Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Access to Online Learning Devices: Relatively Easy Problem to Solve (with enough $$)

In my last blog post, I outlined a series of challenges to the effectiveness of online learning, issues that act as real barriers to allowing anyone anywhere to obtain quality education online (the Straube Foundation’s mission).  In this and future blog posts, I intend to dive a little deeper into some of those barriers, and suggest ways that they may be overcome.

Online learning does not work well on a cell phone.  I’ve seen it with my ESL students, refugees who are so proud to own a smartphone, yet so frustrated that they can’t easily manage the reading or the homework assignments or the test-taking on the small screen.  And it’s not their lack of English skills that’s causing the frustration; it’s the limitations of the device.  I just watched a video in which students around the world expressed their inability to complete remote learning during the coronavirus, citing as one reason the difficulties of using a cellphone to participate in virtual classroom discussions while also reading the text, completing a written assignment or performing computations. 

Some schools in China recently started broadcasting online classes on special TV channels, but that may not be a panacea solution.  Families with more than one child (relatively rare in China, of course) need to prioritize which child gets to “go to school” when.  Other family members can’t watch any shows when online school is in session.

In Nigeria, an estimated 89% of K-12 students do not have access to an internet-ready device.  A charity has created a virtual learning hub to provide education during the coronavirus, and is giving tablets to the students in a low-income community (slum) in Lagos to enable them to participate in the online school.

It is highly preferable to have a laptop or tablet for successful remote learning.  With the closure of libraries and schools due to the coronavirus, free access to such devices is no longer available.  Or, as some libraries and schools reopen, access requires students to risk their health by spending extensive time in enclosed spaces with random strangers.

This is one challenge to online learning that seems relatively easy to solve, if enough cash is thrown at it.   Some K-12 schools have been delivering laptops or tablets to their students’ doors to empower their participation in online learning during coronavirus times.  These devices can be considered loaners or gifts; it is their presence in the home that matters. 

Corporate foundations such as Apple have historically provided devices to schools with high percentages of underserved students, or provided cash grants for the schools to obtain devices to distribute to needy students.  Some schools provide a laptop or tablet as a required school supply.  In three local counties where I live (Utah), the local volunteer helpline (dial 211) is working with United Way to give away free computers to low-income families with a child 5-21 years old to facilitate online learning.

The pandemic has cast a spotlight on how big the need is for online learning-ready devices, and how unprepared the educational system as a whole is to meet that need.  There is the matter of logistics for identifying students who need a laptop or tablet and finding available equipment to give them.   Individual schools themselves can, and often do, take on this facilitation role.  They can make public their needs and solicit donations (in-kind and financial).  School districts could assess the hardware needs across their schools and work with foundations to fill the needs.

There is a role for anyone who wants to help provide access to online learning devices.  Each individual who upgrades to a new laptop for themselves can contact a school in their community to offer the older laptop (appropriately cleaned of content, of course) for use by a student in need.  Donors with greater means can choose to donate multiple devices or funds to purchase devices to their local schools (elementary through university level). 

As a society, we need to do what we can to overcome this first hurdle to quality education online – provide every student with the use of an effective device to access the online learning material.  All it will take is a little logistical ingenuity and money.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Plutarch’s Advice: Learning how to learn …

The Greek philosopher and teacher Plutarch (Ploútarkhos in Greek, 46 to 119 AD) said: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.”

Precisely!  That’s what learning is all about. To make students think and figure out, not to cram their minds with figures and facts which are easily forgotten as quickly as they have been learned.

Our existing school systems do teach primarily facts and figures to remember, to obtain a good job, to impress the rest of the world with one’s knowledge.  There is certainly no harm in being able to come across as “knowledgeable.”  Actually, for many jobs, academic, industrial, and otherwise, it’s all the facts and figures one gets tested for and which, hopefully, can be applied in whatever work needs to be done.

Yet the real accomplishment comes from “how” the knowledge, whatever knowledge, was used to arrive at a solution.

Therefore, it is far more important to learn “how to learn,” and keep learning than accumulating figures and facts.  For, after all, the facts and figures you can look up in an instant on Google or from other sources.  Actually they’ll be more precise and up to date too that way.  Yet the resolution process needs to be functioning smoothly to arrive at the correct result.

It’s the ONLINE world which makes this process possible, at least much easier than where one has to deal with heavy tome books in remote libraries or no books at all. 

Conclusion:  The time for old-fashioned schoolroom teaching and learning is over (for many reasons, including #1 cost, #2 Cost, #3 COST, #4 availability and access, #5 personal convenience).  ONLINE is the modern-day medium for providing education, which it can do in many new ways, often better, than the brick-and-mortar schoolhouse ever could.

Yes, of course, teaching online, in all its forms, needs to be quite different from what used to be good “classroom teaching.”  Actually it means better preparation, using more media, more live interaction, 24 hours a day reaching the remotest locations on earth, and more.

And the basis, I hope, is not to disseminate facts and figures, but “teaching HOW to learn,” not just at the beginning of one’s life, but lifelong, for the facts and figures are changing all the time, and we need to work with them to achieve our goals.

Thus “learning how to learn” has become a major part of our Foundation’s “objective to show how anyone anywhere can obtain quality education at little or no cost.”  Please stay tuned in.  More than facts and figures to come.  

This blog post was written by Win Straube.