Will “Online Learning” Work?

The COVID-19 pandemic required the abrupt closure of schools and an almost overnight shift to attempts at online education.

Implementation has been very uneven, and, combined with cries about “equity problems,” led to the cancellation of grades for spring semester 2020 locally and at many places across the nation.

How can we make school work going forward? This *in-depth* article examines the many behind the scenes challenges of which parents may not be aware and discusses possible ways forward.

5/2/2020 – In mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic threw U.S. society into chaos, with the abrupt closures of schools and businesses.

The Local Response

Our local San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD) made a valiant effort to implement online learning to allow students to finish up the school year, but ran into problems with some students not having Internet access or computers.  The District distributed additional low cost Chromebooks (PCs using Google’s operating system) and Internet WiFi hotspots to students to try to address the technology problem.  This doubled the total number they had distributed prior to the pandemic (from ~500 prior to ~1000 after according to Brian Simmons at the April 16th Board meeting – see link to the meeting video recording a few paragraphs below).

A statistic which may surprise many people in our well-to-do area is that 27.3% of students in SMUHSD are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged.  News stories also mentioned that schools were the primary source of meals for some poorer students, and SMUHSD set up a “Grab and Go” lunch meal site at Mills and San Mateo high schools to assist.  Details of many of these efforts can be found here.

Teachers also struggled with trying to learn unfamiliar technology quickly to teach classes online while simultaneously being kept at home with their own children and no access to day care, just like most other workers.  Administering tests and other assessments in an online environment was problematic.  Science classes could no longer do labs.

In addition, attendance at some online classes was down compared to school for reasons such as some students having to help support families who were in dire straits.  60% of students responded in a survey that they were providing daycare to younger siblings; others were working in essential businesses.  However, there is no doubt in my mind that the absence of compulsion to attend class also contributed to this decline.

By April 16th, all of the above issues finally came to a head at an evening SMUHSD Board of Trustees meeting held by Zoom videoconference.  The Youtube recording of that conference can be found here .  In particular, the presentation given by the District to the Board starts at 55 minutes into the recording and wraps up at the 1 hour 26 minute mark.  The presentation explained the reasons for the District’s decision to recommend the Credit/No Credit grading option to the Board for Spring Semester.

After that presentation, questions and public comments continued for almost another FOUR HOURS!  Superintendent Skelly remarked that he had never been at such a heavily attended Board meeting despite his long career in several districts with activist parents.

A lot of the comments were either by AP students, who felt like they were being robbed of their grades, or by teachers and students (several of the students in this camp were in student government or other school roles or were children of teachers) who often argued for “equity” under these trying times.

In the end the Board was split for a while between a straight Credit/No Credit policy versus giving students the option of requesting either a grade or Credit/No Credit.  Trustees Hanley and Griffin were on the Credit/No Credit side; Trustee Friedman proposed the two option plan and was supported by Trustee Dwyer; Trustee Land was undecided for a while but ultimately voted with Hanley and Griffin thereby deciding the issue.

Trustee Hanley  emphasized that he was supporting this Credit / No Credit option ONLY for spring semester due to the chaos caused by the rapid transition and that the District needed to begin work immediately to come up with an evaluation policy should school have to continue online in the fall.

I was working during the first part of the Board meeting that night but joined for the final hours and watched the recording of the District’s Powerpoint presentation later.  As I have this blog for a forum, and there were so many people wanting to speak at the time, I stayed silent despite being concerned by some of the decisions and statements made.

As a confirmation of the current demands on people’s time, it took me over two weeks to sit down and begin this article.   However, I have been thinking about the issues constantly since the Board meeting, and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent comments about possibly reopening schools in July to avoid a “learning gap” were an additional impetus to finish it.

I participated in an earlier discussion about Newsom’s July reopening proposal on our local Nextdoor forum (this link will only work for Nextdoor users in my local area).  The Nextdoor discussion focussed on the dangers of reopening schools prematurely.

In this article I first want to talk about the challenges of online learning and the frequent complaints about “equity” problems.

But before I address our new educational challenges, I should note that my personal focus is on math and science, and this article will be directed primarily towards solutions for that area.  Hopefully it might also serve as food for thought for teachers in other fields as well.

I tutor physics, math, and chemistry and have found that, post shelter-in-place order, my tutoring students taking science and math AP classes are much more likely to be receiving challenging lessons than the ones taking non-AP classes. In many cases, new material is being supplied by the College Board, the creators of the AP curriculum and tests.

Of course, AP classes already are more challenging than regular classes, so this may seem like a statement of the obvious!!  However, students in non-AP classes, who previously asked questions about their lessons, now seem to be able to complete the post-shutdown assignments on their own, so I have reason to believe that the difficulty level has decreased in some non-AP science and math classes.  This should not be surprising under the circumstances.  Parents who have not yet inquired may want to ask their own children and learn about their experiences.

