Classroom Technology

How Online Teaching Needs to Improve—Even After the Pandemic

By Mark Lieberman — January 11, 2021 4 min read
Mary Euell helps her sons, Michael Henry, left, and Mario Henry, work through math lessons remotely in their Erie, Pa., home.

Despite all the frustrations and struggles to make remote and hybrid learning work during COVID-19, many teachers have evolved their practices to an approach more tailored to individual students’ needs, and the vast majority say they’ve gained skills that they’ll continue to use after the pandemic ends, concludes a new report.

These are among the findings in surveys of teachers and administrators in a new report from the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit research organization that promotes innovation in education and other fields.

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A student at The Social Justice Public Charter School in Washington raises two fingers in answer to a question during an in-person English language arts class. Although some students are attending classes in the school building, others are still learning virtually.
A student at The Social Justice Public Charter School in Washington raises two fingers in answer to a question during an in-person English language arts class. Although some students are attending classes in the school building, others are still learning virtually.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The data reinforce what many online learning advocates and experts have been saying since the pandemic started: the online learning that’s taken place doesn’t represent the best that it can be; most teachers were underprepared for abruptly switching to a new instructional model; and there are reasons to be hopeful that more robust online learning will remain viable for schools to offer in the long term.

“When people are frustrated with what’s happening in distance learning right now, it’s in some ways not surprising given the way that they’ve had to throw things together,” said Tom Arnett, the report’s author.

The report cites evidence that many teachers have tried to re-create the physical classroom experience for students by hosting long whole-group videoconference calls and sharing documents in the learning management system, approaches that are contrary to the advice of online learning experts. Slightly more than 40 percent of educators said their synchronous remote instruction, in which they’re “face to face” virtually with students, lasts as long as a regular school day.

At the same time, teachers’ workloads appear to have increased dramatically. Eighty-five percent of teachers said they spend more time than they used to on planning and preparation for the school day. That additional time might include navigating and troubleshooting technology platforms, tracking down remote students who have been absent or behind on their assignments, and developing new social-emotional learning activities to help students cope with the effects of an unfolding public health crisis.

The heavier workload also likely includes the time and energy required to create new instructional materials for these unprecedented circumstances. Survey data from the Christensen Institute shows nearly half of educators said their primary source for curriculum materials was their own efforts, and 87 percent of administrators said they expect teachers to use materials of their own making.

Hybrid teaching has emerged as the most popular approach to restore some classroom instruction while also allowing for some students to continue learning from home part- or full-time. But that mode isn’t substantially easier for teachers than offering instruction remotely full-time, according to the report. Asked to rate their ability to serve their students effectively on a scale from 0 to 100, in-person teachers said an average of 77, hybrid teachers said an average of 64, and teachers of fully remote students said an average of 59.

Identifying Possible Solutions

The status quo for remote teaching isn’t fixed in stone. The Christensen Institute offers several ideas for easing some of the biggest burdens teachers are experiencing.

State education departments should review curriculum materials specifically to determine which ones work best for online instruction, the report says. Teachers who are comfortable with online and student-centered teaching should be empowered to lead training sessions and coach their struggling colleagues.

The report also recommends that schools establish virtual programs with autonomous staff and leadership that tap into the resources and expertise of their conventional school partners to “give students benefits that neither conventional schools nor virtual schools alone can offer.”

Arnett acknowledges that might be difficult to do in the near future given the K-12 system’s current budget woes and staffing challenges. But he believes virtual schools should follow the model of the Appleton eSchool, run by the Appleton district in Wisconsin.

“We’ve seen the organizations that survive disruption and reinvent themselves, they start with an independent team building from a fresh slate, as opposed to a team that’s trying to build on a bunch of work they’re already doing,” Arnett said.

Teresa Vazquez, a teacher in Fort Wayne, Ind., remotely teaches a Spanish 1 class to students at Monroe High School in Albany, Ga.
Teresa Vazquez, a teacher in Fort Wayne, Ind., remotely teaches a Spanish 1 class to students at Monroe High School in Albany, Ga.
Courtesy of Elevate K-12

The institute’s survey found 69 percent of administrators say their schools currently offer their own full-time virtual programs, compared with only 27 percent prior to COVID-19. Teachers are rapidly gaining new experience as well: 83 percent surveyed said they regularly teach online now, while only 16 percent said they regularly taught online before the pandemic.

Arnett, like many education observers, believes schools will return to full-time in-person instruction for most students when it’s safe to do so. But refining online instruction and offering it as an option going forward presents an opportunity to reach students who weren’t served well by the K-12 system even pre-pandemic, he said.

“For some students, the conventional classroom works a lot better. For some, they’re seeing some real benefits to online learning. Some online learning models are better than others,” Arnett said. “For me, the takeaway from all that is not to force people into models.”

Mark Lieberman, Reporter contributed to this article.

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