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Online learning has great potential, but in the rush to go digital during COVID, not all of its benefits were truly realized

Did online learning mostly miss the mark?

Online learning has great potential, but in the rush to go digital during COVID, not all of its benefits were truly realized

Online learning has untapped potential for students across the nation, and while the COVID-19 pandemic forced classrooms online in early 2020, that doesn’t mean learning became more innovative and personalized. To what extent have educators used the pandemic as an opportunity to realize online learning’s benefits?

A new brief from the Clayton Christensen Institute examines that very question, pulling from surveys and discussions with more than 1,000 teachers to paint a picture of programs, technologies, and instructional practices educators are leaning on as they work through the effects of COVID-19. The intent is to learn how educators use online learning, but also whether online learning leads to the benefits the Institute has documented in its blended learning research.

The traditional–and what many (or most) would argue outdated–education system relies on uniformity, notes the report’s author, Thomas Arnett, a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. And this means the majority of students won’t totally fit.

“The foundational tenets of conventional instruction hinge on uniformity and compliance. Schools and classrooms, by and large, need students to conform to a common set of requirements in order for cohort-based learning to work. Unfortunately, nearly all students struggle to one degree or another to fit conventional instruction’s norms,” Arnett writes.

And here is where online learning’s vast potential enters the scene. It can, without argument, be completely transformational for teachers and students.

The research from CCI explores various benefits of online learning to see how fully they were achieved during COVID-19.

Potential benefit: Flexible timing

Students can learn new concepts and access online lessons when they have an internet connection or after traditional school hours, instead of learning new concepts as a teacher presents them. Lessons are accessible for review on-demand and can be paused or restarted as needed.

Sixty-one percent of surveyed teachers said their instructional arrangements were synchronous, meaning students had to attend class at specified times for instruction. Still, 20 percent did use a mix of synchronous and asynchronous, which indicates students would complete some learning activities on their own time while also logging on for scheduled live instruction from teachers.

Potential benefit: Flexible pacing

Students can use online learning to their advantage by moving ahead if they master certain subjects or learning objects easily and before their classmates. They can complete learning activities and learn new concepts if they miss class or don’t show up on time, because the learning materials and resources are available to them online. Or, if they need more time with a concept, their learning doesn’t stop because a bell rings and class ends.

Most teachers in CCI’s research (66 percent) had students complete lessons together, but 27 percent did let students move at their own pace within a given unit of student, while 5 percent gave students total freedom to move at their own pace throughout the entire class.

Potential benefit: Flexible learning pathways

Students can learn in the way that suits them best when online learning offers choices that suit students’ learning needs. One student might choose to watch a YouTube video, a second may work through practice problems on Khan Academy, and a third might choose small group discussion–but they’re all mastering the same concept.

When asked to indicate current use of a variety of online instructional resources, only 30 percent of teachers said they currently use online instructional resources that give students individualized or adaptive practice.

Potential benefit: New metrics of progress

The A-F grading system is flawed. “In short, letter grades are permanent records of how well students jumped through hoops in the past, not of how well equipped they are to do work and solve problems in the future,” Arnett writes.

But mastery-based grading measures students’ cumulative progress as they achieve clearly-defined learning objectives and give them an easily-understood path to academic progress. Students try to reach mastery, and if they do not demonstrate mastery on a specific learning objective, they try again instead of receiving a failing grade. This approach also helps students reshape their view of failure, teaching them to view struggles as learning opportunities.

“The one major hurdle to mastery-based grading, however, is practical feasibility. This approach hits a significant friction point in schools and classrooms that operate on conventional instruction because conventional instruction requires conformity to uniform instruction and pacing,” Arnett writes. “Thus, online learning’s ability to unlock flexibility in path and pace is key to making mastery-based grading and progression logistically feasible.”

CCI’s survey reveals that very few teachers are employing mastery-based learning–just 9 percent.

Potential benefit: Expanded teacher capacity

“When teachers can rely on online learning resources to provide foundational coverage of course content and basic feedback on students work, they have more time and attention to devote to some of the most important aspects of their jobs: building relationships with students, orchestrating deeper learning experiences (e.g., discussions, projects, experiential learning, etc.), and providing students with individual coaching and feedback,” according to the report.

CCI’s survey data offers insight into how teachers allocated their time between planning, preparation, and grading; teaching; and communicating with students and families, but does not indicate the types of activities teachers spent time on while teaching, such as small group instruction or project-based learning. This makes it difficult to tell how much online learning lets teachers shift their capacity to higher-value instructional activities.

Teachers who taught primarily in remote and hybrid arrangements spent more time planning (19.4 and 19.3 hours per week, respectively) and less time teaching (30.7 and 24.6 hours per week, respectively) compared to their colleagues who taught primarily in person (17.8 hours per week planning and 33.7 hours per week teaching).

Moving forward

Overall, the survey results indicate that while some small groups of teachers did really leverage online learning’s benefits, many benefits are still untapped in U.S. classrooms.

“In fact, teachers’ answers to the free response section of our survey suggest that
most teachers saw this year not as an era of innovation, but as a time of frustration.
Between gaps in student access to technology at home, difficulties forming
relationships through class video calls, and the challenges of managing in-person
and remote instruction simultaneously in many hybrid arrangements, this past year
was extremely difficult for many teachers,” according to the report.

And while some might point to a scattered school year as evidence that online learning isn’t a viable model, online learning isn’t the reason for a turbulent year.

“Given their trying experiences, many teachers may see online learning as a flawed mode of instruction. But in reality, last year’s headaches were not the inherent product of online learning, but of the chaos of COVID-19 that led to poorly designed approaches to online learning,” Arnett concludes. “When we consider this past year through a lens of institutional change, it’s perfectly understandable why the benefits of online learning were largely unrealized. Unlocking online learning’s power to enable flexible instruction, mastery-based grading, and an expansion of teacher capacity requires more than just plugging technology into schools. It takes foresight, time, and strategic implementation to institute the shifts in practices that unlock the benefits of online learning.”

Looking ahead, schools have an opportunity to design instructional models that take advantage of online learning’s benefits. Forthcoming CCI reports will explore how teachers and school leaders can take newfound online learning practices and tools into a new era of education.

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