Remote Learning: How to Fix Virtual Education

An

Power of Ideas

Remote Learning: How to Fix Virtual Education

Author(s)
Reshma Saujani
Reshma Saujani
(Founder, Girls Who Code)

I remember the exact moment last spring that I gave up on my son’s education. I had just finished a grueling call with my board of directors while rocking my newborn, as my husband paced outside on another call, when Shaan sauntered away from his Zoom class to play with his toys for the fifth time that hour. And I’m one of the lucky few that has childcare. 

The way it panned out, virtual education was a nightmare for all involved. Now, in the debate over whether to reopen schools for in-person instruction this fall, there are two sides, and they seem to be talking past each other. Those in favor of reopening say parents need it, kids need it, and the economy needs it. Those in favor of keeping schools online-only don’t dispute this. But they do—rightly, in my view—prioritize the safety of teachers and students above all. 

But as schools begin rolling out reopening plans, we have to stop treating the failure of virtual education as a fait accompli. Remote learning isn’t up for political debate—it’s happening. 

Armed with the knowledge that virtual education is going to be a centerpiece of this great American experiment, we need to dive in and do the requisite research, data collection, and subsequent adaptations to make it work.

At Girls Who Code, we transformed our in-person summer coding programs to a virtual offering in a matter of weeks, making it our highest priority to serve the most vulnerable girls—the same girls who were impacted the most by school closures in the spring.

Half the girls we serve are Black, Latinx, or low-income. They live in our most densely populated cities and in our most rural parts of the country. They are caregivers, babysitters, and—in some cases—working hourly as essential employees at local grocery stores or hospitals to keep up the household income.

We raised funds to get girls the necessary hardware and WiFi hotspots. Our team—educators, coders, data scientists—innovated to adapt the place-based program we’ve run for years into one that ran a few hours a day with live and asynchronous instruction, group work, and office hours. And it worked. 

Girls Who Code is far from a perfect parallel for the education system of an entire nation. Our teachers cover one subject, for just two weeks, with 20 girls. The challenge before us this fall is bigger by orders of magnitude.  
 
But there is something about what we did that translates. Not just our tactics—the distribution of hotspots and hardware. Not our adapted curricula—the balance of live and asynchronous learning. Not even our approach to teacher training.   

What we did, and what we as a nation need to do, is embrace virtual education not as a temporary means to an end—but as though it’s here to stay. Because it is, in some form, for the foreseeable future. 

Armed with the knowledge that virtual education is going to be a centerpiece of this great American experiment, we need to dive in and do the requisite research, data collection, and subsequent adaptations to make it work.  

We need a centralized task force to research best practices for digital learning—whether part-time or full-time—and provide recommendations to schools nationwide. We need to support teachers and our most marginalized students with requisite funding and working parents with flexibility from their employers. And we need a cohesive effort to track and measure outcomes—not thousands of siloed efforts by unfunded and overworked individual districts, teachers, and nonprofits. 

Put simply, we need to commit to the experiment, and we need leaders in the federal government to commit to the experiment. Our kids deserve it. The future of our country depends on it. 

There’s an old adage, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot these days, about how desperately we need to be armed with both information and imagination to beat this crisis, how we need big data and big dreams to understand our reality and to recognize possibility.

And what better place to start to use our imagination than in thinking about how to reopen our schools, the places where we learn to imagine and dream in the first place.

Published August 19, 2020