Andres Oppenheimer

Coronavirus will speed up shift to online learning. It could be a good thing | Opinion

School systems’ decision to suspend classes and teach students online because of the coronavirus pandemic will accelerate the e-learning revolution around the world, which was already under way. Education as we know it will change for good — and that may not be a bad thing.

Granted, in the short run, the coronavirus crisis will negatively affect hundreds of millions of students around the world.

In the United States alone, more than 5 million K-12 students already have been asked to remain home and study online, and the numbers are expected to grow. Worldwide, school closings already have affected almost 300 million youngsters, according to United Nations estimates.

This is causing huge problems, especially for poor children who rely on school lunches for much of their nutrition. Also, children from impoverished homes face more difficulties to adapt to online learning than more affluent classmates.

Many children from low-income families don’t have access to high-speed internet, or even computers. Others don’t have internet-savvy parents who can guide them through remote-learning class instructions. And many teachers are not yet prepared to efficiently run their classes online.

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But challenges like these will speed up technological solutions. With an unprecedented number of students going online, children, parents, teachers and e-learning programmers will get a crash course in improving existing online learning platforms. And, in the United States and many other countries, this will help to greatly reduce inequality.

As I learned a few years ago while researching a book on education, traditional education — in which children go to school in the morning and study at home in the evening — has been a recipe for social inequality. The model, started by the King of Prussia in the 18th century, has condemned many children from low-income families to drop out of school because they didn’t have an educated parent — much less a private tutor — to help them do their homework.

As a result, many children from poor families lag in school and drop out, headed, perhaps, to life-long poverty.

In 2007, a number of U.S. schools started to address this problem by creating “flipped classrooms,” in which students started studying at home with their tablets in the morning and went to school in the afternoon to do their homework with the help of their teachers.

This new education model, one of several that fall under the general scope of “blended learning,” should be the future of education. It is probably the best way to help children from economically disadvantaged homes to stay in school, go on to college and climb up the social ladder.

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Since then, e-learning platforms such as The Khan Academy, a nonprofit group founded in 2008 that provides free online educational videos to millions worldwide, and new generations of teaching robots have dramatically improved remote learning.

In 2017, a small experimental robot named “Professor Einstein” — who looks like the Nobel Prize-winning physicist — started selling online. It is a combination of a toy and an Alexa-type virtual assistant that helps kids learn math, physics and geometry. Several other teaching robots have been produced since.

University courses such as those offered by Coursera, Udacity and edX have skyrocketed in recent years, and many reputable tertiary education institutions are now offering college and master’s degrees.

When I asked MIT President Rafael Reif in a 2016 interview how he envisions brick-and-mortar universities and e-learning in the future, he told me, “I think it’s going to be a 50-50 mix.”

But I wouldn’t be surprised if, after the coronavirus pandemic, most tertiary education goes online.

Something similar will happen with tele-medicine, e-commerce and many other activities. The coronavirus crisis will accelerate the ongoing digital revolution. It’s too early to tell whether the outcome across the board will be a positive one, but when it comes to education, the expansion of “flipped classrooms” may help reduce inequality.

It may be one of the few welcome results of the coronavirus nightmare.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. E.T. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

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