How to make online schooling work

Alayjah Burnett takes an online class at her home in Vallejo, California.

Marjorie B. Tiven is founder and president of Global Cities, Inc., a program of Bloomberg Philanthropies, which operates Global Scholars. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN)As school districts have been forced to embrace remote learning during the pandemic, teachers and students alike have found ways to adapt to the new normal. And as school districts plan for the fall semester, many are turning to online learning because students and teachers may not be together in their school buildings.

Marjorie B. Tiven
At the same time, public education in the US already reflects vast societal inequalities. A recent McKinsey & Company report underscores how economic disparities affect access to technology. As schools rely more on technology, we must make sure that remote learning during the pandemic does not widen the digital divide.
With this opportunity to think about the future of learning, we should consider ways to harness the benefits of remote classrooms. How can we use digital learning to empower students from all backgrounds to believe in themselves and their power to change their communities for the better?
    The Global Scholars program, an initiative that allows students around the world to collaborate on pressing issues that cross national borders, may point the way. Over the last seven years, nearly 67,000 students, ages 10 to 13, from a total of 103 cities in 36 countries have participated in the program.
    Each year, students learn how to solve a global problem such as environmental sustainability, food insecurity, preserving clean water, or, yes, pandemics. This academic year students in digital classrooms (each with 300 students from classes in 8 to 10 different cities) learned about protecting nature in urban areas.
    With the oversight of their own teachers, students work together to come up with possible solutions, and then share their ideas in online discussion boards with classmates worldwide in order to gain a global perspective. For example, this year students in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, used vegetable waste to plant gardens and created photo guides to local flora and fauna, while a class in Taipei wrote and filmed a short play about plastic waste.
    Engagement is high. This year, the reenrollment rate was 77%. At the end of the 2018-19 program year, responses, according to an internal survey, showed the students were significantly more likely to say that their actions affect others in their city and around the world.
    The gains were even greater for hard-to-reach kids -- those who initially reported lower levels of global engagement and knowledge, as well as low confidence. The program affected not only their learning but their motivation to learn. The majority of low-scoring students significantly increased their scores on four scales: 61% for global knowledge, 50% for global engagement, 72% for confidence to learn, and 63% for confidence to communicate what they learned about global topics.
    This data comes from nearly 9,000 student survey responses representing public school settings across the economic spectrum on five continents. Students had a range of academic abilities and levels of interest in global issues. The data showed a statistically significant gain in global engagement across the whole population.
    During a recent Global Scholars professional development session, a teacher from Hawaii said the assignments have been a savior for her kids while they are learning from home, saying: "I've had 100% attendance, and when it is time for class to be over, they don't want to leave. It's because they are driving the work, and they know that it matters."
    At the heart of the Global Scholars model is a secure digital platform -- students use the e-classroom discussion boards to engage international classmates in substantive conversation. They share research, experiences and opinions as unique resources for learning.
    Students from Buenos Aires, New York, and Singapore, among many other places, have also compared their experiences during the pandemic and developed empathy for other kids. A student from Mumbai wrote, "Frankly it makes me sad to see everything the virus has done. However, it does make me very glad that we can all stay connected to one another digitally."
    Our experience operating and observing this global digital platform yields timely lessons.
    First, digital learning cannot be done on the cheap. We know that many low-income students are at a disadvantage due to a lack of internet access and digital devices. As governments rethink funding priorities in the wake of protests against police brutality and systemic racism around the world, investing in low-income students so they have the tools to participate in remote learning should be at the top of the list.
    Second, the importance of educators as active guides of student learning cannot be overstated. The key to their success is live interactive professional development. All teachers need training to meet the unique demands of digital instruction.
    Notably, Global Scholars students reported more global engagement and confidence when they were led by teachers who attended all the program's training sessions. In addition to technology, governments must invest in the professional development which educators need to be successful.
    What we've found from the Global Scholars program is that the relationships students and teachers develop with each other play a key role in learning. While technology allows students to connect with their peers, training provides the foundation teachers need to play an active role in facilitating meaningful connections.
    With standardized testing canceled across the country this year, teachers can focus less on test scores and more on helping their students develop a wider range of skills.
    We can use this opportunity to think more broadly about what students should be learning, and how we can leverage the advantages of digital platforms to cultivate these competencies. Our program shows how this can be done.
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    Our research shows students -- even fickle middle school students -- are able to demonstrate an appreciation for diversity, cultural understanding, global knowledge and global engagement. These outcomes are advanced through project-based learning.
    Students are more engaged through teacher-supervised discussions, rather than the mastery of a predefined body of information. The key to motivation and engagement is collaboration among students in digital platforms, rather than mimicking the one-way transmission of knowledge inherent in lectures and textbooks. During the pandemic, these student learning outcomes are more important than ever.
      The future of education requires -- and our experience demonstrates -- a hybrid approach, one that leverages investments in both teachers and in technology. Teachers are irreplaceable, and digital platforms are here to stay. Whether teachers are using them to reach students who are learning at home or back in their school buildings, technology can revolutionize instructional practices and student learning opportunities.
      We should travel down this new path, level the playing field for all students and find more ways to help kids gain fresh perspectives, believe in themselves and know that they can make a positive difference in their communities and beyond.