Clearly, however, our response to the COVID-19 crisis should not be to dumb down our curriculum. It is understandable that confusion might reign in the early days of transition to online learning, but, if the pandemic goes on for longer than we like, we must find better solutions to our education problems.

Solving the Digital Divide Problem

The complaints about a “digital divide, i.e., an “inequitable” distribution of technology resources, overlook an important point.  All of our focus seems to be on technological solutions!

School districts are mandated each year to ascertain that they have sufficient textbooks for their students and they have already invested a lot of money in these books.  One does not need an Internet connection to read a textbook, and, in fact, many students already took them home at the beginning of the school year.

Sadly, many of them are collecting dust.  During the normal school year, teachers typically focus on providing handouts to students or put these handouts online for them to download.  They rarely use the textbooks in many of the math and science classes that I tutor.  The Calculus BC class at Aragon is an exception, but even in that case, the textbook is used as a source of exercises, and I have rarely found a student over my last eight years of tutoring who has taken the time to read the book itself.  That is not part of their assignment.  They typically refer to the classroom notes provided by the teacher.

In most other math and science classes, handouts rule the day.  In the middle of a pandemic, all of a sudden distribution of handouts becomes a problem.  This problem could be solved by using textbooks that students already have at home.  This would clearly require teachers to shift their lessons to involve the use of books again (which would take time) and obviously would still need a mechanism to get the assignment to the student at home.

Getting the assignment to the student does not require Internet access!!  Each teacher has a voicemail box at their school.  A teacher could record the assignment for the day in their voicemail greeting and students could call in to pick it up.  I am certain that virtually 100% of students have access to a telephone, if not of their own, then through their parents.  I am NOT saying that this is an optimal way to do things.  What I am trying to demonstrate is that there are alternative solutions if needed.  I am sure that readers could think of others.

I am worried that living in Silicon Valley has blinded us to older ways of education that can still work, and that, in the middle of the current chaos, we tend to throw up our hands too easily in defeat instead of thinking of alternatives!

Two years ago the District invested in new AP physics textbooks.  These books are NOT cheap, but they last a long time and are not rendered useless if dropped on concrete.  I have tutored AP physics students at Aragon and one other SMUHSD high school since these books were adopted.  I continue to see the teachers using their own material and have not seen a single use of these new books yet. In fact a student at the other school (not Aragon) was told by a teacher that the new book was “useless.”  I bought a copy of the book for my personal reference and thought that it was a completely reasonable textbook with good examples.  Obviously someone in the District must have also agreed or else a tremendous amount of money was spent for no reason at all!!

I have attended Board of Trustee meetings before where statements have been made about switching to electronic media completely.  Frankly, I personally don’t care if a text is paper or electronic, but paper avoids technology inequities.  I have been concerned for many years, long before the pandemic, that science and math students were losing the ability to learn difficult technical topics from books and had grown to expect material to be predigested for them.  This will not serve them well in college nor prepare them for “life-long learning.”  Clearly language arts and history classes still have extensive reading and writing assignments and are less prone to this concern.

The Online Testing Problem

The next problem has to do with tests and assessments.  How can one be certain that students are not cheating if they take a test at home?  This is clearly an issue for the College Board, but nonetheless they are continuing with this year’s AP exams (the cynic in me thinks this, in large part, is to not lose the significant revenue that they rake in from testing every year).

Cheating has become a rampant problem, not only in schools, but even up to the top levels of our society where respect for the truth seems to be sorely lacking.  The recent college admissions scandal was yet another example of this problem.  When students see this behavior in society at large, they will not be immune to it.

Although there are some very prominent exceptions to this rule, in the long run cheating in education does not lead to success.  Knowledge is cumulative and at some point the rickety scaffold erected by fraud collapses.

Under the extraordinary circumstances that we now face, I believe that we have to trust students to do the right thing even if it means easier “rewards” for cheaters.

I was concerned at many points during the April 16th Board meeting that deferring to the problems of a minority of students was hurting the much greater majority.  This will definitely be the case if the possibility of cheating is used as a reason not to do assessments.

So how can the tests be administered if the student does not have the online technology resources?

Again, here is a relatively low tech solution.  There are undoubtedly other possibilities if one puts one’s mind to it.  A teacher could construct a math or science test by selecting problems out of the textbook and get the word out via their voicemail box as noted for assignments above.  The student could write out the solutions in their own handwriting on paper with a written statement that it is their work, and then use a cell phone to take pictures of it and text it or email it back to a teacher, if they or one of their parents have a capable phone.  If they don’t, the good old US Mail still exists.  Again, I am not saying that these solutions are optimal, but they are possible.

