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Online school has a massive blind spot, and it’s hurting young learners the most

Children learning with Outschool. Outschool

Over the past month, my 4-year-old son began attending school in a completely new way: Downloading worksheets, following along with instructional videos, and submitting homework via click. His pre-K class used to start at 8 in the morning and end at 2 in the afternoon. Now it’s condensed into a frenetic half-hour video chat.

The first 10 minutes of the class seem like a teetotaler take on the Budweiser Whassup commercial where everyone sings hello to each other in a way that’s even more disorienting than that 60-second spot. The next 20 minutes are filled with well-meaning and occasionally agonizing attempts to teach about topics like animals and water. Some students follow along, others disappear, only to return when their mothers coax them back into the frame.

While the 2020 spring semester has been groundbreaking for digital education in America, anyone who’s new to online coursework will quickly realize what’s gone missing: Student socialization.

In her 2018 vlog, “Think about this before joining online school,” high school student Faith Elizabeth says she loves attending the virtual Insight School of Washington, but complains that “the biggest struggle of online school is having a social life.”

“You either lose contact with your friends or you lose friends and you don’t get to hang out with them as much as you planned on doing,” she laments. In order to boost her social schedule, she tried to take an in-person photography class, but ran into a snag when her education platform didn’t allow her to be double enrolled at a local high school.

Even though Elizabeth probably wouldn’t be able to attend an in-person class these days, her concern raises issues: A lot of what students learn in school isn’t academics. Younger pupils pick up appropriate classroom behavior and how to play well with others. Older students study with peers and navigate the group dynamics that come with yearbook groups, theater troupes, and basketball teams. All of it preps fledgling minds for the real world: On-the-job training, office politics, networking, friendships, and romance.

How does 21st-century technology replace the stomach-convulsing and resolve-strengthening mental gymnastics a sophomore bounces through while preparing for the science fair or school play? Can a tenderfoot scholar sit still long enough to address a web camera as if he or she is talking to the teacher?

Much of the research about distance learning focuses on college-level courses, and typically on the capabilities of the teachers and tech rather than socialization and interactivity. For example, in the 2018 study “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Distance Learning in Higher Education,” Vimbi Petrus Mahlangu concludes many professors are just delivering traditional lectures online rather than capitalizing on the advantages of the connectivity.

Outschool and chill

Outschool, an instructional marketplace for children ages 3 to 18, had 80,000 students enrolled before March. Ever since the thousands of K-12 school closures over the past weeks, the platform, which offers individual classes in everything from crafts to algebra and yoga, has added 40,000 new students and more than 1,000 teachers.

“The scale and speed of the [interest] really surprised us,” says Outschool co-founder Amir Nathoo, who’s hoping to add thousands more instructors in the next few weeks.

Asked about student socialization, Nathoo quickly points out the difference between his platform and a self-guided learning resource such as Khan Academy, which offers chaptered video lessons for students to digest at their own pace with limited instructor feedback, if any.

“Already in the Outschool platform, it’s a social form of online learning because these classes meet live and have a video chat,” explains Nathoo. “It’s not just getting a worksheet or emailing or chatting back and forth — it’s actually interacting.” The company graduated from the Y Combinator accelerator in 2016 and has garnered over $10 million in funding, including $1.4 million from the venture capital wing of Sesame Workshop.

Early research by the Outschool team suggests smaller class sizes would improve the experience and student interaction. While it’s technically possible for their courses to host 18 students, administrators recommend nine pupils, and many classes have only five or six learners.

Outschool’s platform uses Zoom video conferencing as a plug-in. If you’ve never used Zoom, the speaker usually appears in the main box of the interface while other participants appear horizontally across the top of the screen in a filmstrip layout or tiled grid.

My son took “Making Friends,” which is more of an “Outschool and Chill” hangout session than a class. Given his truncated public school classes, it seemed like a good opportunity for him to chat with other kids his age.


The group leader, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Child and Youth Care, did an admirable job leading the kids through a virtual scavenger hunt: “Find a toy that’s blue and red,” one of the kids challenged and everyone ran offscreen and then returned, one with a Paw Patrol badge and another with a Lego. My son grabbed Magna-Tiles. “Oh, those are cool,” enthused the leader. When my son lugged his cat on camera as an answer to another challenge, the facilitator encouraged other kids to ask him questions about it.

There was a bit of turn-taking and conversation. There was also a lot of wrestling with my son to stop unmuting the microphone. Was “Making Friends” worth $11 for 40 minutes of social interaction? If you have an entire day to fill with a child and don’t have a dance card packed with crafts, quizzes, and virtual playdates, then it’s worth considering. Other similar Outschool hangouts are only $5.

While dropping those amounts every day may be difficult to imagine when the end of the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t in sight, the social interaction these classes offer is better than nothing and easier than policing kids to stay 6-plus feet away from each other on a playdate. Outschool has also offered $1 million in free courses to families in need during the national school closures.

