Though online learning within K-12 education has been around for decades, its prevalence didn’t emerge until the covid-19 pandemic was declared in March, 2020. During a stunning period of mandated quarantine, teachers, students and their parents were forced to turn to alternative modalities in which to teach and learn.
Pre-pandemic online learning was primarily seen in alternative educational settings including online charter schools and various independent study programs. By the time of the pandemic, the majority of these programs were operating fully online and had established a solid foundation to the modality. Traditional public schools who offered homeschooling or independent study programs sometimes included an online version, but it wasn’t very common.
When the pandemic hit, most schools were required to transition to a full online format within a very short period of time. As we all witnessed, the field education was turned upside down, trying to convert to a new modality while maintaining a high level of student support. Established online programs were grappling with quick and extreme enrollment growth due to families wanting support from those experienced in online learning, while schools with no established online programs were scrambling to put something together to support their students.
Online Learning During the Pandemic
During the covid-19 pandemic many versions of online learning were implemented throughout K-12 and higher education. For better or worse. Some institutions were already versed in online learning and required only simple modifications to accommodate students purely remotely, while others had little to no experience and faced many challenges executing a new virtual modality.
There are many takeaways from the broad array of online programs delivered during this period that demonstrate what can work well in an online environment and where challenges can persist.
Distance learning via online channels brought a new awareness of diversified ways to teach and to learn and many online implementations found much success during the pandemic. While there were many identified challenges with online learning during this time, there were equal successes, and many schools and districts discovered new benefits of the learning modality.
During this time many students who may have been struggling previous to the pandemic found some success within the new remote modality. Those in need of a new way to learn ultimately found success using online tools and resources and connecting to their teacher online. Once introduced to online learning, some opted to maintain their participation in an online program. We’ve seen this firsthand at Method Schools.
Some of the successes included:
- Empowered students to invest in their own learning through supported independent study practices
- Utilized tools and practices that enabled educators to reach students while at home
- Relied on ongoing student performance data to guide support and interventions
- Equipped online learning with clear policies and expectations to maintain accountability, compliancy and sustainability
- Provided critical instruction and regular student check-ins for ongoing support
- Personalized support based on individual student needs
For those experienced in online learning, the majority of these practices were likely already in place well before the pandemic. For those new to online learning, implementing these practices in short period of time required an abundance of work and effort in a short amount of time. And in many cases it didn’t go well. Charter schools, in particular, were well-equipped for the transition.
“Charter schools rapidly built a structure in a time of chaos, taking just three school days, on average, to provide a remote learning program,” she said. “Their response to Covid is a natural experiment in how leaders and educators embrace the flexibility granted to them so that schooling continues and students are learning.”
-Macke Raymond, Stanford Credo
By now, we all know that traditional classrooms across the country (and the world) were abruptly faced with the urgent demand to transition from in person classroom instruction to an exclusively online format. This requirement was nearly immediate and most did not have any of the needed infrastructure in place upon the obligation.
Most of the challenges many faced while implementing an online program during the pandemic are directly but inversely related to the successful components earlier discussed. The successes that many experienced are key to an effective online program and without them can create the challenges that most unsuccessful programs experienced. Some schools that were new to online learning struggled not only with delivering imperative ongoing instruction, but also with managing the critical clerical and administrative tasks needed to be solvent, academically impactful and fully operational.
Some of the challenges during this period included:
- No previous experience with independent study or online learning
- Undeveloped systems to effectively monitor and bolster student attendance
- Lack of streamlined online curriculum and assessment tools and resources
- Shortage of time for sufficient teacher training on online delivery
- Due to low attendance and participation, unable to deliver and provide regular instruction and interventions
Again, for those experienced in online learning, the majority of these practices were likely already in place well before the pandemic. For those new to online learning, implementing these practices required an abundance of work and effort in a very short amount of time. These highlighted practices are key components of a successful online learning program and aren’t always easy to achieve, even with ample planning and implementation time.
Renewed Perspective on Online Learning
It’s no secret that the forced transition to online learning caused by the pandemic disrupted traditional education, brining many challenges and frustrations. Though it was – and still is – a trying time for students, teachers and parents, it has also brought about useful insights and takeaways. Many of these observations are highlighted below:
- Online learning requires ample planning and resources to execute – it needs to be a deliberate and comprehensive strategy
- Learning remotely is reliant on thorough tools, policies and expectations in order to be successful
- Universal experience with online learning during the pandemic has prompted continued use of the modality within many schools for students who need it post pandemic – in short, it’s not going away, even as the pandemic has subsided
- Which means there is not only a continued demand for flexible, distance learning for students of all backgrounds and abilities, but an increased interest and demand for it
As a result of these key takeaways, there is a newfound awareness and openness to online learning and its rightful place in education. As noted, many schools who had never offered an online program before the pandemic, have chosen to continue to offer one for those students who need or prefer it and those that were already offering one have become even more experienced in how to best serve students in this burgeoning modality. Many have learned through the mandated “distancing” period that an online program doesn’t work without key areas established, enforced and strengthened and when key components are in place, students can be successful and granted a high level of personalization and flexibility.
