to work on a farm. Radio had yet to make its way into American homes.

Public education consisted of roughly one teacher to 30 or so students who gathered in a classroom at a school on a rigid schedule from September to May for group instruction.

Since then the world has changed. We went from growing much of our own food to going to the store to going online to buy food. We no longer dig a hole in our backyard but flush toilets that send our waste to a plant miles away where it is treated and within a day the water is returned to the San Joaquin cleaner that what it joins in the river.

We went from working on the farm, to working in town, to working in cities miles away and returning home each night. We went from just the printed word for mass communication to radio, then TV, then the Internet and then the device that originally appeared in homes back in the 1918 era attached to the wall with a crank arm to power the line morphed into a smart phone capable of communication in print, voice and visual images.

Meanwhile, how schools operate has changed little.

Yes, technology as it unfolded has been harnessed. Implements progressed from things such as chalk, to pencil, to pen, to fingers touching screens. But that standard way we deliver education is basically the same: One instructor in a classroom at a school with 30 students with desks all in a row following rigid schedules from morning to mid-afternoon based roughly on an agrarian calendar.

With a little luck the seismic event we are now experiencing — the coronavirus pandemic — could change all that.

Many school districts are gearing up for a robust distance learning program using electronic devices due to the pressing need to impose social distancing to flatten the impact of the virus so it doesn’t overwhelm our healthcare system.

Teachers are committed to making distance learning just as effective as traditional in-classroom learning that has served as the standard for the American education system since the first public school opened in 1635 in Boston. The goal is the same as in the classroom: making sure students secure a firm command of learning standards as established by the State of California.

The commitment the teachers have is to make sure the distance learning program is robust enough that those students who complete it can master state tests.

This could be a watershed event.

Most may see it as a different way to “deliver” an education. But in reality, it can be a catalyst for more effective, responsive and tailored education as well as for upending everything from traffic, growth and employment patterns to our need for more schools.

This run at distancing learning could disrupt traditional K-12 education much like Uber is changing how we move about.

It could effectively — and on a mass scale — implement the much touted class-size reduction goal of more one-on-one teaching. You could on a school day have half a class of 30 students tackling lessons remotely at home or elsewhere while the other half is in a traditional classroom setting.

Better yet, the technology can be utilized to implement tailored learning programs in and away from school.

More robust remote learning anchored to schools has endless possibilities.

It would virtually eliminate the need for new campuses per se as existing schools could easily double their capacity through a variety of learning combinations. You could run education programs that ignore the calendar as well as the clock.

Children who learn better later in the day could be plugged into education paths that allow just that. Education could become more flexible around family schedules.

It would be easier to accelerate learning and to make it more of a year-round endeavor so “summer knowledge loss” will be a thing of the past.

Even better, existing schools could be transformed into more intense learning centers. Having students pursue distance learning part of the time would allow for the repurposing of space for everything from more intense science labs to instituting more electives such as the arts.

It would be easier to accelerate learning for those ready for it, given teachers would be free from the constraints of the 30-desk routine.

Given digital-based program is easier to expand, share, modify and personalize team teaching and other disciplines could be worked to improve the education experience for students and teachers alike.

There would be no need for the legislature to issue one-size-fits-all solutions to things just as school start times.

It could reduce trips to school in half and even stagger them throughout the day. In doing so it would ease some peak traffic congestion issues.

It would flatten the “curve” demand for daycare.

The forced move to wholesale distance learning means schools would no longer be trading old technology for new as has been done for years — chalkboard to power point or paper to devices — while still operating within the same physical and operational constraints. Instead the technology is being harnessed in a manner that could forever free it from the prisons for learning we have created that we call schools.

Learning for kids has never really been the exclusive province of physical schools, but as a society that is where we have pigeon-holed formal education to take place.