Older children will likely benefit more from the company’s virtual classrooms. The most popular age range for Outschool is 8 to 12, says Nathoo. Some of the topics offered in that age range include the five-paragraph essay, coding, and the introductory architecture of “Designing Small Spaces.” On a video preview, Outschool teacher Latonya says kids are excited to participate in her classes because they’re typically electives.

“It’s not enough for kids to just read [class] content,” says Nathoo, whose parents were both teachers. “They need the shared accountability. They need the interaction and engagement that they get from their peers. We have that already.”

The Connections Academy platform.
The Connections Academy platform. The Connections Academy

Few easy answers

John Watson, co-creator of the Digital Learning Collaborative (DLC), figures student socialization in online education changes greatly depending on the age. “When you’re talking about older kids, there are issues, but these are more easily addressed,” he says. “With younger kids it’s super challenging, and I don’t think there are really good answers.”

According to the DLC’s 2020 report, 375,000 K-12 students currently attend school online. The report also states that young learners are enrolled in over 1 million supplemental courses with online teachers. These are individual virtual classes, often taken by pupils at brick-and-mortar schools, that also come with credits.

“There’s a certain age of kids where they’re interacting over the phone, over video, text chat — those sorts of things all makes sense. There’s another level at which you could be doing those things with younger students who’ll need a parent to be involved. But is that actually a meaningful substitute [for in-person socialization]? I don’t know.”

Since K-12 schools started shutting down or going virtual, Mickey Revenaugh says the phones at Connections Academy (CA) have been ringing off the hook.

“People are trying to figure out what’s going to be the most stable and secure school situation for their kids,” explains CA’s co-founder. The school has been teaching K-12 students online since 2001. “We’re hearing from lots of families who are saying ‘I don’t want them to miss out on a couple months of learning.’ Wherever we can we say, ‘Yeah, come on, in; finish your school year with us,’ we do.”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

While Connections Academy offers individual paid classes, the majority of its 80,000-strong student body replaces traditional public schooling with a combination of live classes, one-on-one tutoring, and online quizzes. Students often opt for online education because they’re unhappy in traditional school or falling behind, want to avoid a bullying atmosphere, or would like a more flexible schedule to focus on extracurricular passions like gymnastics.

Connections Academy is taxpayer funded and students must transfer in, which requires paperwork. Many U.S. public school students may miss — at least partially — the last couple of months of the school year, but dipping in isn’t as easy as just clicking a few buttons.

Before the coronavirus crisis, many politicians didn’t see the value of K-12 virtual schools, which is why almost half of the United States doesn’t support them.

Connections Academy courses require students to sign in at a specific time for attendance or a lecture. In some video reviews, students complain the required check-ins are a drag. Like most other schools, CA class sizes are about 25 students to one teacher, and tests and assignments must be completed by given deadlines.

Student-teacher interactions may change with each topic, says Revenaugh. For example, a pupil who aces English may be perplexed by calculus and require regular tutoring.

As far as social connections, Revenaugh takes pride in the diversity of the student body. Since the academies typically accept students from across the state, a well-to-do suburbanite might be attending school alongside a kid from a working class hood. To accentuate collaboration, students work on group projects in topics like English and social studies. “The online world really allows kids of this generation to show off their technology chops,” marvels Revenaugh. “So we’ve just seen the most amazing videos, audios, animations — you name it.” Projects can also be done offline and pictures uploaded.

Not everyone is thrilled about CA’s live learning experience. In a video review of Connections Academy, YouTube commenter “Tired Mama” complained that her middle school-age daughter (who was previously home-schooled) saw other students get online before a lecture started and drop inappropriate references in the textbox. While plenty of classrooms are littered with obnoxious goofballs, they can seem more in-your-face when talking directly into your chat or webcam.

Asked about Tired Mama’s concerns, Connections Academy director Melissa Brown says, via email, that inappropriate conversations in the chat pods shouldn’t be happening. “If it is, administrators should be notified … The other thing I would say is that Connections Academy offers a rigorous academic experience, and for some students, it takes some getting used to. If a family feels overwhelmed, it’s so important that they seek help. Our teachers are there to help and offer assistance.”

Like other public schools, the academies offer extracurricular activities such as school newspaper, talent shows, school government, and even online prom.

“When we first started, we didn’t really have clubs and activities because no one knew that it would be important to have a school newspaper, for example, or government, or some of those other aspects of brick-and-mortar school,” Revenaugh explains. “All of those things we’ve sort of built in, tested them to make sure that they’re responding to kids’ needs. We’ve gotten lots of feedback about how important it is to have that fun aspect of school in addition to what they’re doing academically.”

Before the era of social distancing, Connections Academy regularly organized educational and fun field trips to places like state capitols and chocolate factories. “Kids from across the whole state or region come together to go to the field trips, and they often meet each other face to face for the first time,” says Revenaugh. “And it’s as if they’ve been friends forever. It’s really kind of astonishing. It gets me choked up every time.”

Neil Gladstone
Neil Gladstone is a freelance writer who has contributed to the New York Times, New York magazine, Thrillist and GQ.
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