As schools mark one year of pandemic learning, many are realizing that online learning is their preferred model for teaching and learning.

Silver linings in K-12 online learning


As schools mark one year of pandemic learning, many are realizing that online learning is their preferred model for teaching and learning

Online learning is not new. Universities have been using this model successfully for years. Most institutes of higher education now provide academic programs in person, online, and in hybrid format because they recognize that students have varying needs. For adult learners, online programs offer various benefits – flexible scheduling, reduced need for childcare, and the convenience and cost savings of not having to travel or relocate. The benefits for faculty are similar.

For K-12 students, parents, and teachers, the benefits may be a bit different but can be just as important in creating a positive learning experience and achieving overall success. For some students, learning online reduces anxiety and feeling put “on the spot” when asked to participate or read aloud. They are less self-conscious behind a camera. For others, having fewer distractions (noise, students off task, etc.) at home means the ability to concentrate more fully. Students may benefit from being able to move freely (or non-stop) while learning. Learning from home can mean less social pressure to act or look a certain way, including trying to keep up with unaffordable fashion trends. In worst case scenarios, it means not dealing with bullying (ubiquitous in school settings whether we like to admit it or not).

Academically, having all assignments laid out in a portal (as opposed to folders shuffled between home and school) and posted with clear, written instructions means better organization and greater ease in tracking work to be completed. Recorded instruction offers the ability to watch teachers explain and model concepts as many times as necessary. When lessons and activities are posted online, students can be more self-directed, work at an individual pace, and mastery-based learning becomes more manageable.

Parents are finding online learning affords them several benefits too. Being present (or listening) during class allows parents to better connect with what their child is learning and be more in tune with their struggles and successes. The online format provides flexible access to teachers, often previously confined to the occasional parent/teacher conference. Better, more frequent communication between parents and teachers can result in quicker intervention and implementation of needed supports. No travel time can mean more sleep for children who are not “morning” people and the elimination of rushing to get everyone ready and out the door, leading to a much less stressful morning routine.

Teachers also benefit from increased flexibility, stronger connections to families, and technology resources that can improve organization and save time. Creating video lessons that cover foundational concepts can be used repeatedly for future classes and provides a permanent reference for students, lessening the need for repetition (in the moment or for students who are absent).

In traditional, teacher-centered classrooms that rely on live instruction and fixed pacing, it’s very difficult to be flexible and responsive to student needs. A flipped model where key concepts can be accessed as needed allows teachers to save class time for discussion, practice problems, collaboration, and relationship building. Ultimately, the on-demand format allows for a focus on relationships and supporting students, which is often most rewarding.

What schools “look like” hasn’t changed much – it’s a system inherited from the industrial revolution–but the past year has forced us to reimagine the K-12 learning environment. This includes everything from asynchronous learning and hybrid scheduling to classrooms that include both roomies and Zoomies and outdoor venues.

It shouldn’t take a global crisis to recognize a need for change. We know online learning isn’t for everyone, but we must advocate for those students (and families) for whom alternative learning arrangements are working. These lessons should guide K-12 policy makers to create a flexible, more inclusive system to ensure success for ALL students, which includes offering the choice of in-person, online, or hybrid learning.

This choice must also be extended to teachers — many of whom are finding success online too! Teachers are exhausted, not from teaching online, but from having to learn to do so while also teaching full-time along with countless other obligations. Offering online options should not mean twice the work. Creating a model where both students and teachers have choices can lead to greater satisfaction for all.

Leaders in business have been quick to say many workers will never go back to an office again – saving millions in overhead and time costs. Schools need to follow suit, making changes now to sustain the practices that are working for students for whom the traditional educational model doesn’t. If we don’t, we will lose the opportunity to serve those who are thriving, not merely surviving, online learning. This pandemic has given us the insight to do better – let’s use it!

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