However, there is another issue with assessments in high schools that parents may not realize.  Some (many?) high school teachers rely on student teaching assistants to grade papers.  This is a big change from the time when I was in school.  In science and math classes, homework assignments are almost never graded.  At best they are quickly skimmed to see if the work was attempted.  If a teacher has five classes with 30-35 students per class and tries to grade a daily home work assignment, this alone would require an additional 2.5 – 3 hours of nightly work if one only took about a minute per student!  If one takes 2 minutes per paper, the total expands to up to six hours.  Clearly something will give.

I can already hear people respond: given the rate at which we have to go to cover the AP curriculum and no teaching assistants to help, methods like the above would be far too slow!

First let me note that it is the height of hypocrisy to complain about student equity issues during the current crisis and then hold up the AP classes as an obstacle in remote learning.  The same is true if one praises AP classes as “quality education.”  The AP curriculum is probably the most inequitable part of the current school curriculum because it greatly favors families who can afford private tutoring.

I have written at length in this blog about the problems with the AP curriculum (here, here, here, and here), and have discussed this with Superintendent Skelly on multiple occasions.  He politely thanks me for my “opinion” and does not hesitate to note that there are others, himself included, who think that the AP curriculum is of high quality.

Parents are not moved by my protests because everyone knows that AP classes are the gateway to top colleges, so I appear to be tilting at windmills.  Teachers who I have discussed these issues with at Aragon sometimes agree with my criticisms, but more often say that I am only seeing a small unrepresentative subset of the students there.

I have been working with local students since 2010 now, first as a classroom teacher and then as a private tutor.  The vast majority of my students come from families in our well-to-do neighborhoods.  Many have come from Hillsborough.  Five of my students have gone on to Ivy+ schools (the plus including Stanford).  My students are intelligent and privileged in the great majority of cases.

Nevertheless, every year I see the same problems with students, even those near the top of their class, caused by the massive amount of material covered in the AP STEM classes.  Teachers rush through the curriculum to finish up by mid-March and then spend the remaining time through early May doing massive test prep exercises for the exams which start during the second week of May.

Particularly in physics, but also to a great extent in math, the students never have adequate practice in any one topic because the teachers are always rushing on to the next item in the over-stuffed curriculum.  The curriculum is purposely demanding in order to truly spread out student results for college admissions.  Whether or not this results in good teaching is completely secondary!  By mid-March (coincidentally the time at which the Board debated freezing grades), I have found that the students have “completed” the curriculum, but have completely forgotten the critical fundamentals of the class which were inadequately reinforced during the rush for completion.  The last 1.5 months of cramming then usually raises students’ classroom grades and gets them through the AP exams, but parents don’t often realize how low the bar is set for passing those exams.  Consequently the flaws of the system go undetected by many who think that their students did well because they achieved a passing grade of 3 on a hard test.

The AP system serves the top colleges by providing them with a uniform yard stick to evaluate students, after rampant grade inflation made using GPA alone more difficult.  The tests are designed to “spread out the curve” and do so by including very complicated and tricky exam questions.  Instead of inspiring students with a love of an academic subject, these courses condition students to be wary of exam traps and practice testing “strategies.”  Private tutors charge outrageous fees for test preparation classes and parents willingly pay them.  The AP science and math curricula leave out the human material that would explain to students why people were ever interested in working in the subject in the first place.  They are simply bad pedagogy, Superintendent Skelly, even if they are currently a prerequisite for Harvard.

This is what happens when teachers are no longer trusted with teaching.  “Bad teaching” has been the constant refrain of educational “reformers” and is used as an excuse to take ultimate responsibility for classroom content away from the people who should know the needs of their students the best.  Instead of providing better teacher training and then allowing teachers the professional freedom to teach and inspire students at a pace suitable to their needs, the AP approach turns teachers into exam cramming technicians and forces their students to march in lockstep to the national AP schedule.  The system also generates about $3 billion in revenue annually for the College Board.

My comments above are not a random unsubstantiated “opinion.”  They are based on repeated observations of the same problems experienced by a variety of students over a decade.  It is not a statement that I make lightly or benefit from in any way.  It hurts my business to rail against a system that provides me employment.  However, I am fortunate to be able to speak what I believe is the truth because I am self-employed, semi-retired, and tutor for the love of it, not because I need the money!  Nor am I worried about how my AP results compare to other teachers or other districts…

If the COVID-19 pandemic throws a major wrench into the AP system by making it impossible to finish its over-stuffed curriculum, I will not mourn its passing – nor should you!

The “Can’t Do Labs” Problem

There is clearly no way that lab equipment can be distributed to homes, so this problem seems insurmountable.  However, and this is one place where technology access is more important, Youtube has many excellent science lab demo videos available.  While not everyone may have a computer and broadband Internet access, these videos are accessible to people who have a cell phone and a data plan, so Chromebook and Internet hotspots are not a requirement to view these.  While not a complete substitute for hands-on labs, they are still very useful and instructive.  UC and other institutions that mandate lab courses will just have to relent during the pandemic.

