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3 Guiding Principles for High-Quality Virtual Learning

High-quality virtual learning is about people, not technology
By Rick Hess — December 01, 2022 6 min read
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A lot of folks are justifiably down on virtual learning after the half-baked, mic-muted, camera-off mess that so often passed for remote learning. After that experience, I’ve had a lot of parents, policymakers, and educators ask whether the past few years should disabuse us of our enthusiasm for the promise of technology in K-12. This is a topic I consider at some length in my forthcoming book The Great School Rethink (out from Harvard Ed Press next spring), which is how I wound up in an extended exchange about all this with the always-provocative Evo Popoff, a VP of Whiteboard Advisors. Evo, formerly the chief innovation officer for the New Jersey education department and a VP at EdisonLearning, retains an upbeat take on virtual learning that I thought well worth sharing. Here’s what he had to say.

Many of us might equate virtual learning to the remote learning that occurred during the COVID-19 school closures—much of which was haphazard and unsatisfactory. Stories abound of students who wilted when their education shifted to Zoom and they were largely cut off from others, as even once-stellar pupils—many of whom began facing mental health challenges—stopped turning in work or attending class. All of this might lead us to adopt a simplistic binary that all virtual learning is bad and in-person learning is good. But reality is far more nuanced because while many students wilted, others have thrived.

In “A Human-Centered Vision for Quality Virtual Learning,” commissioned by Edmentum, we drew on research and interviews with dozens of experts and practitioners, including educators and school and district leaders, to try to better understand what separates high-quality virtual programs from unsatisfactory experiences. We heard a very different story of what virtual learning could be and do—for instance, connecting students to resources that otherwise might not be available at their schools or providing additional support in vital areas like English/language arts.

In the report, we captured this potential in a “day in the life” of a hypothetical 8th grader, Maya, who seamlessly navigates a world that is both virtual and in person to pursue learning in a way that makes sense for her—bouncing from a one-on-one prealgebra tutoring session to an online college course in environmental engineering to an in-person writing workshop.

But while Maya is hypothetical, her experience isn’t. Everything we write about in her journey is taken from what school leaders told us. It represents a future where learning is not tied to one particular time or place. As D’Andre Weaver, the chief digital equity officer of Digital Promise, said to us: “The future of learning is hybrid and ubiquitous. Kids can learn anytime and everywhere.”

So, if high-quality virtual learning is something distinct from the emergency remote learning of the pandemic, what actually is it? Our report presents three key themes that are central to a vision for top-quality virtual learning. (I should note that these are not meant to be an exhaustive list of best practices but a way to level-set this view of education.)

First, high-quality virtual learning is about people, not technology. Too often, we imagine virtual learning as a student sitting alone for hours at a time in front of a computer screen, isolated. While independent work has a role in virtual learning, learning experiences must be designed with human relationships at the center if all students are to succeed. The flexibility of virtual models and the technologies they use create potential opportunities for core relationships to thrive—and help make virtual learning “part of the DNA of who we are as educators and an education system,” in the words of Friendship Public Charter Schools chief of staff Ken Cherry.

What might this look like? At Odyssey Junior and Senior Charter High School in Palm Bay, Fla., every virtual student receives a “champion” who facilitates relationship-building between students and their online instructures. The Akron school district, in Ohio, which established a new online school for the 2021-22 school year, paired its virtual students with mentors who help the students navigate online platforms, stay engaged, and achieve their goals. This allowed their teachers to focus more on teaching, knowing that there was another adult whose full-time job was monitoring students’ educational progress and personal journeys.

Second, good instruction is good instruction—regardless of modality. As Zach Blattner, the senior director of teacher professional education at the Relay Graduate School of Education, observed, “At the end of it all, it just gets back to good teaching. You have to plan; you can’t just wing it.” At the same time, different modalities can require different approaches to instruction. Not surprisingly, planning lessons, customizing curricula, classroom management, and other teacher tasks can look or feel different in a virtual environment. In virtual settings, Blattner said, “Educators must be even more intentional about their norms and routines to not waste class time with what can be the distractions and disruptions of technology.” Teachers might need access to specialists who can help them adjust virtual delivery to accommodate students with different learning abilities.

Finally, a culture focused on the success of all students is nonnegotiable. Based on interviews with virtual program operators and other experts in the field, the secret to their successes lies in their focus on people and creating a culture that encompasses both in-person and virtual experiences. Districts that are growing their virtual learning programs need to adapt their systems and practices to build a culture focused on success for every student. This can be as simple as relying on one learning-management system to limit switching between platforms or offering resources to families in multiple languages, or it can be as complicated as ensuring home access to broadband internet and devices for all students. It includes embracing the more flexible approach to scheduling that virtual programming offers and rethinking roles, expanding the view of the teaching team to include outside teachers, experts, and support staff. And it can entail clearly identifying the person in the district who is responsible for overseeing virtual programs and ensuring their success.

For those of your readers with whom this resonates, we suggest referencing the “Putting It All Together” page of the report, where we present key practical points for virtual learning stakeholders to consider. For instance, we suggest district leaders who are developing a virtual program or school ask themselves questions such as “How are we measuring success? Are there measures of success or engagement that are unique to the virtual environment?” And, for families who want to enroll their child in a virtual learning experience, we suggest asking questions like “Who is the adult responsible for caring about my student and identifying what they need to succeed?”

Districts are currently facing unprecedented challenges, from teacher shortages to helping students recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic. Unless we change our way of thinking about virtual learning, it’s possible we might miss out on key ways to help solve these challenges. Our hope in this report is to begin a more nuanced discussion around virtual learning, beyond the simplistic binary that virtual instruction is bad and in-person is good. The goal is to help capture those characteristics of high-quality virtual learning to help equip school leaders, parents, policymakers, and others to more thoughtfully approach what successful virtual learning can and should entail.

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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.


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