The Covid-19 pandemic has permanently changed the face of online education. During the 2020-2021 school year in-classroom education was regularly swapped for Zoom screens and Google meets. In the year since, kids have returned to the classroom, but online learning continues to grow in popularity. The educational technology sector (EdTech) is forecast to grow toUSD $680 million by 2027 and the market for remote learning services and e-learning is projected to grow 15% annually between 2020 and 2025, to a value ofUSD $50 billion. But while the industry is surging and online learning becomes increasingly popular, there’s one question that we should be asking ourselves: how well does it work?
In this blog, we’ll look at anexciting new study from researchers at the University of Washington (Seattle, USA) that asks just that. The purpose of their study was two-fold: to find out if kids can be taught to read online, and to better understand how kids learn to read.
From autumn 2020 to summer 2021 the researchers held online reading camps for 83 pre-K children. Over this period, schools were opening and closing due to Covid outbreaks, so some had gone in person, others only online, and a few children hadn’t been to school at all.
The children were split into two groups: half participated in a 2-week long online reading camp, the other half didn’t. The reading camp was held on zoom for 2.5 hours a day (including breaks), 5 days a week, and 2 specially trained teachers handled each group of 6 students. Each child was sent the necessary equipment and materials: headphones with a microphone, binders with worksheets, playdough, building blocks, crayons, and a few other props. Finally, parents were told not to give the kids any help, and to keep any siblings away as much as possible (though on occasion teachers had to call over-helpful parents to remind them of this).
The camp was super effective. Kids who participated in the program showed significant improvements to their reading abilities compared with the control group who didn’t. They also had better reading-related skills that they hadn’t been taught in the camp (like the sounds of uppercase letters), which shows that they could apply what they’d learnt to other skills.
The results replicated in-person studies on effective ways to help kids learn to read, like teaching them letter sounds and phonological awareness (sounding out, rhyming, identifying syllables) especially when delivered in fun and engaging ways in small groups.
We’ve got to be careful not to extrapolate too much here: one successful well-structured online reading camp for pre-K children certainly doesn’t mean all online resources are effective or comparable to in-person ones. Still, the results are encouraging in the current landscape. Despite the best efforts of brilliant teachers,education has taken a hit over the past two years. Internationally, there’s been losses in reading and math achievement, and more students are now at risk of future academic difficulties. Further darkening the picture is the income gap: there is a growing difference in the levels of academic achievement between kids from high-income and low-income families.
The study we’re focussing on is American, but its wider implications can be teased out and applied here in the UK too. In 2019, only 35% of American elementary school students scored proficient on a national assessment of reading skills. Scores didn’t go up between 2017-2019 and based on recent studies the 2020-2021 results are likely to be even lower.
In the UK the situation isn’t much better:according to the charity Schoolreaders the reading levels of 5-7 year olds have been most negatively impacted by the pandemic, with 44% of pupils below expected literacy levels. 71% of these children have been set back by three months or more.
An online camp, like the one in the study, could be upscaled and increase access to learning help across different populations. It’s a useful takeaway in case there are more school closures and it could be used as a resource for parents who home school or children who need remote access for other reasons.
On the other hand, online learning presents its own set of problems, like ensuring children have access to high-speed internet and the right equipment, such as tablets and computers. The tech required also highlights the income disparities in both school systems and the families that attend them. Likewise, to participate fully children need quiet, comfortable places where they are able to focus on the lesson, something not every child has access to at home. So while online learning is a useful tool and a growing market, we’ll need a strategy that reaches far beyond the expanse of Zoom to bring kids back to the reading and maths levels they deserve to be at.