Demands on Teachers

This is the real reason for the slow start to online learning and is completely understandable and excusable.  However, if shelter-in-place continues, it will have to be addressed and teachers will have to adapt.

Like everyone else, teachers are also trying to work while taking care of their own kids.  As I wrote recently on Nextdoor regarding the July school reopening proposal:

“I find it interesting that the NY Times yesterday was running an article about parents coming to the end of their rope trying to teach their kids (which I suspect is one motivator behind Newsom’s proposal). They forget that many teachers are in the same boat. The usual response when this point is raised is that *everyone* is in the same boat in this regards, but too many people do not understand how much work teaching is.

I have worked in both startups AND teaching, and teaching *when done the way it should be* is much harder. This, of course, leads to some teachers cutting corners to cope with the workload, and, together with pay issues, is why the average career in teaching lasts about five years.

It is also why teachers fight vigorously to protect their much maligned summer break. If this “decompression period” was eliminated, the average career span would be even shorter, with all of the negative consequences that are easy to foresee.”

Sadly, with the rise of standardized testing and assessments and nationwide standardized curricula, i.e., “education reform,” the teaching profession has been buffeted by changing demands and did not need this additional strain of COVID-19.

Even more importantly, we should not be rushing teachers back into the classrooms when it is not safe to do so.

As I also wrote on Nextdoor, there is an outsized number of teachers nearing retirement.  I know from conversations with Superintendant Rosas of our local K-8 San Mateo-Foster City School District (SMFCSD) that, as of 12/2018, one sixth of the faculty was 60 years old or older.  I do not know the figures for our high school district.

Sending people in this COVID-19 high risk age group back into the classroom puts them at significant risk, even if schools go on double sessions and students are spaced six feet apart in classrooms.  In normal times schools are hot beds of colds and flu.  These are worse times than normal!

In addition, when the bell rings after each class, students in high schools flood the hallways.  There is no way that social distancing can be or will be enforceable.  COVID-19 will spread if schools reopen too soon, even if it is only a mild disease in students.  They will then go home and infect their households.

We have little choice but to find an effective vaccine or drug treatment.  Otherwise,  if the 1918 Spanish flu is any model, we may have at least two years of dealing with the “new normal” until numerous deaths and infections lead to “herd immunity”  (Moo!). Unless the vaccine or drug treatment comes soon, we have little choice but to make remote learning work.

This means that teachers will have to make every effort to adapt, and those who don’t/can’t will retire or leave the profession.  Given the Baby Boomer demographic bulge, schools will need to proceed cautiously with reopening though, or they will find themselves suddenly saddled with “long term substitutes” and student learning will suffer even more.

It is hard at this time to see an easy way out.

My main solace is to think back in our history and realize that this country and our state were founded by people who travelled great distances and faced tremendous hardships in search of a better life.  This thought makes me realize that our current situation is much less dire than the popular media might make us believe.  Unlike during the 1918 flu, we have much better science and medicine to tackle the challenge.

The real challenge is whether we can readjust from our former easy way of living to this new harder lifestyle, or whether we will fail because we became too soft.

If COVID-19 causes us to slow down, reexamine what is really important in our lives, and carefully rethink how we live, then at least something good might come from all of this death and suffering.


Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

4 thoughts on “Will “Online Learning” Work?”

  1. The April 16th SMUHSD Board Meeting on Credit/No Credit is in the New York Times!!:

    “Nowhere has the debate been more passionate than in the San Mateo Union High School District south of San Francisco. It is a place that epitomizes the socioeconomic divides that have always characterized American education, with the children of tech executives attending class alongside the children of undocumented gardeners and office cleaners.

    An April 16 school board meeting to address grading drew more than 500 people. In public comments delivered via Zoom, many parents and students argued that grades are crucial during the college admissions process. One student said grades provide “compensation and incentive for people to work hard.”
    Without letter grades, “What motivation do we have to continue working for the end of the school year?” asked another student, who described herself as having “97s in most of my classes.”
    After listening for more than two hours, the five board members, slumped wearily in their virtual boxes, debated one another for another 90 minutes. They then voted, 3-2, against the wish of the majority of the speakers, adopting a credit/no credit grading system for the spring semester.”

    There is more in the full article available at


  2. This is an excellent analysis! From someone who transitioned from homeschooling to school for my child, I wish more would focus on the love of learning. Grades aren’t the only incentives to learning; sometimes it can deter students from digging dig or expanding their knowledge beyond what’s required. I would like alternate forms of assessments other than standardized tests. I’m taking CLAD credential courses right now and alternative forms of assessments would not only benefit English learners but everyone. This may be a critical time when changes in colleges and high schools can be made. We don’t need to keep the status quo if it’s not working. Thanks for sharing your insights.


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