Illustration: Qu Tianran

Distance Learning Has Been Part of American Culture for 100 Years. Why Can’t We Get it Right?

Educators and parents have let technology solve school in a pandemic. There’s a better way.

Erik German
Published in
11 min readSep 2, 2020

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When authorities issued stay-at-home orders at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, schoolchildren worldwide entered what has to be the largest — and probably least welcome — distance-learning experiment in the history of education.

Across the United States, parents and kids were struggling, teachers were losing their minds, and political leaders were asking, “Why weren’t we ready?” But in a few obscure corners of the K-12 education world, some schools were ready, and they’ll tell you they’ve handled the crisis just fine, thanks. It turns out teaching K-12 kids at a distance isn’t something that arose in the United States with Covid-19, or even with the advent of the internet — it dates back almost 100 years.

The story of these special schools begins on remote farms, gets a huge boost during World War II, pivots hard in the internet age, and, strangely enough, shows us what distance-learning students like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake have in common with some of the most vulnerable and hard-to-teach kids in the modern education system. It turns out some of the same methods pioneered for early 20th-century farm kids can help students who are faced with one of the most challenging educational shifts of our time.

The University of Nebraska High School was founded in 1929 with just 14 students, but enrollment grew to 1,400 within a decade. Early on, the school went by a plainer name: the Independent Study High School. The student body was a mix of kids in towns where schools were one-room Little House on the Prairie situations that topped out in eighth grade, students at tiny high schools offering too few courses to qualify them for college, and teens living on isolated farms. World War II brought in a swell of young military recruits needing credits to finish school early and join the fight or needing to prepare for emerging specialties involving cutting-edge technology, like radios and airplanes. In later decades, out-of-state and international enrollment took off, especially among families pursuing government, corporate, or missionary…

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Erik German
GEN
Writer for

Senior Producer at Retro Report, which uses history to explain today. Dad to two formidable girls.