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A better way to do online learning

Many schools struggling with the pandemic are shelving the very solutions that could save them.

Kareem Farah, who founded the Modern Classrooms Project, in his classroom in Washington, D.C., in 2017.Courtesy of Kareem Farah

From the moment I walked into Kareem Farah’s statistics classroom in Eastern Senior High School in Washington, D.C., in April 2019, I could tell it wasn’t like other high school classrooms I had experienced.

When the bell rang to mark the start of the class period, there was no call to attention, no prodding students to get out their materials and start working, no performative showmanship to captivate adolescent minds, and no heavy-handed discipline. Students came into the room, took out their notebooks and laptops, and started doing math. As they worked, Farah floated around the room: checking in, telling jokes, answering questions, offering help, and giving advice as needed.


A “self-driving” classroom is remarkable in its own right, but as a former middle school teacher myself, I was struck by what happened about 10 minutes past the bell. A student came in late with a hoodie over her head and her backpack clutched to her chest. Avoiding all eye contact, she went straight to the back of the room, sat down at a vacant table facing a wall, and put her head down on her bag.

As Farah and I both observed this moment from the other side of the room, he whispered to me: “You know, normally it would be my professional duty to make her get out her notebook and pay attention. I would need to make clear that her education is too important to let it get interrupted by whatever happened before she walked in.”

At first, Farah let the girl sit where she had planted herself, and he continued working with other students. A minute or two later, however, he went over to her, unnoticed by the rest of the class, and started to chat. I didn’t hear the words they exchanged, but soon after, she had her notebook out and was working away.


Teachers who take time to give individual students empathy and support aren’t completely out of the ordinary in schools. But what made Farah’s case remarkable was that he’d developed a system of online lessons and self-paced activities that made such human interactions a normal part of students’ daily experiences. He empowered his students to drive their own learning so that he could step back from delivering whole-class lessons and focus his attention on his students’ individual academic, social, and emotional needs.

As I reflect on that experience today — with so many schools and teachers reeling from the effects of the pandemic — it seems clear that Farah’s individualized approach, which blends online lessons with work in the classroom, is exactly what students need to help them regain their footing. So why have so many schools and teachers doubled down on synchronous, single-paced instruction as they’ve returned to in-person learning?

The problem with a return to normal

Given that nearly every educated person today came through a conventional model of schooling, it’s hard for most of us to imagine anything different. But hidden in the dominant model of schooling are some basic assumptions that don’t mesh with students’ needs in today’s world.

For pragmatic reasons, conventional schools operate on a batch-processing, mass-production model. Students are grouped into cohorts by age — and sometimes by ability — and then learn primarily through teacher-directed instruction. Everyone learns at the same time, in the same place, moving through common learning experiences at the same pace.


This generally requires that students conform to certain norms and expectations: showing up on a schedule dictated by their school, sitting quietly unless called upon, following spoken directions, and learning primarily by listening to teachers talk.

The problem with this model is that students are not like the raw inputs in a manufacturing process. A system that expects all students to learn from the same teacher-led lessons at roughly the same pace following the same calendar and schedule inevitably either marginalizes some students as it churns along or breaks down under the variations that are beyond its ability to control. Our society increasingly values individuality and diversity, but we’ve inherited an education system that by design requires standardization and conformity.

This is one reason why teaching is such a hard job: Teachers are the malleable, humanizing layer between the diverse individual needs of their students and the rigid standards and specifications of the system. The teachers we lionize splay their lives across the grinding cogs of the machine for the sake of the children they serve.

A modern alternative

Across the country, there are pockets of schools and educators like Kareem Farah who have figured out how to break the constraints of the conventional model of education. Public school pioneers in this regard include districts such as Lindsay Unified in California and Wilder School District in Idaho, district schools like Village High School in Colorado Springs and Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City, and charter schools like Map Academy in Plymouth and Altus Education in San Diego. They show how to put students in the driver’s seat and make learning flexible to meet their needs. Meanwhile, private micro-schools like the Khan Lab School and the Acton Academy network are pushing the frontiers of what this kind of education can look like. And for individual teachers who want to adopt these practices, Farah has created a nonprofit called the Modern Classrooms Project that helps them get the model he developed up and running in their classrooms.


Ironically, however, this kind of flexible learning is enabled by a technology that many teachers, schools, districts, and states are trying to pull away from as fast as they can: online learning.

In classrooms like Farah’s and in the schools named above, online learning is markedly different from what most students and teachers across the country experienced last year as an emergency response to the pandemic. Online learning in these settings isn’t about trying to replicate conventional lessons over a Zoom meeting or port remote students into traditional face-to-face classes. Online learning is also not seen as the comprehensive solution at these schools. Rather, it’s a means to enable teachers to spend their time giving individual students the specific support they need most. In these schools and classrooms, online learning creates the building blocks for true equity: classrooms that can effectively support each student according to the student’s individual needs.


