COVID 2025: How an explosion in remote learning changes education, with Randal Picker

Legal scholar on how widespread changes fueled by the pandemic will change teaching and learning

The coronavirus pandemic has caused the United States and other nations around the world to rush into remote learning. This sudden shift will have a sizable impact on teaching and learning long after COVID-19 crisis ends, says Prof. Randal C. Picker, a leading legal scholar at the University of Chicago Law School.

In this episode of “COVID 2025: Our World in the Next 5 Years,” Picker says that the technology and infrastructure for remote learning has been building in the United States over the last decade, making the huge push online possible. This massive shift is resulting in experimenting on a global scale, while underscoring a digital divide based on income and location that has long existed, says Picker, the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law.

Remote learning is a powerful tool from elementary school to professional education classes, and while Picker says it doesn’t replace the classroom, it shrinks distances and supports teaching in new and interesting ways. For example, inviting a guest speaker from Europe is a few clicks away rather than requiring air travel.

However, considerable regulatory steps are needed over the next five years to support the growth in distance learning, including addressing privacy concerns and increasing federal funding for infrastructure to increase broadband access. To close the digital divide, the federal government needs to view broadband like the U.S. Postal Service when it was first developed, concentrating on connecting all citizens rather than just communities where the service makes economic sense, Picker says.

See the other videos in the COVID 2025 series here. Read more about how UChicago is confronting COVID-19 at this website.


RANDAL PICKER: It’s an awful time in the world, but I think it’s a really interesting time in education. We’ve never had a moment like this one, where everyone at the same time has jumped into this technology.

NARRATOR: The coronavirus is changing life as we know it on a daily basis. In COVID 2025, we’ll explore how the pandemic is rewriting our future.

RANDAL PICKER: The ability to teach through the technology is really powerful. I can lecture. I can call on students. I can engage in Socratic dialogue. I can replicate what I can do in the classroom.

Things that had been hard in the past, bringing in guest speakers, being in multiple campuses at once, the ability to tie those together in a much more seamless fashion, I think that’s exciting. Distance shrinks in this medium, and I think we’re going to see it used throughout education in the United States at precollege level, college, professional level. That’s exciting across the planet.

There’s definitely been a trend towards remote learning, but I think that’s been unevenly distributed. This is going to give us a second set of tools. We’ve had one way of doing things, and now we’re going to have an additional way of doing things. And I think that’s what’s exciting.

It’s just like you’re a chef or something where, all of a sudden, they’ve said, here’s an entirely new set of ingredients you’ve never worked with. To really make this technology work and to do so on the widest-possible basis, we need to have the physical infrastructure in place to do that.

So I’m sure you’ve been reading stories about what’s happening at the precollege level, places where they’d like to do online education, and they don’t have internet. They don’t have a device to do that. We frame that as the “digital divide.”

I’m teaching a class right now where we’re talking about Federal Communications Commission broadband policy. Broadband’s so incredibly important. So had this happened 10 years ago, I think we wouldn’t be doing anything like we are doing now.

When we built this country, we made a decision to make the post office, which was the most direct instantiation of the federal government. We put it everywhere, even in rural towns, where there was no way that made financial sense because we wanted everyone to be connected together in this new, democratic enterprise that was the United States. Shrinking the digital divide is really about federal resources, and the COVID crisis makes it clear how important this is.

Privacy issues are obviously important. Now, as we bring this into our educational environment, what am I allowed to screenshot? Can I take pictures of students? Are those educational records? We have a federal privacy statute for student records that controls all of that.

I got an email from a former student the other day who asked a question about a particular situation that he’d seen a story about. If I want to use a camera to take a screenshot, it’s not as visible as it is in a classroom. And so how we bring the right privacy values to this new environment is something we’re going to work out.

Law evolves in conjunction with social evolution. And as technology evolves and how we’re using the technology evolves, what comes around—along with it? I think we need to be careful with regard to this technology. I think there will be a temptation to think we can swap in technology for the in-person experience that shows up in a classroom. And I think that would be wrong.

You know, I’m staring into a camera right now. To the idea that we could put this camera in at the front of the classroom, and we’ve delivered an education, a rigorous education, an education where you test and consider ideas, reject some, accept others, I think it would be a mistake to think we can simply swap one in and swap out the other. We need to augment, not replace.

Five years from now, we’ll be beyond the medical crisis, beyond the economic crisis, and we’ll  be able to take this technology in this period of experimentation, and we will have figured out really how to put it to use. I think that means that we will be shrinking distances. We will be able to bring people into a classroom in an easy fashion.

The country, the world runs on ideas. We need to get those ideas in in as many possible ways to as many possible people. I think this technology is going to help us do that.