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How remote learning started with snail mail — and why it never worked

Over a billion students were sent home from school in 2020 because of the global pandemic – so how will online learning evolve from here?

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Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, an estimated 80 percent of the world’s student population are face-to-face (or should we say, face-to-screen) with a new normal: online instruction. Remote learning has come a long way over the last century and a half. But can it cope with, per a UNESCO report, over 1 billion new online learners?

Students have been distance learning for at least 170 years. In the 19th century, correspondence courses were offered first for vocational training, and later by higher education institutions. Everything was done by mail, and learning proceeded at the speed of letter delivery. As communications technology evolved, so did distance learning: Courses were offered through radio, followed by television, then computers (but no internet), and finally, in the mid-90s, actual online classrooms.

But it’s not like physical schools have shuttered their doors in the past 25 years. When universities like Harvard and MIT began offering MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — everyone buzzed about the democratization of education and a narrowing of learning inequality. But MOOCs have suffered from dreadful retention rates, and even those students who enroll in those courses are hardly modeling demographic diversity. According to data from MIT and Harvard, under 1.5 percent of their MOOC students came from countries with low levels of human development.

Studies in places like China have shown the digital divide between rural and urban students has only widened and deepened when it comes to online education access. Even when computer and software deficiencies are addressed, students may have little to no experience with online research. In the U.S., students from lower income or community college backgrounds are less likely to pass online courses compared with face-to-face classes.

Bridging the digital divide is one goal, but even with tech and internet infrastructure in place, online learning presents a unique set of multifaceted challenges. There are a lot of theories about these issues and how to address them, but researchers tend to agree that students learning in isolation are missing a sense of community, a detriment to their education.

Unsurprisingly, online learners have reported feeling less of a sense of connection to other students and instructors when compared to their counterparts in brick-and-mortar classrooms. The corollary: Those students who do get a sense of educational community, even in a virtual space, perform better in online classes. This need for human engagement goes beyond students. In the wake of coronavirus stay-at-home orders, counselors and other support professionals cannot provide in-person services for at-need students, and one of the biggest worries teachers report is the inability to connect with their students.

But there are glimmers of hope. There are a lot of ways to forge community in an online classroom, and one of the most successful connection tools should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever seen a meme: comedy. Laughter is both a strong and fast-acting social glue, and online instructors are now tasked with devising new ways of making lesson plans fun and accessible — putting the phrase ”learning to laugh” in a whole new light.

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