School But Online

May 16, 2022

37signals co-founder Jason Fried often writes about how we shouldn’t transplant in-person work directly into remote work. When a company goes remote (which was admittedly much more common in 2020), you shouldn’t continue to have the same meetings with the same people, except using Zoom instead.

Instead, he says that remote work requires more trust, more uninterrupted work time, and more independent work.

When my high school first went online in March of 2020, we didn’t have classes for two weeks. Two weeks of pure, unexpected, vacation.

And after two weeks, we began school again. But things were different: teachers didn’t hold lectures. Instead, each teacher had two optional office hours each week. They assigned purely asynchronous work on Mondays, which was due by Sunday. That was it.

This was glorious. I loved it — because there was so little work. I would finish my work by Wednesday or so, and then spend the rest of my week doing whatever I wanted.

But also, this period was a massive turning point in my interest in programming. I learned Laravel during that time, which allowed me to build complicated apps with user accounts for the first time. I’m not sure how my interest in programming would’ve turned out if it wasn’t for this much lighter school regiment.

This was followed by an even more leisurely summer, and then school started up again for my senior year.

This time, you could choose to be a fully remote student or hybrid (having in-person classes every other week). Regardless, students attended the same classes: each class always had a Zoom session running, since over half the students in a class were remote at any given time.

It was normal school, but online.

I often wonder whether we all missed an opportunity to re-think what school could be when moved online. My high school did it from March until summer (although probably not because of innovation, but because they didn’t want to overload the kids), but then reverted to “school but online” for the following full year.

Don’t get me wrong: I learned very, very little from school between March and summer. But I also didn’t learn much from my senior year — instruction time was 2/3 of what it would normally be, and numerous disruptions made it a year that was decidedly light-on-learning.

I wonder whether there’s something in the middle. A version of school that isn’t a transplant of in-person learning into digital space, but instead a careful re-thinking of what online school means.

Perhaps we will find out another time, when we aren’t also in the midst of a pandemic.