Distance Learning Has Been Part of American Culture for 100 Years. Why Can’t We Get it Right?

Educators and parents have let technology solve school in a pandemic. There’s a better way.

By Erik German
An image from RetroReport

When authorities issued stay-at-home orders at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, schoolchildren worldwide entered what has to be the largest — and probably least welcome — distance-learning experiment in the history of education.

Across the United States, parents and kids were struggling, teachers were losing their minds, and political leaders were asking, “Why weren't we ready?” But in a few obscure corners of the K-12 education world, some schools were ready, and they'll tell you they've handled the crisis just fine, thanks. It turns out teaching K-12 kids at a distance isn't something that arose in the United States with Covid-19, or even with the advent of the internet — it dates back almost 100 years.

The story of these special schools begins on remote farms, gets a huge boost during World War II, pivots hard in the internet age, and, strangely enough, shows us what distance-learning students like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake have in common with some of the most vulnerable and hard-to-teach kids in the modern education system. It turns out some of the same methods pioneered for early 20th-century farm kids can help students who are faced with one of the most challenging educational shifts of our time.

The University of Nebraska High School was founded in 1929 with just 14 students, but enrollment grew to 1,400 within a decade. Early on, the school went by a plainer name: the Independent Study High School. The student body was a mix of kids in towns where schools were one-room Little House on the Prairie situations that topped out in eighth grade, students at tiny high schools offering too few courses to qualify them for college, and teens living on isolated farms. World War II brought in a swell of young military recruits needing credits to finish school early and join the fight or needing to prepare for emerging specialties involving cutting-edge technology, like radios and airplanes. In later decades, out-of-state and international enrollment took off, especially among families pursuing government, corporate, or missionary work overseas. By the 1960s, the school had 12,000 students, an era of peak enrollment that led one researcher writing a dissertation on the program to conclude in the 1970s that it “can probably claim to be the world's largest high school.”

The University of Nebraska High School (UNHS) has since quietly evolved into something like a long-distance Hogwarts, where celebrities and young Olympians get first-rate secondary schooling without slowing down whatever's making them famous—students like Britney and Justin, Michelle Kwan, or Lisa Bonet.

When I asked the school's spokesperson about these celebrities, they made it clear the administrators dislike the idea of trading on the names of the kids they teach, the vast majority of whom are not famous**.** Some UNHS students have followed corporate or diplomat parents to overseas postings and enroll to get a U.S. diploma remotely. Some live in isolated corners of the developing world or the rural United States. There aren't typical days at the school, because students follow their own course of study at their own pace. Some follow a set daily schedule; others pack their studies into just a few days a week to free up time for other pursuits. And more than half of students attend regular brick-and-mortar schools full-time and enroll for elective or AP courses they can't get at home. UNHS charges only $250 per semester per class while regularly sending nonfamous graduates to places like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, West Point, and other prestigious colleges.

For most of the school's history, the technology platform it employed for delivering lessons was the same: The U.S. Postal Service. “It began as a correspondence operation,” said Barbara Shousha, who has been the school's director since 2009. “Literally mailing out lessons, having the students do that work, and then send it back to the university, where it could be graded.”

Lessons on paper are still available and can be mailed out for all courses, but today the vast majority of the school's 3,000 or so students do their lessons online. They log onto a proprietary and decidedly low-frills, early-2000s web platform called WayCool. In describing it, one staffer sheepishly insisted they're planning an upgrade soon, but to me it demonstrates how technology rates among the school's priorities.

“It's really not about technology,” Shousha said. “And I will say this forever to anyone who will listen to me.” Shousha doesn't focus on getting better internet or more devices to kids; instead, she encourages schools to adopt a few analog practices that UNHS has employed since its founding.

One is simply offering the curriculum on paper. For Shousha's students, lessons on paper have helped families in weird and largely self-chosen circumstances, like circling the globe in a sailboat or doing missionary work in off-grid villages. But for families forced by the current pandemic into educating their kids, a paper option can be a godsend for households whose problems are more pedestrian. Just ask anyone who can't afford broadband, or a computer for the kids, or an internet service where simultaneous video calls on four devices guzzle the signal until everyone's classes and meetings seize up in a pixelated blur.

Shousha's next big suggestion for schools and kids forced to go remote is equally nontechnological. “A critical component of our mission is that all of our courses are asynchronous. That means that the student and the teacher are not working at the same time, that they are not doing live events that are tied to a calendar or a clock.”

Amid concerns that the chronic achievement gap between rich and poor students will become a canyon during the pandemic, Shousha said unhitching learning from a strict schedule offers one small way to help improve fairness. Children of essential workers who can't get homework help until after a parent finishes a shift, students caring for a houseful of younger siblings during the day, kids who've fled their city and are holed up with relatives in another time zone, they all benefit when schoolwork can fit their own schedule rather than an outside one.

My own kids, six and seven years old, normally adore school — but it got to a point this spring where both of them started to dread turning on their iPads in the morning. The Nebraska model suggests the mess that we and so many families lived through last term didn't come from doing distance learning itself — it came from doing distance learning badly. There are best practices, and they've been around for quite a while.

I found this out while calling around to see if there was such a thing as a scholar of distance learning, and, surprisingly enough, I turned up a small handful who've been studying this stuff for decades. One of them is Michael Barbour, an associate professor of instructional design at Touro University in California, where he specializes in studying distance learning for K-12 students. He's a soft-spoken Canadian, but when it comes to preparing schools to teach long distance through the pandemic this fall, he doesn't mince words.

“Every school leader should be fired if they're not training their teachers to do this,” Barbour said.

He said technology tends to be a secondary consideration for the most successful programs — kind of like a truck delivering groceries — and it's best when schools use the fewest number of digital tools possible for tasks like videoconferencing, assignment sharing, and messaging. This keeps the daily hassle of switching apps and logging on to a minimum for parents and kids.

