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When the coronavirus pandemic first struck and classes shifted online last spring, Sophia Joffe was in 11th grade. Her private school in Toronto, Ontario, had made the transition admirably well, she thought, but she wondered what online tools existed to supplement her studies, and how she’d find the best options. She was also curious how students were faring in other schools.

“I remember thinking that the school systems must have a great list of recommended online learning,” she said. “But I was wrong.”

Joffe saw an entrepreneurial opportunity. She invested $19 — the cost of hosting a website — and created, a database of more than 300 online learning tools, in tables clearly organized by grade level and subject matter, including a civics curriculum founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and engineering lessons on how to build a robotic arm.

Joffe’s database answered a pandemic-era demand: About a quarter of families and teachers want more online instructions and resources to help them use online learning tools, according to a recent NewSchools Venture Fund-Gallup poll. By October, her database had more than 500 unique visitors from more than 40 countries, and plenty of options to meet their individualized needs.

“Everyone’s a different learner,” said Joffe, “and that’s often overlooked in online learning.”

Other student entrepreneurs have applied their hard-earned wisdom to improving virtual school, too. A team of students from INCubatoredu, a high school entrepreneurship program based in Illinois, reworked their business Trashbots to make robotics and coding accessible and provide hands-on STEM education at home. A ninth grader in South Florida, working with the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a national program for low-income youth, developed an app to bridge the communication gap between teachers and Spanish-speaking parents.

Learning tools can take many forms, like websites and apps, virtual tutorials and programs, and online games and videos. And because of the range of resources, students and the adults who supervise them (whether teachers or parents) need guidance on how to assess which are the best materials for which purposes. Joffe had to use her own experience with online learning to make her selections for the database.

While watching TV in her free time, Joffe was struck by another idea: a ‘Netflix of online learning’ that could recommend digital resources to users. “I read that Netflix personalizes their recommendations based on 75,000 categories or more,” she said, “and I thought, if we could take that level of personalization and technology to online learning, it could transform the world.”

“Our governments need to be working in partnership with tech companies to put the Netflix of online learning into action,” she added. “I don’t understand why that isn’t happening — now.”

Many experts have the same question. They generally agree that high-quality online resources can support individualized instruction, and most school administrators and teachers think such offerings are more effective for personalizing education than non-digital materials, according to a Gallup and NewSchools Venture Fund report from last year. Virtual tools give students alternative ways to grasp material, and to complete and submit their work. When interactive and dynamic, these tools can also provide opportunities for practice and student engagement.  

Still, research shows that digital-resource usage hasn’t reached its full potential. According to a 2018 study by the accounting firm PwC, only 10 percent of K-12 teachers reported they “feel confident” about including high-level technology in their lesson plans. Most technology use in classrooms — 60 percent — was “passive”: watching videos or reading websites.

Plus, the jury is still out on what constitutes a high-quality online resource. As long as students, parents and teachers are baffled, these tools will continue to fall short of their capacity to improve and personalize instruction.

Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, believes part of the problem is that educators and families alike need more guidance about instructional materials, to help them navigate the deluge of websites, apps, curricula and more online.

“There are a lot of digital materials out there that may not be well-aligned with curricula,” she said. “There’s a lot of care that has to be involved in selecting these resources.”

Kaufman said some states do provide good guidance for educators, citing Louisiana, Tennessee and Nebraska as some examples. “And there are other states,” she said, “that just provide long lists of resources — they don’t curate, they just list.”

Could students, then, be the unwitting experts in remote learning? J.D. LaRock, a Northeastern University professor who is the president of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, thinks so.

“They’re the most authentic voice for letting adults know what they need and how they need it,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

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