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Five concerns about the mass rush to online learning that shouldn’t be ignored

A high school student takes a test online at her home in Chisseaux amid a lockdown in France to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images) (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)
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The rush to put education online amid the coronavirus pandemic — in this country and around the world, from K-12 to graduate school — is unprecedented. Districts that have little to no experience with it are, within days or weeks, throwing together online programs for students to learn for an undetermined amount of time. As a result, complexities that ordinarily would be considered for such a shift may not have been given much early thought.

Basic technical issues are front and center, by necessity: the availability of online devices and Internet access; how lessons can be moved from face-to-face to virtual; how students can receive and turn in assignments; and how students will be “held accountable” by grades or papers now that the government has waived federal mandates for annual standardized testing.

Other complex issues may be getting short shrift in the immediate mass move to online and distance education. Here are some of them, along with what some schools and districts are doing to address them:

1. Security

Security is always a big concern in the world of online education, and it’s heightened now with most of the nation’s schoolchildren doing some form of online schooling. Even before the mass rush to virtual education, security breaches with online learning were not uncommon. Now school districts and teachers are, in some places, offering students online portals that may not have been put behind strong filters.

That’s what Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, says he is worried about. Carvalho, who leads one of the largest school districts in the country, started his district’s online program a few weeks ago. He says he had already thought through the security issues, as the district worked in recent years to bring digital education into the regular school day. Collaboration with the FBI and the Secret Service to learn how to monitor the district’s digital assets was part of that work.

“Trust me, online predators are aware of what is happening around the country, and they are aware that children of all ages are somehow connected,” he said in an interview. “It is really unprecedented. My advice to my colleagues is to do what we have done. We have strong filters to keep out adult content. And we are allowing students access only to our portal. They have to sign into our portal with a password and can’t engage in a chat with someone that isn’t in our suite of offerings.”

2. Ergonomics

School districts have been providing laptops for students for years, but many of them — and probably most — give short shrift to the proper way children should be sitting when they use them. The same goes for how kids use their computers at home.

Although businesses have been creating ergonomically correct workplaces for their employees, students are asked to sit at a regular desk and use devices without thought being given to strain on their necks, shoulders and backs.

Although students often exhibited poor posture in school before the advent of computers, doctors for years have reported an increase in back strain and other physical problems as a result of poor ergonomics in schools where students are doing work digitally. According to Princeton University’s Health Services:

Without proper computer setup and use, there are many injuries that may result. Tendinitis is the most common problem, involving tendon inflammation and localized pain in the elbow, forearm, wrist or hand. Bad posture can cause fatigue, muscle strain, and, in later stages, pain. Back pain, one of the most common complaints of older men and women, is usually the result of years of faulty posture. In addition, poor posture can affect the position and function of your vital organs, particularly those in the abdominal region. Stand up straight to promote health and good appearance. You will exude confidence and dignity as you hold your back up straight using abdomen and back muscles.

Stephen Dare is head of the Hong Kong Academy, a private International baccalaureate pre-K-12 school in Hong Kong, where students have learning online since February because of the virus. He said that not long after the campus closed, administrators surveyed children and their parents and learned of back and neck problems because of the way students were sitting.

“We’ve become conscious of how students are setting up [laptops] in their bedrooms, and we try to make sure their postures are good and what the ergonomics of this are,” he said.

“Sometimes we make them aware that they are sitting for a long time or their posture is incorrect,” he said. “The teachers are constantly reminding them of the need to take breaks and the opportunity to do something different. Parents are getting into this as well."

3. Privacy

You may be surprised by how much data about your child is being collected by schools and their vendors when your child is online. There’s the basic information — name, email address, grades and test scores — but also things you may not expect.

In 2018, the FBI issued a warning to the public about cyberthreat concerns related to K-12 students. Data that can be collected on students includes personally identifiable information; biometrics; academic progress; behavioral, disciplinary and medical information; Web browsing history; geolocation; IP addresses used by students; and classroom activities.

Data breaches are not uncommon, and concerns are rising with the rush to online learning by millions of students.

As schooling rapidly moves online across the country, concerns rise about student data privacy

Three Democratic senators last week urged the Trump administration to take steps to protect student data, saying in part:

Many ed tech offerings collect large amounts of data about students and do not employ adequate privacy or security measures. Experts have found ‘widespread lack of transparency and inconsistent privacy and security practices in the industry for educational software and other applications used in schools and by children outside the classroom for learning.’ And the Federal Bureau of Investigation has warned that ‘[m]alicious use of [student] data could result in social engineering, bullying, tracking, identity theft, or other means for targeting children.’”

Personal data is collected on kids at school all the time. Here’s help for parents to protect children’s privacy.

4. Isolation

If you ask kids what they most dislike about being forced to stay at home during the pandemic, they probably will say how much they miss their friends. It’s no small thing.

In classrooms, education is a social process, with students having to learn how to deal with one another and adults in ways that allow them to learn without having to be separated or sent home and for misconduct. A student’s experiences at school are among the most influential factors in their socialization.

This affects young people of all ages. Michael Hynes is the superintendent of the Port Washington Union Free School District on Long Island in New York. His 7-year-old daughter, Sadie, a first-grader who has Down syndrome, misses her fellow students terribly.

“She has the class picture that everybody gets, and she carries it around with her,” he said. “I could cry even thinking about it.”

Older students may suffer even more from social isolation, experts say, because friends play a far more important role in their lives.

Principals and teachers are working online to try to bring students together outside of class to continue to foster relationships. Daniel Mateo, principal at BioTECH @ Richmond Heights 9-12 in Miami, said during lunch period, when classes shut down online for about an hour, they sometimes offer online activities. One was a virtual escape room, where students had to team up to get out of a room. “We just wanted to have fun,” he said.

5. Effectiveness

There are excellent online programs and lousy online programs, and it is difficult to paint all virtual learning with a single brush, just like it is to do for brick-and-mortar schools.

Some kids are comfortable with being online or will learn quickly and have teachers who know how to translate classroom activities into virtual ones. Some students won’t be comfortable. Some teachers just aren’t tech-savvy.

What does the research say? That, too, is complicated. Available research looks at online programs, not unexpected shifts. Much of the research comparing the effects of online education with in-person schooling shows a negative effect on outcomes. But it depends on the population of students, and online education, relative to bricks-and-mortar, is still young.

If you ask Jay-len McLean, an 18-year-old student in New York City who plays the saxophone, clarinet and flute, he will tell you he is finding online learning “rather unproductive at the moment.” He attends Talented Unlimited High School in Manhattan’s District 2.

“I feel like I’m not learning anything because all I’m being asked to do is go onto Google Classroom, look at the assignments and finish them by a certain due date. So it’s like I’m teaching myself rather than being taught.” The senior takes a mix of academic and music classes and is spending “significantly a lot less time at home” working on assignments than he does in school because they are easy and short.

What he misses from being in class, he said, is “human interaction.”

“Just talking to your friends, listening to them reasoning out their answers. Why they thought this interpretation for something was this and not something else. The constant push of the teachers looking at your work, pushing your ideas. That’s all important.”