Special Report
Ed-Tech Policy Reported Essay

Remote Learning Isn’t Just for Emergencies

Schools were less prepared for online learning than they thought they were
By Sarah D. Sparks — September 14, 2021 5 min read
Conceptual Illustration
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This story is part of a special project called Big Ideas in which EdWeek reporters ask hard questions about K-12 education’s biggest challenges and offer insights based on their extensive coverage and expertise.

The pandemic launched, almost overnight, the most extensive natural experiment in digital learning ever undertaken. For thousands of districts, the emergency moves to online teaching and student monitoring involved frantic efforts to not only build the plane but train the pilots and load the passengers midflight.

It’s made for a bumpy ride for students and teachers returning to school, and blame for this year’s academic and technical challenges has often fallen on digital learning as a whole. That’s a shame, because teachers and leaders in schools who were technologically prepared for the pandemic say the emergency has given them new space and opportunities to explore better ways to connect with their students and adapt instruction to meet their individual needs.

“I think we need to be intentional, differentiating between pandemic and remote teaching done in an emergency and high-quality digital integration,” said Beth Lambert, who leads the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, which at nearly two decades old is the longest-running statewide 1-to-1 technology initiative in the country.

While we don’t yet have conclusive data on how digital learning has worked nationwide compared with in-person instruction, the evidence to date—both from national and state studies—suggests students of all backgrounds have progressed significantly less in 2020-21 than they would in a typical school year. Students in the earliest grades, who struggled the most with the technical expertise and autonomy needed for remote learning, likewise showed the greatest lags in academic growth.

And details from the 2020-21 school year only further complicate the picture on digital learning. For example, low-income, Black, and Latino students saw the largest gaps in learning growth and disproportionately stayed in fully remote instruction compared with white students. Asian students lost the least momentum in their learning, even though a majority of them continued to learn in fully remote settings by the end of the school year. And Native American students, who as a group returned to in-person learning faster than any but white students, showed significantly less progress than their white or Asian peers.

One possible reason? Many schools, particularly the fewer-resourced ones, did not go into the pandemic with the digital integration they thought they’d had. In January 2020, a few months before the pandemic reached the United States, the Consortium for School Networking found from a national sample of more than 500 member districts, a majority reported they had digital learning initiatives—at least one computer device for every student, learning-management software, efforts underway to use technology to personalize instruction for their students, and the like—but months of fully remote instruction have disabused many school leaders about their real digital readiness.

CoSN found little more than half of its surveyed districts provided any off-campus broadband access at all at the start of the pandemic, and only 10 percent subsidized home-internet access for low-income families. Many district leaders found the laptops and tablets provided as part of 1-to-1 initiatives did not have the networking capacity to run off weak home Wi-Fi signals or the data to stream live video. Those that had learning-management systems found not all teachers knew how to use them.

But for schools that did have a strong digital foundation, including technology infrastructure and the necessary staff development, the last year has helped decouple “digital learning” from “classroom computer use” and evolved their culture into one focused on flexibility and personalization for students.

Months of fully remote instruction have disabused many school leaders about their real digital readiness.

After more than a year of pandemic digital learning, CoSN in 2021 found districts are beginning to find their footing in digital learning; 95 percent of the more than 300 districts which CoSN surveyed this year reported providing at least some off-campus broadband access, and 27 percent now provide free or subsidized home broadband access to low-income students. The experience of digitally prepared districts during a solid year plus of learning during the pandemic suggests that using platforms to leverage teacher collaboration and focus on student supports can turn digital learning into an opportunity rather than a necessity borne of crisis.

For example, at D-B Excel, a blended-learning high school-within-a-school in Kingsport, Tenn., teachers had already been creating their own online lessons for two years before the pandemic, but they spent last summer auditing each lesson to be able to adapt it for in-person, hybrid, video, and fully asynchronous instruction. STEM and chemistry teacher Antonia Adinolfi said even though she has found it “exhausting” to teach in-person and virtual learners at the same time, it’s a practice she plans to keep with or without the pandemic. “It matters that if I have a student that’s absent but they are doing OK, they can still check in over Zoom with me, and … they can still have live instruction.”

