For most students, the virtual learning experiment forced on schools in the spring, when schools closed amid the coronavirus pandemic, was less than successful.

Most school districts weren’t ready to move from in-person learning to online lessons virtually overnight. And now that the 2020-2021 academic year is starting again with remote instruction for most students, it’s an open question about if and how much online offerings have improved.

In this post, David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, writes about an unusual approach to bringing virtual learning “to life.”

By David Kirp

Before the novel coronavirus struck, few teachers had the know-how that’s necessary to do a solid job of teaching online. The overnight transition from the classroom to the laptop and iPad has been nerve-racking, as teachers have struggled to devise a virtual experience that keeps their students engrossed. Judging from the woeful spring semester performance of many students, especially those from low-income families, their success has been mixed at best.

Can an educational model called Escuela Nueva (New School), designed nearly a half-century ago for schools in rural Colombia and now used in 19 countries, from Mexico to Vietnam, be adapted to bring virtual education to life?

Here’s how Escuela Nueva (EN) works in the classroom. Students cluster in small groups. Each child has their own learning guide, complete with detailed instructions, so that they can work on their own as well as with their classmates. The teacher introduces the assignment, and after the students tackle it individually, they review each other’s work. If one of them is having a hard time, the others pitch in to help. The teacher moves from group to group, looking over the students’ shoulders and discussing their work. When the group has completed the project, the teacher launches the next one.

This pedagogy is not difficult for teachers to master. EN offers a crash, three-week training course, and in the one-room schools where this approach got its start, students sometimes tutor inexperienced teachers themselves. The teachers, scattered across Colombia’s countryside, talk regularly and meet occasionally to analyze what’s happening in their classrooms.

“Escuela Nueva is a hands-on, learning-by-doing model that puts cooperative, personalized, active learning over memorization and passive learning, empowering children as part of a self-governing community,” explained Vicky Colbert, who founded the program in the mid-1970s.

Seeing is believing — I spent a week visiting these schools and came away impressed by the caliber of the students’ work, as well as their willingness to take responsibility for their own and their classmates’ learning.

Solid research confirms my impressions. While the youngsters in EN classes come from some of the poorest families in Colombia, a World Bank assessment found that they performed better than middle-class students in traditional skill-and-drill schools. A UNESCO study hailed EN’s approach.

U.S. students also do well when they have to think for themselves and collaborate with their classmates. In a 2016 report, the American Institutes for Research found that students in deeper learning schools, whose philosophy is similar to EN, recorded higher test scores, were likelier to enroll in college and were more adept at working together than their peers in conventional schools.

I have witnessed the demise of many ballyhooed attempts to reform education. But I tabled my skepticism after seeing these schools, reviewing the research and marveling at the scale of a program that has educated 4 million youngsters.

Here’s how EN can be adapted for the virtual classroom. Students work in small groups, linked by the Internet. The teacher moves among these groups — online, of course — describes the assignment and posts the material. While this model is compatible with any hands-on curriculum, the teacher might decide to use the EN materials, which approximate what U.S. public schools teach. Teachers in this country who have adopted EN in recent years have already created digitized versions of these workbooks.

As in the classroom version, students in virtual EN take up the project individually. Afterward, the group discusses it and helps those who are having a hard time. The teacher drops in periodically, and when the students are ready, the teacher explains the next assignment.

A talented teacher, challenging curriculum and students engaged in learning — these are the essential ingredients of a good education, and virtual EN fits the bill. It affords teachers the opportunity to work with small groups, rather than having to teach the entire class, making it easier to incite the students’ interest.

As the EN experience shows, students can handle far more responsibility than most U.S. schools contemplate. Enrolling them in a learning community gives them an opportunity to educate one another, rather than having to master everything on their own (the fact that their teacher can join a group unannounced should keep them on their toes). Virtual Escuela Nueva dismantles the wall of anonymity, the biggest drawback of online learning. The high-expectations, strong-support attention that students receive is a powerful motivator.

Colbert believes this strategy could well be successful. “The model has been adapted to meet a host of needs, such as educating poor urban children and youngsters from war zones,” she said. “Children without access to the Internet can work from cost-effective, reusable, self-paced learning guides. Modifying EN so that it can be used online is a promising idea.”

In short, virtual Escuela Nueva has the potential to dramatically improve online learning. It merits a serious look.