COVID-19 and extended online learning
SciLine reaches out to our network of scientific experts and poses commonly asked questions about newsworthy topics. Reporters can use these responses in news stories, with attribution to the expert.
What are Quotes from Experts?
March 11, 2021
After a year of online education, what does research say about student learning outcomes compared to those expected from in-class education?
“The shift to online education was accompanied by confusion about whether and how to hold students accountable for their learning, and whether to teach new material. Many teachers slowed the pace at which material was taught and adjusted performance expectations. Adjusted schedules for remote instruction sometimes meant lost learning time and absenteeism for many students. The result is likely some learning losses, especially for students with unequal access to resources, but the extent of which we will not know until diagnostic assessments next year.” (Posted March 11, 2021)*
“Learning loss is a concept that is used to describe declines in knowledge test scores across time points, stemming from comparative analysis of standardized test results. Before emergency remote teaching, this concept was largely discussed as it relates to summer break test score declines, and how these may vary based on student and community demographics and other variables. The methods used for measuring “learning loss” involve statistical analysis of test scores that can show negative differences between timepoints outright, or, within emergency remote teaching (ERT) conditions for instance, show how students’ knowledge test scores on average remain level, or increase to a lesser extent over time than is normally expected and evidenced, based on average increases in the given population in prior years, during times of regularly delivered instruction. It is important to note that learning loss is most often discussed in the context of test/re-test designs, based on shorter timeframes than entire school years. The content of state standardized tests changes by student grade and developmental levels, so when using such test results across years, the results become less meaningful; the content is not the same.
“Further, using standardized test scores as a measure of learning, and/or “learning loss” at this time is even more fraught with research limitations than usual, given variations in digital access and use among students and families; the problem of missing data; the divergent range of curriculum material and instructional delivery modalities offered under emergency remote teaching conditions that differ district-to-district, county-to-county, and state to state; and, due to the wide range of different schools’ emergency remote teaching instructional design choices, and gaps between the curriculum material covered in remote teaching classes, and the material being tested for in the exams.
“Some research by the McKinsey organization using available test scores in 2020 indicated that students are experiencing learning loss and that school shutdowns compound racial disparities in learning and achievement. While these measured test results and research outcomes are concerning, we must consider limitations to test score uses as pointed out above. Further, we must also be aware that such research has been leveraged by politicians and school return advocates for political ends — to justify early returns to classrooms while COVID-19 is still highly transmittable, and while gathering in classrooms and school premises still present real, life-and-death safety concerns for school staff, students and families.” (Posted March 11, 2021)*
* Links included in quotes were supplied by the expert.
What factors determine whether students succeed or struggle with online education?
“When online learning is well-designed, it can be as good or even better than in-person classroom learning for students who have the requisite instructional supports. Frequent, direct, and meaningful interaction that combines synchronous and asynchronous instruction is essential to whether students succeed or struggle with online education.
“Universal internet, computer access and instructional technology supports are also critical. Internet and social media access impact how schools and teachers respond and in turn, how students experience online learning, with many students having no interaction with their teachers once online education started.
“Research has shown that through ubiquitous technologies like social media, teachers can enhance interactions between students, between students and teachers, and with people and resources outside the classroom. All are important for a student’s sense of belonging in an educational community.” (Posted March 11, 2021)*
“Research shows that, wherever it happens, learning is built on a safe and warm relationship between a student and their teacher. While that’s harder to accomplish when students are remote, teachers have made incredible strides this year finding innovative ways to connect with students and empower their success. Still, from our conversations with educators across the U.S., we know many students faced serious barriers to building that relationship, everything from poor internet access to obligations caring for their siblings.
“From teachers instructing online, we’ve heard that learning has been structured in a different way. Most students are not spending all day on a video call with their teacher: they’re doing much more independent work than they would in an ordinary classroom. Many students can grow and thrive with the right content and practice opportunities, but others have struggled to stay engaged. When we see higher numbers of D and F grades during remote instruction, struggles with engagement are likely the primary cause.” (Posted March 11, 2021)
“In remote learning, parents and guardians have taken on a more significant role in their children’s learning. They may feel prepared to help in some academic areas more than others. This may explain recent findings from our organization that learning gaps in math are more significant than learning gaps in reading. Districts should provide family members targeted and specific help with how to bring math skills into everyday life.” (Posted March 11, 2021)
“We have found that teachers are feeling quite burdened right now, so they aren’t typically out researching the latest, greatest digital tools or strategies. The teachers who feel most empowered to help their students succeed report having a diverse ecosystem of digital tools at their disposal for use in the virtual environment. This reexamination is paving the path for teachers to try new things and improve their overall approach to assessing what their students know and are able to do.
