Skip to content

2020: Year One in a New Era of Education

Kamran Rosen headshot
Kamran Rosen / Nov 12, 2020
As fall lurches toward a close, the world is experiencing a “back to school” season unlike any other.

A computer science certificate from Google. Math lessons taught by Kevin Hart. Virtual reality art classes. These aren’t just hypothetical innovations in education, they’re real, unintended benefits catalyzed by the worldwide shutdown of schools.

Seventy-four of the 100 largest school districts in America opted to begin their academic years remotely, with worldwide closures affecting an estimated 80% of all school age children. Less than one quarter of colleges plan on resuming in-person classes this fall.

This unprecedented shutdown of in-person education has prompted teachers, parents and politicians ponder: what exactly does the future of digital schooling look like?

A second grade student in the Northshore School District, attends class remotely

A second grade student in the Northshore School District, attends class remotely

Worried skeptics can point to studies showing that online learning may stunt reading growth up to 5 months due to poor engagement. Or that lack of access to school resources has been shown to widen opportunity gaps already created by race and income.

On the other hand, proponents of remote learning can point to high levels of engagement among online graduates, faster learning times, and long-term increases in school affordability.

Neil Fassina Ph.D., president of the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), posits that rather than a temporary lift, we are in fact at the start of a permanent “long-term uptick, where digitally-enabled learning [will] become a quality, viable and first choice solution.”

In other words, digital learning isn’t a substitute for traditional education—it’s the next frontier.

Regardless of one’s opinion, it’s clear that all hypotheses on distance education have begun a trial by fire in the form of millions of students—from early childhood through graduate school—taking to virtual schools en masse this fall. Analyzing this once-in-a-generation testing ground, we set out to analyze and pick the winners that will define the new paradigm of learning.

Netflix Quality Video Lectures

Last year, teens averaged 7 hours a day on their screens—more time than they spent in class.

However, when those same screens were used for online lessons? Student attention spans plummeted by over 50% after just 9-12 minutes. This engagement dropoff is one of the key concerns for educators thrust into remote learning this year, with some experienced teachers outlining thresholds for attention span by age, and dozens of organizations including Zoom publishing resources on how to keep students engaged during remote video lessons.

However, this attention mismatch appears to not be due to universal academic disinterest, but rather because traditional classrooms have not kept pace with the minds of digitally-native students. Minds that are literally wired differently from developing under the constant barrage of screens. Boring lessons simply can’t compete with the level of entertainment available.

One solution to this attention disparity? Make lectures as interesting as blockbusters.

If that sounds crazy to you, consider that MasterClass—the company that cinematizes online lessons using A-list celebrity teachers and high production value—saw a 10x annual growth during the first months of the pandemic, largely due to its switch to an unlimited annual subscription model. A Netflix for learning, if you will.

It’s not just for adults either. Online education trailblazer Khan Academy partnered with superstar Lebron James to teach math and science to elementary schoolers, and teacher lesson plans for Kevin Hart’s Guide To Black History are available for students as young as 5th grader. The original celebrity teaching prototype Bill Nye was being wheeled into middle school classrooms back when TV screens were still curved.

However, those examples illustrate that while videos have existed in classrooms for some time, they were often seen as supplemental treats—not the backbone of the lesson. This means many teachers now still view their video lessons as modified, recorded versions of their in-person classes—rather than a new teaching format altogether.

A better approach, suggests Tony Bates, author of Teaching in A Digital Age, is to use videos in one of at least thirty five ways that wouldn’t be possible in a physical classroom. These video lessons involve everything from dangerous live experiments involving explosions to expensive demonstrations such as human brain dissections.

Furthermore, videos are easily replicated and distributed, allowing the “best” lessons—those proven to have higher engagement and retention—to filter up and and be effectively “pooled” by educators in a way not possible when teachers and students were bound by physical proximity.

“The idea is instead of having individual faculty members trying to do something on their computer, we get together a group of really good resources—really good media producers—and produce some excellent standard simulations that can be used across any particular field,” says Bates. “I think that’s where we’ll see a lot of development over the next few years”.

Bates isn’t alone in that opinion. A 2019 survey of 1,400 teachers found that a near-unanimous 98% of teachers believe “interactive video will be the future of personalized learning”.

The implications of personalized video are so vast they may take shape before students even meet their teachers. For instance, rather than create situations with awkward mispronunciations of names (that can make students feel shy and alienated), some teachers have kids send in video introductions, pronouncing their own name— allowing teachers the ability to replay the recording and familiarize themselves with kids’ names before any virtual meeting.

However, the effectiveness of online video learning will not be immediate, and relies on both teacher and student adjustment periods from the traditional in-person model.

“As an in-person teacher, you were often seen as either the sage that delivers knowledge or the coach that helps facilitate the understanding of knowledge,” says the ICDE’s Fassina. “In an online world…the teacher or the professor is not necessarily an active participant in the students learning at any given moment…and so you need to be able to create learning materials that a student can engage with on their own time.”

