Most educators and parents would agree that the sweeping virtual instruction thrown together overnight at the beginning of the pandemic wasn’t nearly as effective as in-person learning for most students.
So, does that mean K-12 educators and policymakers should write off remote learning as a failed experiment to avoid at all costs?
Or, on the other hand, would it be better to ask questions, such as: When should schools use virtual learning and for what types of students? What lessons can be learned during the pandemic about what does and does not work in remote learning environments? And what do those lessons tell us about what this approach should look like in the future?
Two researchers, the authors of a recent report about online instruction, collaborated together on joint answers to those questions from Assistant Editor Alyson Klein. Alix Gallagher and Ben Cottingham, the director and associate director, respectively, for strategic partnerships at Policy Analysis for California Education, responded via email. The nonprofit group is led by faculty directors at Stanford University, the University of Southern California, the University of California Davis, the University of California Los Angeles, and the University of California Berkeley.
Many educators see virtual learning as inferior to in-person learning or totally ineffective. Others, though, see it as a great new path forward. What does the research say about the quality of virtual learning? Is the truth somewhere in between?
Looking Back: The field has developed wisdom over many years about how to provide effective in-person instruction. However, virtual learning had not been implemented on a broad scale prior to March of 2020. Initially, many students struggled to access a full instructional program and even as schools’ efforts to provide students technology access succeeded in many places, teachers were trying unfamiliar pedagogies and the results were generally inferior.
Humans are social creatures and schooling is a social enterprise and learning quality decreases when instruction occurs only through a screen. The quality of virtual learning improved with increased touch points between teacher and student and between peers (e.g. phone calls, small group instruction, and targeted feedback), but few teachers have learned how to facilitate vibrant interactions in their classes. That means, for many students, virtual learning remains a second-best option to in-person instruction.
Looking Forward: Because most teachers were novice virtual teachers and few had the support or time to learn how to teach effectively online, our experience in COVID tells us nothing about the potential of widely available virtual learning as part of our educational landscape. We know that effective instruction—virtual and in-person alike—engages students in interaction with the teacher and each other around content. It is certainly possible for teachers to become highly effective at supporting high-quality interactions in a virtual environment and some educators’ success during COVID paved the way for a future expansion of virtual options.
You talk about teaching quality a lot in your report. Do we have enough evidence to determine if it’s better to have an effective virtual teacher rather than a less effective in-person one?
Looking back: Effective teaching is better than ineffective teaching. COVID overturned our school systems almost literally overnight and because our understandings of how best to mitigate COVID risks continually shifted, it was difficult for districts to allocate resources such as money and time toward a long-term plan that sufficiently invested in building teachers’ skills in teaching online. Almost every teacher was in their first year of online teaching, and the results were that many teachers worked harder than they ever had and yet most students had a less effective teacher than they would have had in-person.
Looking forward: Many teachers got better at taking advantage of technology for teaching during the pandemic. They learned to maximize student engagement and collaboration and to use a range of innovative technologies (e.g. Zoom polls to rapidly check student understanding, Desmos for mathematical simulations,) to create a good learning experience. Many will retain some of those approaches as part of their instruction, whether in-person, hybrid, or virtual.
Who are the kids who benefit most from virtual instruction? And the ones who lose out most? How can schools remake virtual learning to help the students who struggle with it?
Looking back: One critical societal benefit of in-person schooling is that students are supervised by trained adults who are charged with their care during the school day. When that care vanished, it left many families scrambling to figure out how their student would be cared for while adults worked and many did not have adequate supervision and support with schoolwork. Students who did not have access to an academically supportive environment were most likely to struggle in distance learning, as were younger students who need more frequent support to stay focused, and low-income communities were disproportionately impacted by virtual learning.
The kids who benefited most were students who had the support and skills to fully engage in the instruction teachers were providing—generally older students, those who were already overperforming prior to the pandemic, and students with in-person support at home. Also, some students who struggled socially or were bullied in in-person school preferred and thrived in virtual schooling.
Looking forward: The keys to providing equitable access to high-quality virtual instruction are to ensure that all students have the opportunity to have positive interactions with teachers and other students around rigorous content. That means training teachers in pedagogies that support engaging virtual instruction, making technology widely available, and ensuring students who need it have supplemental supports to productively engage in virtual learning.
You say in your report that one of the biggest problems with remote instruction is that students miss important, face-to-face “social learning.” How can teachers help address this challenge?
Looking back: Unfortunately, in the rush to implement distance learning, districts gave teachers broad guidance about how to engage students virtually—for example, suggesting that Breakout Rooms “worked,” when in fact, if implemented poorly, they can be a disaster. Because teachers received little support for understanding how to best support interaction as part of learning, virtual school rarely met students’ basic social needs.
Looking forward: Educators need to consider how to create spaces that facilitate more interactions with students and between students online. Virtual learning environments should not be structured in the same way as in-person learning; students shouldn’t watch a teacher on video all day. Schooling models such as “personalized learning” or the “flipped classroom” both have features that could effectively be applied to an online environment. They are among the approaches that create opportunities for individualized instruction or small-group interaction, as well as targeted feedback and support from the teacher. Substantial support for teachers’ professional learning would be critical to achieve the potential benefits.
Due to the pandemic, some districts are offering remote instruction as a full-time option for students who prefer to learn this way. In your opinion, is virtual learning here to stay? If so, what’s your best guess as to what it will look like a decade from now?
Looking back: The type of remote instruction we saw in the wake of the pandemic is one that was rapidly implemented when our entire society was experiencing a massive crisis. Many educators are feeling burnout associated with rapid adaptations and high stress created by COVID and COVID schooling. No one wants to repeat the schooling experiences of the past two years and luckily we do not expect to.
Looking forward: Virtual instruction is here to stay, but generally as a supplement to in-person schooling. The strain remote learning has put on younger students and parents to facilitate learning combined with the centrality of social development in education of young learners makes it untenable as the main elementary school option under most circumstances. However, added flexibility makes virtual school an appealing option for high school students in smaller communities to expand access to a wide range of courses, accelerate learning for students that can manage their own learning experience, or create more options for credit recovery for students who have fallen behind. In fact, the American School District Panel found that nearly 20 percent of districts were considering offering a virtual school option after the pandemic has passed. Additionally, the pandemic forced all teachers to use technology as part of their teaching, and many teachers are retaining some of the digital tools they were forced to use during the pandemic because they provide diverse ways for students to engage in content and offer easy access to remediation. Finally, virtual learning environments provide a means to mitigate school interruptions due to weather or other factors that prevent students from being physically in school.
There is a potential for virtual learning technologies to create more pathways for students to interact and learn material in diverse ways. However, providing high-quality virtual education at scale would necessitate transforming educational systems on multiple dimensions, from rethinking teachers’ roles as the main source of content knowledge to one as facilitator of students’ learning and revising traditional school policies and structures.
Given how extensive these shifts would be, it is unlikely that many school systems will undertake the necessary changes in the near future. We can, however, imagine a scenario where some communities (e.g. low-density rural communities with WiFi access) might find it beneficial to create a stable remote schooling option for a large portion of the population they serve or where many of the students whose needs are best-served by remote learning options—such as high school students who need to enter the workforce for financial reasons—have access to remote learning.
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.