COVID-19 brought about a new work-from-home era. Starting in March 2020, vast numbers of employees began working from home for the first time, whether because their physical place of employment was closed or to provide supervision for their children whose schools were closed.
Even as the world reopened, workers were slow to return to the office. When they did, it was only to limited degrees in many cases. Still others have not made a return to in-person work and instead continue working from home full time. According to a McKinsey and Co. survey in the spring of 2022, 58% of Americans say they have the option to work from home at least one day per week, and 35% have the opportunity to work from home full time.
As large segments of workers stayed hybrid or fully remote, so did many students. Despite the generally haphazard and low-quality remote instruction provided by public schools spanning the past three school years, the demand for full-time virtual and hybrid learning options has grown strongly. For example, recent data from across a sample of 10 states (Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, Wisconsin and Wyoming) reveals that “enrollment in remote schools rose on average to 170% of pre-pandemic levels in 2020-21, then nudged up to 176% in 2021-22 even as in-person schools reopened and mask mandates fell.”
This might surprise parents who abhorred the school closures that forced remote learning on their children. But there are three key differences between what the districts provided on the fly during the pandemic and what is now growing in popularity among K-12 students.
First, public schools were ill-prepared to instantly convert from in-person to remote instruction. Consequently, the quality and quantity were poor. This starkly contrasts non-traditional education providers that intentionally design remote learning content and delivery for virtual and hybrid learners. Furthermore, their teachers are selected and trained specifically for the virtual learning environment, which aids their comfort level and professional motivation with remote delivery.
Second, there is a substantial difference in terms of the motivations of the students and families. Traditional public school families were suddenly thrust into remote learning, and the vast majority experienced a prolonged nightmare. In large part, the power-hungry teachers unions colluding with left-wing political leaders caused the closures to drag on well beyond what was needed to ensure the well-being of students. This is in sharp contrast to families who research and intentionally seek online learning — in part or in whole — for a variety of reasons.
Families who select virtual or hybrid learning are attracted, and in many cases retained, by the distinct advantages the non-traditional providers offer. For example, the ability to select the time of day and the pace of learning, as well as the flexibility to complete the learning anywhere, are strong draws. Also, students can return to lessons on demand as needed rather than the one-shot chance provided in a classroom. Social reasons such as avoiding bullying, the flexibility to travel, and the unique ability for remediation or early graduation are also benefits. In addition, online learning can be a solution for students devoting significant time to pursuing hobbies, including arts and rigorous athletic training, or for students coping with health challenges — all of which can make in-person learning at a set time and place infeasible.
The third difference is that non-traditional education providers deliver a more thorough and thoughtful admissions process to determine if students are good candidates for their learning model. Rather than assuming a seamless and effortless transition for students from traditional schooling to their model, they consider many factors, such as parental supervision and involvement, student reading skills (starting in the mid-elementary grades), and student organization and motivation.
Importantly, these education providers consider (and explain to parents) how primary and secondary online and hybrid schooling differs in design from college-level online learning. Age-appropriate and developmental levels inform the content, learning experiences, instructional practices and types of assessments employed in K-12 grades. This is different from online higher education, which often relies heavily on independent reading, lengthy lectures, discussion board posts and writing papers (in many cases as the only form of assessment). In short, the K-12 online and hybrid experience necessitates more teacher support and less-autonomous student learning than adult learning.
Once enrolled, parents and students are onboarded. The process is designed to equip parents and get students started on the right foot. It provides platform (typically referred to as the learning management system) navigation skills, time management tips, organizational techniques, self-advocacy skills development, academic integrity training, and guidance on how to interact respectfully and meaningfully with peers and teachers online. Time is also devoted to helping students gain comfort and confidence with the learning format, including lessons, discussions and assessments.
As with adult employees and remote work, online and hybrid schooling is not for every K-12 student. But when it is the preferred delivery choice by the educator and family, the environment is well designed, the individual is determined to be a strong fit, and there is effective onboarding to prepare for the online experience, it can be a significant win for everyone involved. The benefits can include enhanced time efficiency, engagement and motivation.
The new online era is here to stay for both work and school. For K-12 schooling, the move away from the traditional five-days-a-week norm will grow in demand as school choice legislation continues to expand around the country. More families will be freed from the K-12 public monopoly, where teachers unions’ bosses can hold children as hostages — locked out from learning — to meet inappropriate demands.
Now is the time to advance educational freedom for families. It is also the time for educational entrepreneurs — edupreneurs — to come on the scene to design and develop not only added online and hybrid K-12 schools but also new, increasingly innovative delivery models to meet growing market demand.
• Keri D. Ingraham is a fellow at Discovery Institute and director of the institute’s American Center for Transforming Education.