“Teachers have been positively surprised at how some of their students are interacting and even thriving in virtual environments. Students who are typically shy are participating more frequently through the use of chat boxes in Zoom meetings or other digital tools, such as Kahoot! Students may feel the freedom to take more risks in the anonymity of online education. We’re encouraging schools to look into what it is that makes online learning work for some of their students and keep doing that once the pandemic has passed.” (Posted March 11, 2021)*
* Links included in quotes were supplied by the expert.
What are the potential long-term learning consequences for students of the mixed learning settings (in-person, virtual, or hybrid) over the last year?
“Schools and students will be accelerating their use of online learning formats, platforms and resources for years to come. All students must be able to access these resources. In the same way our country invests in physical infrastructure – e.g., interstate highway system — the pandemic has highlighted required investment in education’s technology and social infrastructure. Universal internet and computer access as well as the human and social supports are key to reaping the benefits of what we’ve learned.
“The ‘new normal’ in education will likely be expanded technology infrastructure, flexibility, and mixed learning settings giving people more choices over how, when, where, and with whom they learn.” (Posted March 11, 2021)
“Hybrid Flexible (HyFlex) models of teaching are posing challenges for educators, which requires them to manage their in-person students while also delivering course instruction and monitoring activities for those students who are logging in at home. More research is needed to explore this modality, which some teacher stakeholders have reported creates a ‘worst of both worlds’ scenario, according to interviews conducted in our current grant research. Teachers self-report that this multi-tasking approach over-exerts their attention and cognitive resources, and that the hybrid flexible models undervalue the personalized support teachers can usually provide individual students in on-location settings under normal teaching circumstances, when not distracted with mediators such as the web conferencing tools and the need to also support the engagement of those logging in from off-site. Teachers report such arrangements can be exhausting to deliver, and some report a strong preference for an either/or approach, eschewing hybrid flexible models, even if it has become slightly easier for them over time in the pandemic to manage with experience. They report uncertainty concerning just how much those at home are learning under hybrid flexible models when the teacher’s attention is divided. Several report that when challenged to multi-task in providing individualized time, attention and focus under a hybrid flexible model, in-person students may benefit due to proximity, which raises further equity issues.” (Posted March 11, 2021)
“Interrupted learning isn’t just closed classrooms. In past events that have caused students to miss school, lost social connections, economic hardships, and stress all impacted learning. Students felt these impacts regardless of their learning setting and will continue feeling them even as they transition back to school.
“The grade a student is in means less now than it ever has before. Because students learned in many different ways, at many different rates, a given classroom will include students who are at varying degrees of proficiency. While research shows that classrooms have always had grade-level variance, we can expect those divides to be even more dramatic because of the events of last year.” (Posted March 11, 2021)
“This fall is an opportunity for teachers to turn a new page, gather fresh data on what every student knows and can do, and plan a path of learning appropriate for each student. Teachers can succeed if they have strong knowledge of where students need to be, can collect information in the moment about where students are, and if they’re willing to be creative about how students get from one level to the next.” (Posted March 11, 2021)
“One of the positive unintended consequences of having students in mixed learning settings over the past year is that students and teachers now understand that school doesn’t have to look the same as it has for the past hundred years. 61% of the teachers we surveyed indicated that they plan to use digital tools more frequently when face-to-face learning becomes possible again. Where educators have been resilient and experienced success with some of the crisis management approaches they’ve taken to teaching and learning, they have new mindsets about what is possible and new strategies to draw from after the pandemic subsides.” (Posted March 11, 2021)
June 22, 2020
What are the pedagogical advantages of online learning, compared to in-person classroom learning?
“Online learning can be as good or even better than in-person classroom learning. Research has shown that students in online learning performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction, but it has to be done right. The best online learning combines elements where students go at their own pace, on their own time, and are set-up to think deeply and critically about subject matter combined with elements were students go online at the same time, interacting with other students, their teacher, and content, and getting feedback.” (Posted June 22, 2020)
“First and foremost, emergency remote teaching is a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate mode due to crisis circumstances. The primary objective is to quickly provide temporary, reliable access to instruction and support during a crisis, not to re-create a robust educational ecosystem (Hodges, 2020). Nonetheless, educators still aim to optimize quality of instruction, adapting to local conditions while relaxing accountability goals and measurements. But emergency remote teaching is not the same thing as distance learning; it is a situation of triage and we are all doing our best. This is an emergency and often accountability goals, evaluation, and assessment expectations are necessarily relaxed under such conditions.
