Social distancing and closing of schools during the Coronavirus outbreak have forced many students into online instruction. Therefore, we now get a natural experiment in novel forms of tutoring amidst the pandemic. Is online education the future?
The Prussian Model
The current system of public education was invented in the militaristic regime of Prussia during the 18th century. Prussia was incorporated into Germany in 1871. The Prussian model was later enthusiastically adopted by the rest of the world, including the United States, and has remained virtually unchanged ever since. You know it as the classroom model with a teacher and a blackboard in front of a large gathering of students. Typically, each class lasts a little under an hour with a rigid, predetermined schedule.
Today, most believe that without such a public school, no one would learn to read and write. The truth is that, until the 1850s, most schools in America were private, and literacy rates were high. By contrast, around one in seven Americans today are functionally illiterate. Public education does not have an impressive track record.
Although little has changed in the classrooms, computers and the internet have created a unique opportunity for innovation in education. A transitional example is the so-called flipped classroom. Instead of wasting a teacher’s valuable time in regurgitating a rehearsed lecture in front of a class, the teacher records her talk for students to watch at home as homework. When at school, the students do typical homework tasks such as problem-solving. Not only do most students report that they prefer this model, but their grades also typically improve.
Due to government inefficiency and lack of competition, such educational innovation has been severely hampered by red tape and a lack of alternatives – until now. In response to the Coronavirus pandemic, many schools are temporarily closing their physical locations and turning to online lectures.
When things return to normal, millions of students across the West will, for the first time, have been exposed to online education. That experience may kickstart interest in homeschooling and other alternative forms of learning.
The online revolution is coming at just the time when people are growing weary of the politicization of the universities and out-of-control student debt that often come with paying for an increasingly worthless degree. Could online education restore academic diversity and quality in America?