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Online Learning Should Remain an Option for Students

Though many students struggled with remote learning, success stories proved it can be a viable model for some. Now K-12 schools have an opportunity to axe the one-size-fits-all approach and build more flexible options.

One can understand why, after these grueling past 16 months, educators, parents and students might never want to do online learning again. Involuntarily thrown into this learning model at the onset of COVID-19, everyone suffered to varying degrees.

Inadequate Internet connections, spotty curricula, teachers inexperienced in online instruction, student isolation and mental health concerns, chronic absences and student device issues were just some of the problems schools had to deal with during the pandemic. Online learning was often pretty bad, and for most kids the model was a poor substitute for face-to-face instruction. So, in light of its serious shortcomings, some believe online learning should be scrapped altogether. But they’re wrong. We need to keep it and do it better.

For educators, the pandemic was a painful but important learning opportunity. We learned what teachers are able to do when they have no alternative but to teach using their available technologies. We learned what does and doesn’t work in remote instruction done at scale. We learned that students and parents want to have a greater say in the kind of schooling kids receive. And we also learned that public and private entities, if they work together, can rally to help meet the needs of families without broadband Internet.

In response to online learning’s failures, some officials are trying to block its use – both for students whom it served well, and also for families unwilling to return their kids to schools due to lingering COVID-19 concerns.

Yes, on many levels, we flunked our big online learning test. We weren’t ready. And as a result, countless students have some serious catching up to do. But the fact that 65 percent of U.S. households with students participated in remote learning over the past 16 months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey, is nonetheless remarkable.

There are good reasons for schools to continue providing an online learning option, best enumerated by families that want it for their kids who struggled in traditional classrooms. But the possibility that schools may have to use it again on a wide scale is very real. U.S. schools just finished a crash course in disaster management, and to stop building out the alternative learning solutions we adopted during the pandemic would be foolish. If we do, we’ll suffer the consequences when the next crisis arrives and we’re still not ready.

As it was before the pandemic, priority No. 1 for addressing our new educational reality is ensuring all families have adequate Internet access. The past two years have been a wake-up call on that front, and some progress has been made in securing the necessary funds and resources. But the nonprofit Common Sense estimates that between 9 and 12 million U.S. students don’t have adequate Internet bandwidth, and until we get that fixed, it will remain impossible for those kids to have a full range of educational opportunities.

At this writing, school districts are planning to fully reopen for the 2021-22 school year, and the new CDC guidelines are making it easier for them to do so. Getting kids back in schools is an important, hard-won milestone in closing out this pandemic, and we need to do everything possible to make it work – while also continuing to develop students’ online options.

So, as school districts prepare for reopening, what should they do about online learning? What roles should it play for students?

Online Schools

Realizing the demand for online learning will continue well beyond the pandemic, many districts have decided to build their own online programs as an option for students. And those programs best positioned for success have some common characteristics, including:

  • Establishing a structured “online learning school” with experienced online educators serving in leadership and support roles
  • Hiring teachers who thrived in teaching online to take full-time positions leading remote learning classes, and providing these teachers with ongoing training and support
  • Using best-practice instructional methods developed before and during the pandemic
  • Curating and creating standards-based curricula designed specifically for use in remote learning environments
  • Building camaraderie among students in online classes to lessen their isolation, and helping align kids with extracurricular opportunities
  • Working with their state departments of education to gain support for their programs and to help revise existing state requirements that may hamper effective remote learning – such as the hours of required “seat time” needed for students to receive course credit

Supplemental Courses

Having seen how online learning can provide additional options for students beyond just full-day programs, some schools will be offering supplemental courses online. This isn’t new, especially for schools that haven’t been able to offer a full range of courses for their kids, including AP classes, computer science and world languages. But the pandemic and remote learning have made schools and parents more aware of such possibilities. Colorado Digital Learning Solutions is one example of an organization offering supplemental K-12 courses for students, and their enrollment surged during the pandemic.

Having been embraced by so many students and families, the genie is out of the bottle for online learning. And since we know education isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition, an online model needs to continue as a viable option for kids.
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.