“Some pedagogical advantages of online learning platform use might include:
- Ability for instructors to experiment with educational technology innovations and identify new (evidence-based) online learning activities that may augment student learning outcomes in ways they were not aware of;
- For students who have functioning technology devices and internet access, increased flexibility to engage based on personal preferences, with materials they are provided by their teachers in a variety of formats, which can leverage individual motivation (e.g., video, audio transcripts, visuals and graphics that are appropriately deployed and do not distract from but augment the core learning material and goals);
- For students who have high levels of self-regulatory capacity, they may benefit from self-paced projects that allow them to move ahead in their work more quickly;
- For students whose teachers deploy online learning management system platforms to deliver curriculum, some students may be better able to draw cognitive associations and linkages among digital content and organize and coordinate their thoughts and understanding through engagement with this content in a representational form online. However – in contrast, some students may actually struggle with the cognitive challenge of coordinating across digital content items: browser windows, files and other views on the computer. ” (Posted June 22, 2020)
What are the disadvantages?
“Teachers need to distill their key goals and leverage technology features to meet them. Used well, online chat, discussion forums, replayable video lessons, online meetings, etc. offer tremendous opportunities to make students more engaged (and accountable) compared to time-strapped classrooms where students hide and few hands shoot up. The downside is that this stuff takes work; we know from research that pedagogy matters. Educators can’t just scan the textbook, record the lesson, put them online and expect the same or better learning.” (Posted June 22, 2020)
“An older consensus among online learning researchers was that online and face to face learning had similar outcomes; in the last decade, with a surge of online learning, a new consensus is emerging that online learning as typically practiced provides insufficient support for our most vulnerable learners.
“From at least the 1980s, a large body of research and several meta-analyses pointed learning science researchers to the conclusion that online learning was typically equivalent to in-person learning. This literature came to be known as the “no significant differences” research. On the basis of this research several prominent educational psychologists and online learning researchers have cautioned against “media comparison” studies and argued that pedagogical and instructional differences matter, but the medium of instruction does not.
“Looking back at this large body of research, however, there are substantial weaknesses that are more obvious in hindsight. Few of the studies are randomized control trials. Of the experimental studies, many are small. Many were conducted in health care settings. Very few had large enough sample sizes to look at the effects of race or socioeconomic status.
“Over the last 20 years, online learning has grown massively, and in the last decade a new wave of research has emerged questioning the “no significant difference” consensus. A number of large-scale studies in community college, in massive open online courses, and in K-12 virtual schools provide evidence that students typically have worse outcomes (lower grades, higher failure rates) in online courses than in equivalent face to face courses. In a 2012 study of California’s community colleges, Ray Kaupp coined the term “online penalty,” and this online penalty is more severe for more vulnerable students. We would predict that the average student would do worse in an online course than in a face to face class, but researchers in different contexts have found the online penalty to be more severe among students with low prior achievement, students from ethnic and racial minorities, and students with other markers of low socioeconomic status. In the New York Times, Susan Dynarski summarized this position as “Online learning harms those who need the most help.”
“So, in the field, there is a debate between these two positions. Advocates of the “no significant difference view” point to meta-analyses of randomized control trials from the 80s, 90s, and 00s to claim that online schooling can be just as good as online learning, and advocates of the “online penalty” view point to studies which are not experimental, but are more recent, are much larger, and are in more authentic settings than the “hothouse” settings used for experimental trials.” (Posted June 22, 2020)
“Some disadvantages include:
- The digital divide, which prevents vast numbers of students from experiencing enriched immersive online learning because they don’t have access to high functioning computing equipment, have low bandwidth internet connectivity, are only able to use mobile phones or devices, have to compete to use digital resources in the home with siblings and working parents, or don’t have parent and caretaker support and guidance in technology use, etc.
- Teachers’ lack of experience in designing and deploying online teaching and learning experiences, and teachers’ lack of their own childcare at home during work-from-home conditions
- Temptation by instructional designers to add multimedia ‘bells and whistles’ that detract from the core learning objectives.
- For instructional designers, there is always a balance that needs to be maintained between offering enough motivational and engaging material online, but not too much, such that it distracts learners from the core learning objective of the given lesson.
