Let’s just say it: there is nothing ideal about students and teachers dealing unexpectedly with remote learning, as millions have been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That said, there may be a silver lining to virtual classrooms and distance learning, which many universities and schools this academic year are defaulting to, in various degrees, due to the coronavirus. As students and teachers may have to compensate for logistic challenges, collaborating online might prepare high school students with the kind of organizational acumen, emotional intelligence and self-discipline needed for modern careers, particularly those that allow for the growing trend of working in remote, distributed teams. The sooner that students master those proficiencies, the better off they’ll be when they reach the job market.
Many people worked from home at least part of the time before COVID-19, and the pandemic has only accelerated that reality. In 2018, 70% of people globally telecommuted at least once every week, and 53% worked outside of a traditional office for at least half of the week, according to International Workforce Group.
In the US, as the pandemic forced many employees to work from home, their employers were encouraged by how productive their workforce remained. So much so that by 5 June 2020, 82% of 200 US business leaders surveyed by Gartner said they intended to give employees the option of working from home at least part of the time after the pandemic; 47% reported that they will offer telecommuting 100% of the time.
Employers weren’t the only ones who were pleased: an August 2020 IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) study discovered that 67% of US respondents surveyed prefer to work from home, at least some of the time. Fifty percent of respondents want it to be their primary way of working when the pandemic ends.
Traditional white collar careers were the first to offer geographic, work-from-anywhere flexibility, but there is a growing category of professional positions that will also allow for telecommuting and offer significant opportunity to expand access to fast-growing, well-paying careers. These are called “new collar” jobs, which often require specific, in-demand skills acquired through apprenticeships or credentials earned from abbreviated post high school coursework, but not always a traditional bachelor’s degree.
In these roles, employees can expect to work in geographically dispersed, virtual teams. Members of these teams will have to know how to collaborate efficiently, conduct online research and analysis, use resources like AI and the cloud, master speaking and presentation skills, seek continuing education, exercise emotional intelligence, and become more self-motivated and proactive.
New collar skills, both soft and hard, are in real demand. A 2019 study from the IBM IBV found that behavioural skills had become even more prized by executives than technical acumen. In fact, the study showed that flexibility and adaptability to change are now considered most important, followed closely by time management and ability to work effectively in team environments. Telecommuting and distributed teams demand all of these talents.
Well before COVID-19, remote work even became a component of the student internship experience. For example, during the summer of 2019, at an IBM-affiliated P-TECH school in Baltimore (part of a network of public vocational-technical high schools in 24 countries, co-founded by IBM, that offer mentorships, paid internships and no-cost community college degrees), summer student interns worked out of rented space within a business incubator facility. They used videoconferencing and collaboration tools to work with IBM colleagues and managers around the world.
Professionals of course still benefit greatly from in-person contact, and that will likely never change. There are plenty of anecdotes about water cooler discussions or hallway encounters that have led to new ideas and radical innovation. The same goes for educators, who benefit from in-person professional development and sharing of best practices. But educators are also seeing a benefit to some remote learning. One teacher, at an IBM-affiliated P-TECH school in Connecticut, observed that videoconference classes had unexpected benefits last spring: she was able to use the shorter classes for more intense discussion of previously-assigned readings. Students were able to hone their presentation and group project skills. And she was able to better appreciate some of the personal, at-home challenges that some of her students face. (Collecting information on effective pedagogy in the virtual setting will be critical to share as schools pivot to distance learning and as online curricula becomes more ubiquitous.)
Many students may have enough of the maturity, focus and self-discipline needed to learn digitally, at least some of the time. In addition to virtual classrooms, there are plenty of online resources for motivated high school students who want to prepare for college and the professional workplace. These platforms are giving students access to content that they might not otherwise have. Platforms like Open P-TECH, a set of free, self-paced classes and assessments from IBM that provide technical and career-related curricula, offer content for students who have their eye on professional, STEM-related careers. Many of these careers won’t require a specific workplace; graduates will seek jobs for which virtual collaboration is expected, if not mandatory.
Of course, it’s much more difficult to claim that younger, grade school students benefit much from distance learning and virtual collaboration. Their attention span is limited and is best captured by in-person engagement. For more complex topics, children need the attention, direction and feedback that only can be provided by a teacher in the same room. In-person instruction also is critical for many students with special learning needs.
No matter how much we seek the upside in distance learning for students, there are decided disadvantages. For one, humans innately crave and thrive from the personal connections that face-to face interactions provide. Virtual classrooms also place a strain on parents who need to work in or outside the home. Many parents find themselves taking on the role of teacher or teacher’s assistant whether they have time for it or not. And students from marginalized communities often don’t have the technology and connectivity needed for virtual classes. While more parts of the world become digitally connected, many impoverished populations remain disconnected, putting their futures at further risk.
In due time, physical classrooms will reopen. Until then, many schools say they will be blending in-person and virtual instruction this year, which can be seen as a necessary compromise that balances public health and education considerations. While this arrangement is not ideal, it may have some redeeming value for certain students. Just as the pandemic accelerated the adoption of telecommuting, it has also made some older students more comfortable with the idea of digital collaboration. Skills learned during the pandemic to navigate this new terrain will serve these teens well as they enter the workforce in the years ahead.
This article was originally published in the World Economic Forum.