Thus, as students this year plop themselves down in front of their screens, they may not just be tuning in for their daily video lesson, but an evolution in the use of video education. One that’s developing literally before their eyes.

Diagnosing Avatars in A Virtual World

Tina, is a 28-year old African American female who routinely finds herself as a patient at College of Nursing and Health Professions in Philadelphia. Tina has had so many illnesses and clinical visits she’s known by most every nursing student and faculty member at the college.

How is Tina so ubiquitously unhealthy? It’s because Tina is a virtual avatar.

Tina is designed by Shadow Health, an organization that offers “digital clinical experiences” to over 350,000 students across 1,800 partner schools. Tina is a part of a growing list of digital experiences used to teach medicine, without the risk (or cost) of involving real humans. Rather than operate on expensive cadavers or live patients, surgeons can get unlimited reps, on say knee replacements, through virtual practice.

“We’ve seen some virtual reality now that’s enabling students to cut down the time on expensive equipment, or dangerous situations…maybe [even] causing harm to patients.” says Bates. “Now they can do it virtually.”

Indeed, as Covid closes campuses, virtual reality will likely step up as a major tool for distance learning—particularly in capital intensive courses. And that doesn’t just mean surgery.

For instance, art programs, no longer able to provide students with paper and paint, can use augmented reality programs like WorldBrush, to turn a student’s entire world into a canvas, to be painted in any way. Labster VR created a program allowing STEM students to run a clinical trial to study the effects of high intensity exercise on patients with sedentary lifestyles.

Even in cases where physical spaces are not necessary, augmented and virtual reality programs may still be marked improvements over the traditional way things were done. For instance, why go through the cruelty of killing and dissecting a frog when you can virtually recreate the experience on a phone? Similarly, who needs sticky fingers and a diorama when your child can create a robust 3D world—and project it onto their physical learning space.

The idea of remote, virtual tools to create a simulated learning experience are not strictly reserved for any age group either . Programs like Catchy Words AR have filtered down augmented reality to the kindergarten level, allowing young kids to use their cell phone cameras to walk around and “catch” letters in order to solve word puzzles.

Ultimately while virtual reality may get in the door through necessity, it may take root through practicality—particularly for digitally native Gen Zers used to expressing their creativity online. After all, a generation raised on TikTok filters may find a stylus a more apt tool than a brush.

The Death Of The College Degree

Of the many disruptions to in-person learning, college education is often viewed as the most prepared to handle the challenge. After all, roughly ¼ of college students last year completed at least one course credit online, and a full 16% completed their entire college degree online.

While traditional education has long cast a condescending glance at online education, Covid shutdowns are now forcing many of them to now prove the case for their value. Once a generation of kids experiences online courses, will they still think in-person college is really worth it?

By measures of job readiness, they most certainly won’t. According to a Gallup poll, only 6% of graduates—believe their degree well prepared them for work success. And even when thinking more broadly in terms of college experience, only 56% of students at four-year colleges reported feeling “satisfied overall”— this compared to 73% among online learners.

Americans have reflected this disappointment with traditional college by bucking a 40-year long trend of increased college enrollment, with roughly 11% less people attending college every year of this decade. It’s worth noting this is before accounting for the estimated 40% decline in college enrollment for the fall 2020 semester.

On the flip side, alternative learning courses—especially intensive coding ‘bootcamps’—have been exploding. Popular bootcamp authority Course Report reports bootcamps have grown by roughly 1100% percent since 2003—with online bootcamps outpacing in-person classes. These boot camps have even begun to attract the attention of kids coming straight out of high school and seeking a more focused curriculum.

Bootcamp growth is likely to continue as it gains greater workplace acceptance. Prominent job placement site Indeed.com recently found 72% of recruiters equally value a coding bootcamp to a CS degree. This is particularly appealing for financially struggling students, as bootcamps on average cost roughly $13,584 total—compared to $34,740 per year for the average four-year college.

However, why even bother with a recruiter when you can just learn from your employer? Google recently announced it was launching professional certification programs in data analysis, project management, and UX design for only $49 a month. Similarly, Microsoft announced a program to get 25 million Americans the digital skills. And unlike most colleges, these companies are net hirers of new grads.

This ability for private companies to educate, train and then source raw talent is almost too logical in appeal. In many ways, it may be less of a new trend, so much as a reversal back to the days of skill-based apprenticeship.

Asked about the possibility that tech company programs might replace a share of our nation’s college students, Tony Bates, a Senior Advisor at the Chang School of Continuing Education, believes “it’s not only possible, but likely.” However, he also adds “I’m not sure that’s a good thing”.

As alternatives to higher education continue to grow, universities will face increased competition from the bootcamps and Googles of the world. Small schools will suffer the most, as brand name colleges with large endowments can afford to include newer offerings in their programs. Universities at large, will likely have to adapt or die.

The good news for students, in this case, is that competition tends to favor the consumer, and adding legitimate virtual options to compete with college, may just be the jolt higher education needs.