- The lack of a much needed ‘presence’—especially critical for younger learners—provided by teachers in elementary school, who often pull up a chair and sit next to individual students, observing, supporting and scaffolding their work after a lesson is provided;
- Variation in motivational disposition and self-regulatory capacities make online learning more challenging for some students than others. Those who need additional structure will struggle to remain engaged and focused when learning from home. In the classroom, collective conditions of group cognition and social learning can offer momentum and augment attention and participation, whereas in home isolation the individual working on their laptop or computer bears more responsibility for learning motivation and attention to lessons.” (Posted June 22, 2020)
Are there social, developmental, or other pros or cons of virtual education?
“A challenge we are facing is inadequate access to the technology and social infrastructure needed for virtual education. In the same way our country invested in our physical infrastructure, such as the interstate highway system, this pandemic has highlighted the need for a similar investment in our technology infrastructure, and beyond that, research suggests the social and instructional supports needed for all students to successfully learn with technology. Students without reliable, fast internet or suitable devices for schoolwork or people around them to help are spotlighted in the shift to virtual education.” (Posted June 22, 2020)
“In typical times, many students appear to struggle with maintaining motivation in online learning settings, especially where relationships among students and teachers are not well developed and where success requires effective self-regulated learning. We have every reason to believe that during a pandemic, many students will struggle with online learning, especially our most vulnerable students. All of the students we would expect to be most negatively affected by recession and pandemic are the same students who we would expect would be less well served by online learning in the best of times.
“Everyone is having a different pandemic. There are students who are thriving while learning at home— those who find social situations uncomfortable, those who enjoy individual inquiry and autonomy, those who struggled to get up early for school, students who experienced racism and bigotry at school but find safety and comfort at home. And even among students who prefer school to remote learning, there is a tremendous amount of unplanned learning happening. Students (and their families) are learning about new technology tools and practices; many students are rising to the challenges of independent learning posed by the crisis and learning how to make choices, meet deadlines, and manage time on their own. But those experiential learning gains are undoubtedly occurring alongside much less progress in the core academic curriculum that students typically experience.” (Posted June 22, 2020)
How might childhood education be impacted if online learning – or a hybrid online/in-person model – is extended into the next academic year (2020-2021)?
“If online learning – or a hybrid online/in-person model – extends into the next academic year (2020-2021) the new normal may prove better than the old. Having raced to close gaps to virtual teaching and learning, K-12 education will likely seek to continue the expanded technology infrastructure, flexibility, and virtual learning benefits to improve education long-term. For learners unable to attend school in physical classrooms for various reasons, the pandemic-initiated move to virtual learning could be a welcome and permanent improvement.” (Posted June 22, 2020)
“We have already clearly seen that the most negative educational effects of the pandemic are borne by the most marginalized communities in society—students living in poverty, ethnic and racial minorities, and students lacking technology access. School buildings, the buildings themselves, are some of our most powerful tools for addressing social inequalities. If we cannot get our most marginalized students back in buildings in the fall, we will see the dreadful gaps in opportunity and outcomes continue to widen, with lasting negative impact on students and families.” (Posted June 22, 2020)
“By examining existing research on the impacts of missing school (due to absenteeism, regular summer breaks, and school closures) on learning, we [NWEA research] were able to project the potential impacts of school disruptions due to COVID-19. Preliminary COVID slide estimates suggest students will return in fall 2020 with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading and 50% of the learning gains in math relative to a typical school year. In addition, pre-existing gaps in achievement may widen as some students, due to disparities in digital access, availability of quiet places to study at home, and the ability of a parent to support learning, may show greater learning losses while others may actually thrive. Teachers must be prepared to address a wider range of student needs this fall as some students return being well ahead or well behind where they should be in a typical year.” (Posted June 22, 2020)
“With more time to prepare, teachers and administrators in Fall 2020 may be able to remedy some (but certainly not all) of the digital divide concerns regarding access, if district funds can be leveraged to provide devices and networking connectivity to those who lack these resources, as evidenced by gaps made apparent this past spring semester. In 2017, about 12% of New Jersey’s 3.2 million households lacked computers and 18% lacked internet access (US Census, 2018). Nearly half of households earning $20,000 or less were without internet access, whereas just 6% of households earning $75,000 or more lacked access (US Census, 2018). According to a survey by the New Jersey Department of Education, about 150,000 NJ students (~15%) lack functioning computers or other devices at home, and 98,000 (~10%) also have no reliable internet access, so they cannot readily participate in digital emergency remote teaching (Mooney, 2020). Further, access to technology is necessary but not sufficient for students to learn effectively via emergency remote teaching.
