The Concept of a Best Virtual School and Why You Didn’t Find It Last Year

One of the hottest topics this year has been the quality of virtual education, for good reason.  Across the spectrum of schools, reviews of virtual schools have been far from favorable.  Parents have not been impressed.  It makes sense to ask, then: is there a best virtual school, and can a virtual school create a truly great experience for students?  

In this post, I explore a few reasons why such low outcomes for the majority of schools were in fact very predictable. Once we think about the reasons behind the difficulty, we can explore how it’s possible to do much better.

To get a proper perspective on the issue, we need to begin by noting that lectures are not, in general, the best way for children to learn.1  Every teacher knows that deep learning requires active engagement by means of coached exercises and person-to-person, face-to-face engagement.  This is one reason why schools boast about low student-to-teacher ratios, where they have them.2  Lectures, while important, are best viewed as a supplement to other methods of instruction that are more effective overall.

Since this is a fact about student learning, one reason your student didn’t find the best virtual school is that the solution to “going virtual” successfully was hidden from view because of the standard American way of conceiving of education.  Although this is not standard historically or globally, in America we have come to see learning as “classroom-bound,” or best structured by the size of our traditional American classrooms.  But such sizes do not translate into a virtual context well, except in a lecture-and-listen format, which research has already shown as ineffective, especially over an extended period of time.  The results were predictable.  The solution involves re-conceiving of the size of the groups teachers are instructing at any given time—something that many schools simply were and are not in a position to implement.

A second reason involves something we all know intuitively and is well-backed by research.  Even a moderate amount of screen time is not good for student development.3  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that students all the way through 18 years old spend no more than two hours in front of the screen each day.4  If lecture-and-listen methods predominate—as they must when we try to translate the classroom to Zoom—too much time is spent attempting to absorb material through a screen.  The traditional, American approach to learning is about 80-90% classroom learning, 10-20% homework.  “Learning” is supposed to happen “in class.” When translated to Zoom, this means delivering learning by means of what we already know to be a harmful amount of screen time for developing young minds.  When we add the issues surrounding the potential of computers to distract or create passive students, the problems for learning can become insurmountable.  

The good news is that there certainly are ways forward, even in the virtual context—perhaps especially in a virtual context.  There is no reason why learning has to suffer in such a translation.  Contemporary telecommunication technology has advanced sufficiently to make excellent virtual school possible.  However, seeing the way forward involves thinking more historically, in a more research-based way, and less determined by the “tyranny of the urgent.” Why did schools succumb to this?  Parents have been rightly frustrated.  The good news is that the traditional American model—not universal, and not the most effective historically—isn’t the only method.  There is an approach that works best in a virtual context, and it’s been working for hundreds of years.  As Americans, we have to re-think our understanding of how we pair students and teachers, and our methodology of learning, in order to help our students in the current educational moment.

At New Oxford Collegiate Academy, we have structured things in this better, older and more research-based way.  It’s part of our DNA.  Our particular methodology will be the subject of a series of future posts.  For now, I should ask: how will you avoid the pitfalls of virtual learning for your student(s)? 

 1 See, for example, the National Science Foundation’s “Enough with Lecturing.”

 2 The Open Education Database ranks schools by student-to-teacher ratios

 3 See Sarah Sparks, “New Warnings on Screen Time, as Students Nationwide Move to E-Learning” (Education Week,           March 2020).

 4 See the AAP’s Guidance in “Media Use in School-Aged Children and Adolescents,” in Pediatrics.