Online Learning Isn’t for Everyone: Or Can it Be?
Though much success was and continues to be achieved in online learning, many remain skeptical of the modality. The usual response to the cynics of online learning has been that remote learning isn’t for everyone. In the 25 years I’ve worked in independent study, I’ve seen such a diversity of students that come to independent study or online learning for countless reasons. Throughout the years, I’ve also seen those that try it and return to traditional learning environments for a variety of reasons.
Considering the broad implementation of online learning during the pandemic and the valuable lessons learned from it, I challenge the belief that independent study or online learning isn’t for every student, and instead, I modify the usual response to online learning can be for every student, if done right. The following perceptions reflect enduring myths entrenched in traditional education. Based on the challenges and successes during the universal pandemic induced online learning implementations, these can now be more fully addressed:
- Students can’t learn outside of the seat-based classroom
- With the right tools, support and instruction, whether delivered in person or virtually, students are certainly able to learn and grow in an online environment
- Teachers can’t teach outside of the seat-based classroom
- With patience, flexibility, proper planning and equipped with efficient tools, policies and practices, teachers can ensure students are on track and provide instructional support and guidance where needed.
- Independent study/online learning is only for a specific type of student/parent
- Many students, parents, teachers and schools witnessed the power of online learning when implemented with time and care. With the high level of personalization afforded in online learning, students of all backgrounds, needs and abilities can learn and grow in a distance learning format
Developing a Successful Online Program
Online learning can be ineffective and even detrimental to student learning if not implemented with the same clerical and instructional requirements of a traditional in person program. As learned during the pandemic, online learning requires the same components of any academic program, including the right content, assessment and monitoring tools, instructional support and intervention system need to be in place to ensure success for all students.
When looking to develop a successful online program, the following should be explored and implemented:
- Clear policies and expectations to maintain accountability, compliancy and sustainability
- Introductory tools and instruction for newcomers to online learning
- Ways to empower students to invest in their own learning through supporting tools and instructional support to ensure daily engagement
- Rigorous and user-friendly content with reporting functions for easy teacher monitoring
- Comprehensive assessment driven tiered intervention system to ensure support for students of all abilities
- Critical instruction and regular check-ins for ongoing support
- Personalized support based on individual student needs
- Social emotional learning (SEL) character and community building opportunities for all students
- In person events on a regular basis for those students interested
As with any comprehensive program, these components are critical to ensure success for each stakeholder in an online program. Students, parents and teachers all need the proper tools, practices and ongoing support in order for the modality to work effectively.
Common Online Learning Implementation Pitfalls:
Most online programs that haven’t found success have experienced the following issues with the implementation:
- Lack of systems and processes to ensure basic clerical functions are intact
- Student expectations unclear and unestablished policies
- Lack of comprehensive online content, reporting and assessment tools
- Unestablished intervention system to support struggling students
- Lack of regularly scheduled meetings to monitor student progress and provide ongoing support
- Assuming that each student is frivolously working on their coursework (just as in a classroom, they need continuous monitoring and prodding)
- Comprehensive intervention program to support every level of learner
- Lack of social opportunities for students
This list is not exhaustive, but highlights many of the key components missing in effective online learning programs. As with any academic program, a clear and solid foundation needs to be set for ultimate success.
The 4 “Must Have” Ingredients of a Successful Online Learning Program
Years of experience combined with the key takeaways from the pandemic induced online learning programs, there are four needed components of a successful online learning program. These outline the primary needs discussed for online learning program to be successful and can act as a basic guide for those interested in continuing to offer this needed modality for many students.
The four components highlight primary needs within any online learning program and address the key challenges of online learning during the pandemic:
- Planning: Ensure there is ample time for planning for any online program. Committed time to identifying the specific needs the program is looking to address and personalizing the program for the specific student demographic for which it being built. Including time to involve all staff in the planning process and providing robust training is critical.
- Policies: One of the biggest challenges during the pandemic were unestablished policies and procedures. Policies and procedures aligned to independent study are required for the sustainability of any distance program. Tracking daily attendance, participation policies and much more needs to be established for fundamental daily operations.
- Academics: In order for an online program to be successful, it needs to include the same academic elements of any in person program. Just as in an in-person classroom, rigorous content, assessment driven interventions and tapping into student motivation are equally critical in any online program.
- Support: No online program can be successful without ongoing instructional support and monitoring. An online program without continuous support and monitoring, would be similar to not having a teacher present in an in-person classroom. Scheduled, systemized instruction and monitoring is required for any online program to be successful.
Thinking Has Changed
The notion that traditional models in education are the only in which students can learn, continues to be refuted through successful alternate approaches, including online learning. With universal online programs implemented during the pandemic, the overall field of education has the unique opportunity to draw from the many lessons learned on how to best implement an online program. These valuable insights can empower online programs everywhere to be as effective as possible in continuing to serve students who are interested and in need of a more flexible and personalized modality of learning.
Note: This blog article was previously posted at edhype.com by the same author.