How Much will Online Learning Leave CNY Students Behind? Cornell Prof Worries of Education Abyss

May 9, 2020

How well is online learning working? Coronavirus isolation has forced all education, from K-12 through college into remote learning methods. But is it leaving some students behind and expanding achievement gaps?
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Online and other remote learning have become the norm for Central New York students from elementary school all the way through college.  Will it have a negative impact on education?  And should we have been more prepared?. 

As part of our Syracuse Speaks programming, WAER’s Chris Bolt spoke with Cornell University's Noliwe Rooks.  She’s the W-E-B DuBois Professor of Literature, and Professor of Africana Studies and American Studies program Director.   Rooks says remote learning will widen gaps in achievement and hold many students back.

Rooks describes the educational situation as ‘standing at an abyss’ that some students might fall into, given the reliance on distance education and whom it might leave behind.  She believes students with good technical skills and access to computer and other resources can thrive with online learning, expanding on past educational successes.  But That’s not everyone.

“What we know from research is, students who do not have those same kinds of advantages and privileges do not (succeed).  The fall farther and farther behind.”

Rooks finds the school districts that are having success – and those that will do better in a future filled with more distance learning – are those that are training both teachers and students to make the most of online learning.    

During the coronavirus isolation, requiring all schooling to take place in some remote fashion, she has seen creative ways to increase success.  Some teachers use public television platforms and programs to make certain lessons more engaging.  She also praises parents, some of whom have taken on the task of teaching one subject to a group of students at the same time, remotely, trading with other parents who then can be free for other tasks.  There are also some tenets of good distance education.

“People who do distance learning, online education say … blocks of education should not be more than 20 minutes.  You are in a losing battle to hold on to their attention,” Rooks says.  “And the way you can break up an activity, so (students) are not just staring at a screen, … and then you have some type of assessment.”

She adds most online platforms have a chat or question function to get feedback from students, to help keep them engaged.  She also advocates having them use smaller online groups to answer a question or solve a problem.

Rooks believes the entire educational system was caught off guard and should have been more prepared for some kind of extended interruption of in-class learning.  Emergency planning could have considered weather, economic, health or other circumstances that would have led to the current situation.  But few districts were prepared, or had trained teachers.

She worries there can be long-term consequences if educational gaps that already exist are exacerbated by continued reliance on online learning.

“The concerns is that the ability to keep moving forward without any (impacts) is really based on ability, on class, on race,” Rooks said.  “The Schools that were struggling already … your kids are at risk. … Unfortunately, I think it’s gong to break down on lines that we’re already aware of.  This pandemic, this health crisis is just shining a light on those fissures, those cracks that were already there.” 

She adds some districts have told students they will have to repeat an entire year or grade, even after missing just two months of traditional education. 

WAER's Syracuse Speaks will air an hour-long program on the impacts of the COVID 19 crisis on education Friday, May 15th on 88.3 FM and online at WAER.org.  Find other Syracuse Speaks programs here.