“Looking forward to the fall, teachers may be able to iterate upon their Spring 2020 teaching and make key improvements to their instruction over the summer. However, administrators need to quickly decide how Fall 2020 will be handled in order for teachers to have the time they need to develop their improvement protocols, conduct any needed research on best practices, and to deploy these new measures as they prepare their online platforms and materials before school starts back up again, to avoid mistakes being repeated.” (Posted June 22, 2020)
Are there benefits or drawbacks of online learning that are specific to university settings?
“Having taught and studied in-person and online courses since 2012, I see benefits of online and hybrid learning specific to university settings where working professionals, international students, and others can get the high-quality education needed for career advancement despite geographic and other constraints. Offering degree programs in two modes, as we do at my institution, Michigan State, means that online students can learn alongside on-campus students, bringing a diversity of experiences to classrooms from which everyone benefits. The future of university education is giving learners choices, which todays’ technologies make possible.” (Posted June 22, 2020)
“Online learning offers nearly infinite flexibility, both for learners and for universities. This flexibility is particularly valuable now that most college students in the United States no longer fit the traditional mold of living on campus and studying full time, without caregiving responsibilities or a full-time job to do. We can also be grateful that, at the onset of the pandemic, so many universities already had systems in place for developing and teaching online courses. This capacity is what made it possible for institutions to offer a way for students to keep progressing towards their educational goals, even as campuses around the country shut down virtually overnight.
“However, it’s important to realize that putting learning experiences online is not a simple matter of uploading and delivering content. Experts agree that the power of online learning doesn’t come from the content itself, but rather from the active engagement students have with that content, with the faculty, and with one another. Accomplishing this kind of engagement requires not just technical skill on the part of the instructor, but also thoughtful design of the activities and interactions that are going to take place. Faculty who teach online need to be creative and need to have a deep understanding of how learning works, as well as subject matter expertise, in order to make a course truly come alive for learners.
“Another caution is that the kind of remote instruction that universities set up to address the latest crisis was just that, a stopgap emergency measure. And so, these remote courses bear only superficial resemblance to the more meticulously designed online courses that showcase the real potential of this kind of instruction. Nor is the instruction itself taking place in anything like a normal context. Students are reeling from the disruption to their educational and personal lives, and so faculty find themselves needing to provide more support and more flexibility than they ever have before. For these and many other reasons, we shouldn’t hold up this last semester, or perhaps the next few semesters to come, as the model for what online classes look or feel like.” (Posted June 22, 2020)
“Many college students experience some of the same challenges that K-12 students face upon returning home under quarantine: competing for digital resources and experiencing the challenges of their own motivational and regulatory dispositions and capacities. While some college professors may be more experienced in delivering online education, most undergraduates have never been tasked with the self-regulatory rigors of distance education, and class sizes are often much larger in university. This places extra burden on faculty to adapt to online education, and for some, reduces their capacity for individualized attention to students, which often occurs in the classroom in the time right before and after class. Similar to K-12 teachers, college professors are rushing this summer to investigate sectioning and grouping techniques for online pedagogy that will allow us to leverage peer learning networks, group cognition, and social learning techniques in online instruction that we often leverage in the classroom through small group work, in-class activity assignments, etc.
“One resource for educators will be the special issue of the academic journal for which I am Co-Editor, Information and Learning Sciences, which will be published as free of the paywall for all to openly access for 6 months, starting in early August 2020.” (Posted June 22, 2020)*
* Links included in quotes were supplied by the expert.
The text and video on this page are licensed as Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0. Journalists are free to use any text or video on this page with or without attribution to SciLine.
Dr. Christine Greenhow, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Educational Technology, Michigan State University; 2018 Recipient of Michigan State’s Teacher-Scholar Award
Megan Kuhfeld, PhD, Research Scientist, Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA)
Brooke Mabry, M.S.A. & N.B.C.T., Strategic Content Designer at NWEA
Michelle D. Miller, PhD, Professor, Department of Psychological Sciences, Northern Arizona University
Chase Nordengren, PhD, Sr. Research Scientist at NWEA
Justin Reich, EdD, Assistant Professor at MIT and director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab (MIT TSL)
No declared conflicts of interest.
Rebecca B. Reynolds, PhD, Associate Professor, School of Communication & Information, Rutgers University
I have no conflicts of interest to report at this time.
Steve Underwood, Ed.D., Professional Learning Design Manager at NWEA