Just as important, Barbour said, successful programs know exactly what their core curriculum is. They separate what's nice to have from what's absolutely essential for the next grade level, so they know beforehand what can be skipped if a particular kid is moving slowly. “You don't want teachers deciding that on the fly,” he said.

This need for individualized attention is why several veteran distance instructors I spoke with also emphasized the need to build distance courses from the ground up. Just pointing a webcam at a teacher's regular class, in most cases, isn't going to work.

“Don't go in at the beginning and just talk to your student and think that the student is going to be able to get it,” said Michael Moore, a professor of education at Penn State who founded the American Journal of Distance Education in 1987.

Successful distance programs break their lessons into 15-minute chunks, Moore said, each with a clear objective that's written out beforehand. Teachers choose the technology to deliver each chunk—whether it's video or audio or plain old text — after they've laid out their objectives. And they figure out in advance how to best measure whether each of these mini lessons actually stuck.

Most importantly, Moore said, the best distance teachers track each student's progress individually and, ideally, tailor whatever the student does next based on the strengths and weaknesses demonstrated in their latest evaluated work. Each student, in effect, receives a custom-made course. “Far from being less personal, it ends up being highly personal,” Moore said. “So many people, when they hear about distance learning, they think it's going to take away the human part and replace it with technology, but it's the opposite.”

The Covid-19 pandemic isn't the first time large groups of students have turned to distance learning in a crisis. During the flu pandemic of 1918, some school districts in Los Angeles offered mail-in courses for homebound high school students. During World War II, many thousands of young men fresh off baseball fields and farm pastures had to be taught to operate radios and bomb sights and battleship guns quickly and with great stakes.

Many learned what they needed to know at a distance with the help of manuals and instructional materials sent all over the world from educational offices in Washington, D.C. Moore's academic mentor, Charles Wedemeyer, a man regarded by some as the father of distance learning as an academic discipline in the United States, spent his war years in D.C. working in exactly such an office, creating instructional materials on naval warfare that were sent out to sailors already at sea. Wedemeyer's commanding officer later described it as “a job of great responsibility, affecting directly or indirectly the training of most enlisted men and Reserve Officers in the Navy.”

In New Zealand, during a polio epidemic in 1947 and 1948, the educational ministry enrolled every child in the nation in a government-run distance-learning school, which at that point was already nearly two decades old. Much like the school in Nebraska, it had been founded to educate students on remote farms. The Kiwis managed to match Nebraska for plainness of designation, for many years calling their institution simply the Correspondence School. Today it's known as Te Kura, a Māori word for “school” with more abstract connotations. “It's the concept of knowledge and learning,” said Mike Hollings, the school's CEO.

Hollings, who traces his own Māori descent from the Ngati Raukawa tribe, said it's a fitting name for an institution whose classrooms are virtual, and where nearly half of the student body descends from New Zealand's precolonial Polynesian inhabitants. “They've mostly come to us because they've been disengaged from schooling,” he said. “It's a very typical situation of countries that have been colonized.”

Out of the 22,000 students currently enrolled at Te Kura, Hollings said only a few hundred live in remote parts of the country far from a school. About half of the students attend other high schools in New Zealand's six provinces while taking one or two Te Kura courses to fill holes in their home school's offerings. Te Kura also serves a scattering of international students and, like Nebraska, a handful of elite athletes and young performing artists they don't really advertise — the rest are students who can't get what they need from traditional school environments.

This aspect of the school's mission illustrates one of the more surprising arguments offered by experts in distance learning: The value of this kind of schooling is evident not only in an emergency, and it's not just for kids on the farm.

If you were suspended, expelled, dropped out because of an illness, or, perhaps most notably, have a special need that makes traditional classroom learning unworkable, Te Kura offers an alternate route to a diploma. Which means about half of its student body is dipping into a distance curriculum for reasons having nothing to do with distance. They're enrolled because the traditional setup of school, with its homogenizing rows of desks and jostling with peers and lectures and tests tied to place and space, turns out to work terribly for lots of kids.

Mary Rice, a professor at the University of New Mexico who specializes in distance learning for kids with special needs, tells a story about a high school senior she worked with who had an emotional disorder stemming from a traumatic assault. After the attack, being around people tended to trigger her, which made classroom work incredibly hard. The girl coped by disconnecting mentally and, as Rice put it, just “floating through” the school day. Her teachers weren't without sympathy, but they lacked the resources to focus on her specific situation. Then Rice helped her enroll in an instructional program that didn't require physically being at school. Just like that, Rice told me, “she went from not going to graduate to being able to do it in just a few weeks.”

Experiences with students like this have led Rice to question a model that many of us grew up believing was synonymous with school: “Wouldn't it be great if not every student had to come to school for the same amount of time every day?” Rice said.

There is a big caveat: The younger your children are, the less able they are to work autonomously. My youngest, who's just learning to read, is not getting through her lessons without an adult who can at least talk her through the instructions. UNHS doesn't offer courses to kids below high school. The New Zealanders do enroll a few hundred students under 10 years old, but they readily admit that these kids need an adult present to make sure the students complete the work. The adult doesn't need to be a trained teacher, but if my household is any indication, they had better treat it as something close to a full-time job.

The advice these scholars and experts are giving won't magically fix all the problems students and teachers are facing in the fall. And it certainly won't address the monstrous inequality in the public school system at large or make life easier for students whose families are homeless or can't afford enough to eat. But no one in the distance-learning field is claiming they have those solutions. What they do have is a long history of addressing a once-rare difficulty that's suddenly confronting millions of kids. And these schools' methods also turn out to be useful for solving problems for students whose learning style or background makes traditional classrooms a bad fit.

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