OPINION | Give online learning an upgrade

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SCHOOL’S out for summer.

School’s out forever? A lot of parents are figuring out that remote learning, forced on us by school closings, is mostly the same old, same old — teachers droning on to students, except online. Not much has changed in education since the Little Rascals’ Miss Crabtree’s one-room class in 1930.

And it’s broken. Even before Covid, more than half of incoming students at community colleges required remedial math or English courses. As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told me, “Something’s wrong when you have rising highschool graduation rates and rising remediations.” Seriously wrong. Billions are wasted reteaching high school.

All our Zooming may be a spark. Mr. Bush insists, “We need to flip the system on its head so that time is the variable and learning is the constant — which requires a mastery- based system.” OK, a lot to unpack there. For about a decade, many schools have used “flipped” classrooms. A teacher records lectures that students watch at home, and the next day in class students discuss the lectures and do what would’ve been their “homework.” But that model only goes so far. Lectures are still dull. They don’t engage and motivate kids. Even with small class sizes, many students fall behind.

Forget flip; the flopped classroom is coming. Upend teachers, kind of, by creating a robust online learning system, filled with building blocks and snippets that students need to complete before moving on. Not lectures from your ninth-grade history teacher, Mr. Mailitin, but learning from the best teacher in your district or state or country. Many would nominate Sal Khan and his Khan Academy.

This isn’t science fiction, though that’s the inspiration. Neal Stephenson laid out the concept in his 1995 novel, “The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.” Before Netscape went public and well before iPads, Mr. Stephenson envisioned learning via adaptive, customized instruction on thin portable devices. Much of the technology now exists and works. Even a voice interface is plausible. Learning can be made fun — see video-game deep dives — even delivered over phones.

When flopped, teachers (probably fewer of them) become coaches, tutors, encouragers, motivators. These new coaches augment online learning, not the other way around. Some students will move ahead faster — make time the variable, like Mr. Bush says —  and will be able to help their struggling peers. Mr. Bush rightly adds, “Social development of young people is important, which is why schools aren’t going away, nor should they.” I agree. Labs, learning materials, field trips, group projects — all are important supplements to online adaptive education.

I can hear you thinking: Not. Gonna. Happen. Except it’s already happening. Khan Academy provides online instruction via more than 13,000 videos and 4,000 articles plus almost 75,000 practice problems. Before Covid-19, it had 18 million monthly students. Mr. Khan tells me that “on any given day this April, we had over 30 million students, meaning 50% to 70% more people using it 50% to 70% more per person.”

For students seeking summer and back-to-school catchup for time missed, Mr. Khan this June (you heard it here first) will roll out “Get Ready for Grade Level.” The new suite of courses will “give you exactly the prerequisites you need to get you to whatever grade level you should be at, breezing through what you know, but if you don’t know it, you have the opportunity to fill in your gaps.”

That’s adaptive online learning in the here and now. The goal is that everyone finishes — learning is the constant. As Mr. Khan says, “mastery and an individualized pace” are the goals. “It’s well documented that if you learn in a mastery learning framework, and you don’t have these gaps, that kids progress much further and much faster.” What gaps? In middle school, “if you miss the concept of dividing decimals or exponents, when you get to algebra, you’re toast, and it has nothing to do with the algebra. It has everything to do with your gaps. We have a deep item bank, kids can focus on that skill and must keep getting it right on quizzes and unit tests, which are auto-graded and evaluated.” Yes, evaluation is built in. Sounds like an early “primer” to me, which could become an implicit SAT.

Mr. Khan has bold plans: “You build the tool kits and almost everyone can learn” almost any subject. The capability gap is an illusion. “Five hundred years ago, people thought reading was a high-minded, academic pursuit,” but “when you make the assumption that everyone can do it, 99.9% of the population can read. I think something similar in, say, trig or calculus or relativity or becoming a competent writer, I would say it’s 90%-plus of the population, maybe 99%” that can master these subjects.

Everyone finishes. This should be a bipartisan national priority but sadly isn’t. Some form of the Diamond Age primer is coming anyway. Yes, the American Federation of Teachers will complain, but so what? Don’t let them be the enemies of progress. A future column will figure out how this gets funded. Meanwhile, school’s out. Flip-flop.