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[Feature] Learning gap: school’s new coronavirus challenge

With schools expected to continue mostly online in the fall, worries grow over a widening achievement gap

A teacher at Yongsan Elementary School in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul, teaches her students online in April as the coronavirus outbreak limited teachings at physical classrooms. (Yonhap)
A teacher at Yongsan Elementary School in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul, teaches her students online in April as the coronavirus outbreak limited teachings at physical classrooms. (Yonhap)
Seven-year-old Chae Ye-won’s first experience with school was through a TV screen in April, in the middle of the first coronavirus outbreak in Korea.

Three months later, on Monday, the elementary school first-grader was still at home watching the same TV channel. Her school opened in May, but nothing much has changed -- except on Tuesdays, when she goes to school to meet her teacher and the half of her classmates who were assigned odd numbers like her.

“I hate to see this continue for another day. But from what I am hearing, that’s going to be the case in the later half of the year,” said Chae’s mother Lee Su-jin from their home in Anyang, Gyeonggi Province.

“My daughter isn’t getting any of what she would have experienced if she had stayed in the classroom.”

The first year at school can’t be replaced by remote learning, Lee stressed.

“There is a great educational loss for my daughter and all other elementary school first-graders who aren’t going to school like before coronavirus. Imagine how it would be for those kids whose parents can’t assist them with online classes,” she lamented.


The downsides of remote learning

Months into the coronavirus-triggered distance learning experiment, most schools seem to have managed to keep the virus away.

There has been only one confirmed case of a student contracting the virus at school, although this single case in Daejeon early this month put education authorities on high alert.

The Education Ministry, which earlier asked elementary and middle schools in high-risk areas to limit the number of attendees in physical classes to below one-third, says it will maintain the attendance cap for the upcoming semester, while varying the proportion depending on the virus situation of each region.

With teaching mostly done remotely and expected to remain so for the time being, there is a profound challenge facing educators nationwide -- the widening achievement gap among students.

“Delivering information itself isn’t really the problem with online teaching; the problem is more related to keeping these young students engaged in classes and helping them stay interested in learning,” said Kim Hyo-nan, a 29-year-old elementary school teacher in Incheon.

She worries that the harm to students in their early years of school could last long due to the gap widening between the students with access to various educational opportunities outside school -- be they from private tutors or parents -- and those who completely rely on school teachers who are mostly not available right now.

“From what I observed from students after they returned to classes and based on their scores on in-class assignments, those who weren’t supported with private education definitely seemed to be struggling with coursework as a whole.”

Older students speak of the downside of being in online classes themselves.

“For a little more than two months until I could go back to school in May, I was sitting in front of the computer for hours every day for online classes,” said Kang, an 18-year-old high school student in Seoul.

“There were a few entertaining classes among the ones we were required to take, but for the most part, it was very hard to stay focused while staring at the same thing for hours.”

She felt online classes were too fast-paced and didn’t provide time to ask questions, which made follow-up assignments and preparation for next classes more difficult. The cycle continued, and by early May, Kang said she ran out of motivation to turn on her laptop.

“I don’t really know if I have learned anything for the time being,” said the high school senior who now goes to school Monday through Friday. “I bombed the midterm last month, and the same thing might happen on the finals as well if I don’t pull some all-nighters.”

She added she is worried that many like her will fall behind in classes compared to smarter colleagues who have no problem keeping up with the fast-paced online environment or have already mastered the materials in advance with private education.

Kang is not alone in worrying about the burgeoning learning gap, a survey shows. According to a Realmeter survey, 65.4 percent of respondents said online classes aren’t helpful in getting students to understand course materials, while 25.6 percent thought there wouldn’t be such problems.


‘Act before it’s too late’

Although there is no official data estimating the size of the learning loss or the achievement gap due to online classes, education circles view it as the most profound problem facing schools and are urging government action before it’s too late.

“This is not something that can be fixed right away with easy solutions like livestreamed video chat classrooms,” Kim, a 27-year-old high school teacher in Seoul, who, since May 19, has been recording lecture videos for around 150 students at her school.

Kim and other teachers said that education authorities were too focused on the hardware elements of online learning from the start. They also left too many details for schools to decide, including how to check attendance, evaluate achievement and so on. Helping struggling students catch up and getting them up to par is also up to schools, the teachers said.

In fact, the Ministry of Education has been focused on fixing initial hardware problems such as supplying more digital devices for teachers and students and preventing network servers from crashing for online classes to continue.

Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said at the National Assembly on Friday that the ministry was analyzing the learning gap among students from online classes based on midterm exam results from schools throughout the country. She added that the ministry will be following up with more support measures based on the results.

“We are preparing a mentoring system and various support models for students in need of support,” she said. “The Ministry of Education is doing its best to provide the needed support for students in vulnerable classes and those worried about lacking basic academic knowledge.”

Shin So-young, a senior researcher at civic group the World Without Worries about Shadow Education, said how to fill achievement gaps in online schooling is a question that needs to be addressed not only because of the current pandemic situation.

As education is expected to fundamentally change, incorporating more non-traditional classes and teaching methods, it is an investment for the future.

“From what we know so far, online learning will continue and this may become a core part of our next education system. Improvements are desperately needed,” Shin said, adding those improvements should be made to alleviate education inequality, which has been exposed through the disruptions at schools caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“If this system continues, only those with resources to carry out extra education outside school can prevail, and the problem will be greater as younger students advance to higher grades later on,” she added.

Shin and the civic group suggest the government comes up with standards for students to meet in terms of achievement level for core subjects like English, mathematics and Korean, while preparing more lecture and assignment materials for high-quality remote learning.

They also argue that it is crucial that the public education sphere sets up an individual learning schedule management platform along with a feedback system catered to each student’s learning capabilities.

“The government said it recognizes the problem, so that’s a good start,” she added. “What schools, teachers and students need are delicate, precise and pinpointed measures for everyone to stay true to -- real, helpful education while keeping social distance.”

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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