Kern Kelley, superintendent of the 2,000-student R.S.U. #19 in Newport, Maine, said his staff was already experienced in using Canvas, Google Classroom, and learning-management technology, but a year of remote and hybrid digital learning has helped his teachers think of their students more broadly. Some have even participated in a statewide network of teachers developing an online repository of video and digitally based lessons.

“You are not teaching the students in your classroom and you happen to have virtual students; you are teaching the virtual students and you happen to have some of them in the classroom,” Kelley said. “This year has brought home the reality of virtual worker. That means you can work from anywhere. We’re seeing an influx of people coming up from New York and Boston to live here. So, we need to teach our students that your competition is not who you see in this room; it’s the world. I want them to be more prepared to adjust to the day-to-day reality of that.”

As more-contagious and vaccine-resistant strains of the coronavirus continue to press communities, district leaders who had expected this year to mark a return to fully in-person classes could find digital remote and hybrid learning continue to make up a significant portion of children’s educational experience. For schools to succeed, teachers and leaders will need to move past an emergency mindset when it comes to digital learning and build stronger foundations and connections for students in a digital future.

“We would all like to believe this is going to go away and we’ll never have to do this again, but I think that’s really missing the boat,” said Shanna Hensley, the principal of D-B Excel. “We have the opportunity to leverage technology in a way we never had before. Our students have access to technology 24 hours a day, and we as 21st-century teachers should be able to leverage that.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2021 edition of Education Week as Remote Learning Isn’t Just for Emergencies


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Pave the Path to Excellence in Math
Empower your students' math journey with Sue O'Connell, author of “Math in Practice” and “Navigating Numeracy.”
Content provided by hand2mind
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Combatting Teacher Shortages: Strategies for Classroom Balance and Learning Success
Learn from leaders in education as they share insights and strategies to support teachers and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Reading Instruction and AI: New Strategies for the Big Education Challenges of Our Time
Join the conversation as experts in the field explore these instructional pain points and offer game-changing guidance for K-12 leaders and educators.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Ed-Tech Policy What the Head of ChatGPT Told Congress About AI's Potential
Sam Altman, the CEO of the company that created ChatGPT, thinks that AI-generated content needs to be labeled as such.
3 min read
Artificial intelligence and schoolwork image with hand holding pencil with digital AI collage overtop
Ed-Tech Policy Schools Are Major Targets of Cyberattacks. A Bipartisan Effort in Congress Aims to Help
There have been 1,619 publicly disclosed K-12 cyberattacks between 2016 and 2022.
3 min read
Silhouette of a hacker in a hoodie using laptop with binary code overlay.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Ed-Tech Policy We Asked ChatGPT: Should Schools Ban You?
The debate about the benefits and drawbacks of artificial intelligence, and more specifically ChatGPT, is heating up.
1 min read
Vector illustration of the letters AI partially breaking through the red circle and slash symbol representing it being banned
Tech luminaries and prominent AI researchers signed an open letter calling for temporarily putting the brakes on development of AI technologies.
Ed-Tech Policy Congress Tells TikTok CEO: The App Is Bad for Students and Privacy
TikTok spreads misinformation, endangers children’s mental health, and jeopardizes their privacy, lawmakers said.
3 min read
Supporters of TikTok hold signs during a rally to defend the app at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The House holds a hearing Thursday, with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew about the platform's consumer privacy and data security practices and impact on kids.
Supporters of TikTok hold signs during a rally to defend the app at the Capitol in Washington on March 22, 2023. The House held a hearing the next day with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew about the platform's consumer privacy and data security practices and its impact on kids.
Jose Luis Magana/AP