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Schools are prepping for coronavirus quarantines by leaning into remote learning

The potential for long-term school closures is boosting edtech companies—though some closed schools are just using Google Hangouts.

Schools are prepping for coronavirus quarantines by leaning into remote learning
[Photo: Kristen Prahl/iStock]
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When a high school student at Jackson High School in Washington State tested positive for the new coronavirus, the school became one of the first in the U.S. to temporarily close because of the illness while the campus underwent cleaning and disinfecting. With a looming possibility of longer closures, some other schools are preparing by turning to edtech. Around the rest of the world, millions of students are already relying on remote meeting technology as they spend weeks in quarantine.

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In the Bay Area, one school is beginning to collaborate with Outschool, a startup that offers live, interactive classes by videoconference that are already used by homeschoolers or students that want extra help. The startup is now giving teachers free training on offering online classes—on its platform or otherwise—and teachers may also assign Outschool classes. “When the CDC raised the prospect of internet-based tele-learning, we thought, hey, we really need to help,” says Amir Nathoo, CEO of Outschool.

Right now, most teachers have little experience with this type of teaching, says David O’Connell, principal of the Saklan School, the private school now working with the startup. “Part of it is just overcoming that barrier—what tricks and tools do you use to connect the kids and get them to work with each other, and see each other, and become comfortable in that environment of being in their own house, but they’re also in some sort of digital room together,” he says. He expects if the school district has to close, Saklan teachers would continue pushing their own lessons forward through digital assignments, and begin to offer some lessons via Zoom. Some may also assign related classes on the public Outschool platform, though parents will have to pay for those classes. Parents may also choose to sign kids up for additional classes.

“It’s engaging for kids, because it’s not like they just sit there passively trying to digest content,” says Nathoo. “They’re interacting with other kids and the teacher. So if the parents are home anyway because their work is recommending that they work from home—which many are—the kids can be occupied on our school in one room while the parents are working in the other.”

This isn’t something that could easily happen everywhere, since some low-income students don’t have access to a computer or internet at home. In some cases, school districts may offer devices; Miami-Dade County Public Schools recently announced that it had 200,000 electronic devices ready to offer students if schools have to close. But some students who are too young to be home alone may have parents who can’t work remotely or afford to take time off work, meaning that they might end up in daycare (potentially negating any benefit of closing schools to stop the spread of the virus).

In China, around 180 million children have been stuck at home because of quarantines. Agora, a Silicon Valley-based startup, collaborated with New Oriental Education and Technology Group, the largest educational services provider in China, to quickly prepare a platform that’s being used at massive scale. “We were looking at north of a million students that needed a solution, and the second piece that made it complex was that they needed that solution now,” says Reggie Yativ, Agora’s COO. The company makes a software development kit, or SDK, that can be embedded in an app to enable livestreaming, using algorithms to look for network problems so students don’t have streaming problems even with high volumes of traffic. The New Oriental app also has features like the ability for a teacher to use a whiteboard or help students one-on-one in a private room; students can also virtually raise their hands or have small group discussions.

This wasn’t possible, at least to the same degree, when H1N1 outbreaks closed some schools in 2009. But technology has obviously improved, and access to technology has increased. Outschool says that it is already seeing increased traffic from other countries, including Japan, where the government has shut down schools until April. In other areas, such as Northern Italy, some schools are relying on Google Hangouts. Even after the COVID-19 outbreak has ended, it’s a scenario that’s may become more common in the future, as extreme weather events linked to climate change mean that students may increasingly might it hard to get to school—just as those in the workforce may not be able to get to work.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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