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The failure of distance learning presents an opportunity to better engage parents

The failure of distance learning presents an opportunity to better engage parents
© Michael Stebbins

With notable exceptions, distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a failure in the United States. Children are struggling to keep up with curriculum, and parents are often finding themselves simultaneously appreciating the skills of teachers and struggling to help their children learn at home, often while holding down a full time job. We certainly need to improve distance learning in public schools, but we should also take this opportunity to enhance parents’ ability to complement distance and in-school learning at home as well. This is of particular importance in STEM education where children learn complex topics best from hands on discovery and experimentation.

Rather than just improving on the ability of teachers to effectively reach children through distance learning, we see opportunity to provide children, parents, and teachers with the ability to explore effective distance education together using tools that exist today. These tools include citizen science programs and app-based games designed to engage students and parents simultaneously and provide moments of structure to the chaos that distance learning has heaved upon them.

Research on providing children opportunities to learn outside of the typical classroom experience has shown it to have positive effects. For example, engaging children in so-called “citizen science” projects allows them to be immersed in learning as well as to contribute to real science projects, all while having fun. We are not talking about your typical children’s chemistry set of yesteryear. Children can now engage in real world science experiments at home and have the opportunity to be exposed to the kind of practical science that you can’t get from a textbook or Zoom chat.

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Imagine a child becoming an extension of research, aiding scientists in data collection and learning about how science works at the same time. Take SharkFinder, a citizen science project that has students comb through ancient marine deposits in search of tiny shark fossils. Ector County Independent School District in West Texas embedded the SharkFinder program into the curriculum, enabling 6,264 students to become citizen scientists. These students processed at least 1 ton of 89-million-year-old Cretaceous marine sediment. Students who participated in this opportunity were immersed in authentic scientific data collection and contributed 5,947 scientifically significant findings to the field of paleontology while learning about fossils and how science happens in the real world. Surprisingly, Ector County collected attendance data that showed substantial increases in student attendance associated with the hands-on learning SharkFinder experiences in the classroom. Parent feedback on the program showed increased excitement when students were at home and parents became involved with their students’ learning. Principals were reporting increased parent engagement in volunteering on campuses, and teachers were sending materials to students’ homes in order to continue engagement in the hands-on activities.

Other educational platforms that use app-based games to engage students and parents in learning together have been hugely successful. For example, the suite of hundreds of app-based games produced by PBS KIDS have shown that children can effectively learn the material necessary to succeed in elementary school without formal instruction. An evaluation of the “The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!” game clearly suggested that game play had meaningful impacts on 4- to 5-year-old children’s knowledge of physical science. Children who played the game tended to demonstrate wider understanding of physical science concepts and science and engineering practices, ability to sort objects by size, color, shape, and use, and improved their use of science-related vocabulary.

There is still a need for strong programs to evaluate the effectiveness of most of the tens of thousands of educational app-based games to ensure that children are learning the material as they get better at playing educational games. But that should not stop government and philanthropies from investing in the development of additional app-based games that follow state level educational curricula and building up the tools necessary for distance learning and complementing traditional classroom learning through app based-games.

We are not arguing that applying traditional classroom lessons to distance learning should not be vigorously pursued and vastly improved. Quite the opposite; rather than just improving on the ability of teachers to effectively reach children through distance learning, we see the clear need for children, parents, and teachers to explore educational opportunities together using the tools that have been proven effective.

The main challenge has been a lack of funding for the development of new programs and rigorous evaluation of existing tools. Given the tremendous success of existing programs, funding the development of tools that more directly engage parents in their children’s education and expanding those tools to other topics and platforms is an opportunity for transforming education and delivering a rich continuum from classroom to living room.

Jason Osborne is the Chief Innovation Officer at Ector County ISD public school district and a former Scientific Project Strategist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Janelia Research Campus. Follow him on Twitter @PaleoExplorer

Michael Stebbins, Ph.D., is the president of Science Advisors, LLC and former Assistant Director for Biotechnology at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Follow him on Twitter @Stebbins