How learning outside the classroom can replace learning inside the classroom
The school year is 180 days long. Of those days, students lose time to absenteeism of various causes: sickness, family obligations, weather, and in some cases, their financial situations. Yet, a recent policy piloted by the state of Illinois could be the stepping stone to solving that problem: E-learning.
When Electronic Learning (E-learning) was first adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education on a trial basis in 2015, it was meant to shorten the time students lose to bad weather days and keep all students on track with their education regardless of their circumstances. Through technology as an alternative method for teachers to send out curriculum and teach content, students could still keep up with what they’re learning in school.
While weather seems like a minor issue, living in a state that can experience ‘polar vortexes’ from the combined Lake effect and Northern fronts, the bad weather days add up. This proves especially problematic for high schoolers who had to complete the curriculum prior to AP exams in May. E-learning days require teachers to come up with 5 hours of instructional content for students to complete at their leisure throughout the day. The pilot became so popular among students and educators that the e-learning days were signed into law as a replacement for emergency days.
As a participant of the program from the time it piloted to when it was signed into law, E-learning quickly replaced my healthy skepticism with appreciation. Being used to relaxation during snow days, I was unsure of having to learn a day’s curriculum alone at home, but the interactive, digital activities that came with E-learning soon got me hooked. Whether that meant simulations on Physics Aviary as lab time or recording myself responding to audio for French class, I came to value using digital-based resources to supplement my education.
Critics of E-learning often cite digital learning as being subpar to in-person practice and lectures. Yet, according to a study by the American Society of Training and Development, E-learning has a retention rate of 25–50% higher than traditional schooling. The other major concern is accessibility: how can we ensure that all students have the same access to the digital resources facilitating E-learning? Sometimes, it’s as simple as a survey. That’s the solution school districts in Indiana adopted as they sent district devices with preloaded assignments to ensure every kid take part in E-learning. No personal broadband or devices needed.
The need for electronic learning expands far beyond in Illinois as a transnational issue. Last year in September, public schools in Virginia Beach, VA, used electronic learning to make up for school missed from during the deadly landfall of Hurricane Florentine. Middlebury Community Schools of Indiana adopted a similar E-learning system for snow days with a fully-functional website to address digital resources and assignments. Weather causing absenteeism affects school districts across the nation, yet the scope of e-learning truly extends beyond the weather.
In all 50 states, elementary education is required by law. The unfortunate reality is that not all students can get to or stay in schools as often as their peers — especially the most disadvantaged. The Economic Policy Institute reports that poor students (qualifying for free or reduced lunch) and students with disabilities (having Individualized Education Plans — IEPs) were much more likely than their affluent and non-IEP peers to miss school. The same trend follows for students from minority communities, most prominently the Hispanic and Native American communities. In the status quo, these absences add up until students qualify as “chronically absent” and later, “truant”, where parents can even be fined. Some of these students are among the 1.3 million who take care of their younger siblings while their parents are at work or suffer neglect, homelessness and related traumas. Others need to spend time on their physical and mental health. While we shouldn’t be encouraging unexcused absences, it’s unfair for educational policy to be punishing those who are the most discriminated against and have the least access to resources.
Instead, we should expand the reach of E-learning to all absences. Students who are unable to attend school for medical or financial reasons would now have the same educational opportunities as their peers. As the shift to E-learning becomes a nationwide effort, E-learning’s purpose should evolve as well. Whether students are in school all 180 days or not, they should be able to keep learning.