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Education Opinion

Remote Learning: The Triumph of Hope Over Experience?

By Rick Hess — October 19, 2020 2 min read
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There are times, I fear, when those who work in education can be undone by their well-meaning optimism. After all, we wind up in education because we want kids to do well. When push comes to shove, that can make it too easy to convince ourselves that what we’re doing is good for kids (even when it’s not). In the case of school shutdowns, I fear this has fueled undue faith in remote learning—and undercut the importance of getting students back to school.

Now, don’t get me wrong. A variety of concerns about school closures have been raised. I suspect most readers are familiar with the data on the social and emotional consequences of closure, how little training teachers have received, the challenges with online access, the large numbers of missing students, and the staggering learning-loss projections. But I think what’s gotten too little attention are the prosaic limits of remote learning.

Generally speaking, the research on online learning suggests that, with current ed tech, most students will fare substantially better in brick-and-mortar classrooms. I can’t help but think of the Obama-era love affair with Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), which are basically a high-tech version of that free library education. I still recall The Atlantic declaring that these free online courses, open to anyone with an internet connection, were unleashing a “revolution” in higher education. Popularized by world-renowned professors at places like Stanford and MIT, some attracted tens of thousands of registrants.

Yet, when MIT researchers analyzed all MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT between 2013 and 2018, they found that less than 5 percent of enrollees completed a typical course. The offerings worked for a smattering of students but not for most. And MOOCs had a lot of things working in their favor. Their students were adult learners who were choosing to take classes taught by veteran professors who wanted to participate. Compare that with at-home students who are taking courses they may not want to take, from teachers who may not be comfortable teaching remotely.

More generally, there’s not much evidence that schools have a game plan for effectively delivering mass online learning. My AEI associate Matt Rice and I discussed a few of the most compelling studies earlier this summer, noting:

Two studies by the American Institutes for Research are telling, especially given the paucity of good research in this area. A 2011 study of academically advanced students in Maine and Vermont found that algebra-ready 8th graders randomly assigned to an online algebra class in lieu of their school's in-person math class did substantially better on an end-of-the-year assessment than their peers. Conversely, a 2016 study of remedial algebra across 17 Chicago high schools found that students randomly assigned to an online course—rather than the in-person one—learned less than their peers. In other words, as the University of Michigan's Susan Dynarski observed in 2018, familiar approaches to online learning may work well for high-achievers but less well for struggling students. In higher ed., the data tell a similar story. A 2017 study by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and Mathematica compared online course-taking with in-person course-taking at a large, for-profit university. Overall, students enrolled in online courses did about half a letter grade worse than their in-person peers. Of particular interest, though, they found that students with high GPAs who took online courses fared about as well as in-person students, but online students with low GPAs did much worse. A 2014 study by Ohio State researchers similarly found that students with low GPAs fared much worse than higher-performing peers in online classes.

Look, done well, virtual learning has immense promise. That’s no great surprise. After all, it can leverage interactive elements that surpass even terrific in-person instruction and be customized to the needs of individual students. The problem is that current efforts rarely meet that high bar. Schools are relying on iffy materials and on-the-fly programming, mostly delivered by instructors who haven’t been given the tools or training they need. And even as more than a few school leaders have told me that remote learning is a lot better than people might think, 75 percent of registered voters, including parents, say that distance learning is worse than in-class instruction.

While today’s online learning may be instructionally effective for some students, the evidence suggests that it’s not a viable substitute for most learners most of the time. As many large school districts are approaching their ninth month of shuttered schools, we shouldn’t kid ourselves by imagining that the remote learning they’re providing is a better option than it really is.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.