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Coronavirus: What Are We Learning About Online Instruction?

Amid the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, schools nationwide have rapidly moved to embrace online instruction, yielding a wealth of information that should not be forgotten, even as many unanswered questions remain.

Last month I wrote about how the COVID-19 pandemic could be the turning point for virtual and online learning. Much is being learned as school districts scramble to provide the necessary technology, as teachers work to transform their instruction into an online and virtual format, and while parents learn how to best assist their children.

We’re now at the one-month mark for schools’ transition to remote learning. During this time, a lot has been discussed about schools’ successes in making this daunting transition, as well as their struggles. Here’s what I believe we now know.

Teaching is hard work, even in the best of times. One silver lining in this pandemic may be that parents now saddled with at-home schooling responsibilities are realizing how difficult it is to teach well, and as a result teachers will receive greater respect – and be better compensated – for what they know and do every day.

Good teaching is based on strong student-teacher relationships. In their switch to online instruction, teachers have been working to find virtual ways to continue their personal relationships with students. Zoom teleconferencing sessions are now widely used, as are teachers’ frequent check-in emails and phone calls with their students and parents. None of these interactions are as good as face-to-face, but as we’re all discovering during this time of physical distancing, poor substitutes can suffice.

Broadband Internet access is needed for every home. The pandemic has reminded us how the United States has been woefully negligent in ensuring high speed Internet access is available and affordable to all. As a result, at-home Internet access has been a major deterrent for many schools wanting to move their instruction online – especially so for urban and rural schools. It will take the work of many to fix this inequity, primarily through national, state and local governments providing funding and coordination with private sector partners to develop sustainable solutions.

In the meantime, schools are having to spend too much time and money on ingenious but less-than-ideal workaround solutions: take-home Wi-Fi hotspots for students, and setting up Wi-Fi access locations in school parking lots, on school buses parked in neighborhoods, and outside community buildings and public libraries.

Teaching online takes lots of preparation. Moving from traditional to online instruction is neither a fast nor easy proposition. But under the circumstances of this pandemic, teachers new to teaching online had little time to both learn the best-practices for online instruction as well as prepare for their classes. As a result, there have been many hiccups inherent to such “building a plane while you’re flying it” endeavors. And expectations for what defines “success” have been revised. But these same teachers who have struggled through this transition will be, when their schools reopen, better able to incorporate aspects of online learning into their daily instruction.

Digital device rollouts must be well-planned and thoughtfully executed. Prior to the pandemic, there were well-publicized cases of districts that conducted poorly planned one-to-one student device implementations. However, these examples were apparently ignored as other schools rushed for their own online learning solutions. Making an already difficult situation even worse, photos show students and parents lining up for hours to receive a laptop from harried district employees, while others are turned away due to the district not having enough devices.

Data security can’t be overlooked. In their haste to find alternate instructional solutions, schools are adopting programs that may violate student data privacy laws. Zoom, the videoconferencing app, has already come under much criticism in this regard. And Google, Instagram and Facebook are also suspect. In these crisis times, some otherwise cautious educators are making ill-advised choices and exposing their students to potential data gathering and privacy invasions. Going forward, school districts have hopefully learned they must evaluate and adopt a full set of secure and robust instructional tools for use in all aspects of online learning.

What we don’t yet know. Though schools have done much to celebrate, there remains a great deal that we don’t yet know about this move to online learning.

  • Is measurable student learning taking place via these new remote learning solutions? And if not, can it occur once teachers and students become more adept in this new learning paradigm?
  • What must be done to better address the unique challenges of special needs students?
  • What will be the sustained changes from the federal and state departments of education to support schools’ move to online learning? Providing schools with significant leeway for the remainder of this school year is already taking place. But what about the future? Will new regulations on testing, and on what constitutes “attendance” or the required number of school days be reconsidered to better accommodate remote learning?
  • When schools reopen, will many parents choose to not let their students return, wanting instead to continue remote learning, at least until they believe it's safe for kids to assemble in schools? (Read: once a coronavirus vaccine is widely available.) And will schools be able to accommodate these “stay homers” while also providing full in-school instruction?
  • And the unanswered question that I find most compelling: Once schools do reopen, will teachers continue to employ the new online instructional skills and tools they’ve mastered during the pandemic, or will they revert back to their old methods and routines? In short, how will classroom instruction change based on what teachers and school leaders have learned during this trial-by-fire period of their careers?
Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.