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National Survey Finds Growing Confidence in Virtual Learning

A survey by the ed-tech company Instructure found parents and teachers are confident about tech-driven educational methods and tools, but concerns about digital equity and the efficacy of standardized testing remain.

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(Hananeko Studio/Shutterstock)
While confidence in digital learning is slowly growing among many K-12 educators and parents, concerns about digital equity, learning loss and state testing linger as the 2021-22 school year looms, according to survey results released Monday by the ed-tech company Instructure.

Despite hurdles to narrow the digital divide and performance gaps that have grown during last year's COVID-19 school closures, Instructure's study said teachers and parents have grown increasingly open to virtual learning options, as well as hybrid learning using both in-person and online tools.

“Our school communities persevered through incredibly challenging dynamics this past year, but overall we came through it more adaptive, open to new approaches and deeply focused on student engagement," said Trenton Goble, vice president of K-12 Strategy at Instructure and former K-12 educator, in a public statement. "At the same time, there is a lot of hard work ahead."

More than 80 percent of educators believe technology will become increasingly integral to teaching and learning, while 67 percent think remote learning will impact classroom practices.

About 75 percent of parents reported an increased preference for online courses, while 64 percent noted adopting a "positive opinion" on digital learning, coinciding with a growing demand for virtual learning options throughout the country.

“I think across the spectrum, we’re creating an environment where everyone is pretty comfortable with this idea [of virtual learning],” Goble told Government Technology, drawing off his discussions with educators and parents during the pandemic.

The study, conducted with Hanover Research, surveyed 460 parents and 200 educators across low- and high-income school districts. Goble said parents and teachers appear more optimistic about policymakers' efforts to close the digital divide amid an increase in local, state and federal spending geared toward student connectivity and device availability.

Goble noted that schools and policymakers are now taking a long-term approach to ensuring access to remote digital learning options, compared to when school closures forced millions of students into remote learning last year.

“In the beginning, for so many educators and many parents included, we all thought this was going to be a short-term thing," he said, adding that many schools opted to use paper packets for remote coursework last spring. "I think the way many schools initially went about solving the problem was not with a long-term strategy.”

About 70 percent of surveyed educators expected improvements in student engagement and attendance moving forward as schools take a more organized approach to digital learning models and policies. Only a third of parents consider maintaining engagement difficult, though low-income households remained twice as likely to report difficulties in this area.

More than half of respondents from high-income households reported “full satisfaction” with efforts to provide devices and connectivity to students. However, only 28 percent of low-income families reported reliable access to the tools needed for remote learning.

Goble believes some of those figures would have been lower if not for the federal relief funds poured into narrowing the digital divide during the pandemic, as well as the widespread adoption of tools like Canvas, the company's learning management platform used by about 30 million educators and students worldwide.

“The reality started to set in that this is a long-term problem, and you saw a shift in the way that schools began to address those opportunities to connect with students virtually. We saw the use of our learning management system Canvas become an essential tool for teachers,” Goble said.

“As teachers started to reinvent their practice and thinking into the long haul, we started to see that shift,” he continued. “That wouldn’t have gone well if there wasn’t a tremendous amount of infrastructure put in place.”

The study said families will look to teachers to bolster student engagement and emotional well-being as kids return to in-person classes next year, citing high-quality instruction among the main determinants in student performance. Ninety-nine percent of educators and 91 percent of parents rated student-teacher relationships as a crucial factor in student success.

“That personal connection teachers make with students is so important,” Goble said.

According to the report, parents and teachers are growing more critical of the value of "high-stakes" tests such as end-of-year assessments, with respondents considering standardized testing as “the least important” factor in measuring student success.

Half of educators and parents said students have “significantly fallen behind due to COVID-19 school closures,” putting the efficacy of standardized testing into question.

“We didn’t give those end-of-level assessments back in the spring of 2020 almost anywhere, and nobody really missed them. I think that brought out what those of us in education thought for a long time,” Goble said.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated a statistic about surveyed parents who view technology as integral to teaching and learning.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.