In these schools and classrooms, online learning is a component of blended-learning instructional models — it’s integrated into brick-and-mortar instruction. In this setup, educators replace most class lectures and teacher-led direct instruction with online lessons. Students then work through the lessons primarily in class with their teachers on hand to provide support. Sometimes the online lessons are developed by teachers themselves; in other cases, they come from commercial providers of online curriculum. But in all cases, their purpose is to break the constraint that all students have to learn the same thing at the same time and only when directed by their teacher.

This also makes possible a profound shift in the grading system. In the schools and classrooms noted above, students’ grades don’t come from weighted sums of “points” they accumulate by completing an obstacle course of assignments and assessments within a grading period. Instead, these schools and educators use what’s called mastery-based grading: They measure students’ mastery of specific learning objectives to give the students a clearer picture of both their strengths and their areas for growth. Mastery-based classrooms have pacing benchmarks to make sure students don’t veer too far off course academically. But by and large it’s students’ individual progress, not the semester calendar, that determines when they move on to new material. Teachers allow and encourage students to revise work and repeat assessments until they reach mastery. At the same time, students can outpace the semester calendar if they work hard or if certain concepts come easily to them.

Although online lessons replace lectures, they don’t replace teachers. Rather, they empower teachers to shift more of their attention to the human aspects of teaching that online learning can’t offer. With course content covered in online lessons, teachers focus on answering questions, remedying misconceptions, providing support and accountability, and being the caring adults their students need. They help their students set and pursue individual learning goals tied to their interests and ambitions. They are the ambassadors of their subjects — making the material come alive for their students and inviting students into the worlds of scientists, historians, engineers, artists, and other communities of expertise. Managing student behavior gets easier as teachers no longer need students to be compliant while they go through lessons that may bore some and confuse others.

Sabrina, a student at Map Academy in Plymouth, explained in a podcast interview how this flexible model is a game changer for students like her: “They don’t just see you as a student — they see you as someone that is trying to learn and just needs help getting through high school.”

The 2019 graduation ceremony for Map Academy in Plymouth.Debee Tlumacki

Now is the time

Schools and educators need flexible learning models now more than ever. This past October, 80 percent of teachers who responded to a nationally representative survey I conducted in partnership with Bay View Analytics indicated that their students were starting the school year with gaps in their learning. At the same time, two-thirds of the teachers indicated that they were vexed by increases in student absenteeism and social and emotional challenges. In the words of one teacher: “I have students who need extra support for social emotional learning. I don’t have enough resources and time to meet and talk with them.” More than 50 percent of the teachers said their work currently feels unsustainable.

Flexible in-person instructional models powered by online learning are designed for just these types of challenges. But our survey data shows blended learning is currently in decline. Although 75 percent of survey respondents said they’d used blended learning at some point in the past, only 21 percent indicated that they plan to use it in the future.

Why are educators rejecting the pedagogical models that could provide just what they need? Before the pandemic, the inertia of the status quo was likely the biggest hold-up. Flexible blended learning models require both an investment in educational technologies and a major rethink of how schools operate. As we’re seeing with the adoption of electric cars, it takes time to improve the technology, build the supporting infrastructure, and shift general attitudes and beliefs.

But in the wake of COVID, which upended school operations and spurred major investments in devices, infrastructure, and professional development, the biggest barrier may now be a lack of discernment.

For many educators, parents, and policymakers, it seems that blended learning is synonymous with the “Zoom in room” hybrid learning of 2020 and 2021 that many found incredibly frustrating. Most of the online learning last year wasn’t about enabling self-directed, mastery-based learning or empowering teachers to break the constraints of batch processing to focus more on their individual students’ needs. Rather, online learning last year was largely employed to replicate conventional classroom instruction over video calls. Many people tend to see just the common denominator between those models — that they’re both online.

Also, it’s a sad irony that after school systems spent so much money and effort last year to set up online learning resources and infrastructure, for the most part those resources are now underutilized. Roughly 60 percent of school and district administrators who responded to the October survey said their school systems had spent federal pandemic relief funds on infrastructure and resources for remote learning. Much of that technology is now going to waste in the rush to reestablish normalcy.

Like never before, the conventional model that expects cohorts of students to all move together along one track is showing its cracks. Online learning alone is not a panacea for education’s woes, but it offers powerful ways to rethink the standard model of schooling that wasn’t working all that well even before the pandemic.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in K-12 education for the Clayton Christensen Institute, which is based in Lexington.