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Dispelling 2 common myths about online learning

Many students can benefit greatly from virtual learning – and they did during the pandemic. But their success depends on school leaders getting rid of faulty assumptions.

6 min read


Dispelling 2 common myths about online learning


Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

We teach students to carefully weigh all the evidence before drawing conclusions and avoid making overly broad statements. Adults, however, sometimes forget to apply these principles to our own thinking. As a result, we might overgeneralize or jump to conclusions based on incomplete information.

This is what’s happening now with respect to online learning. After an emergency shift to remote and hybrid instruction produced mixed results over the last 18 months, some individuals and communities have written off online learning as “disappointing,” “a debacle,” and a learning modality that just “doesn’t work.”

These opinions might resonate on a personal level but applying them universally does a huge disservice to students. The reality is that many students can benefit greatly from learning online – and drawing overly broad conclusions based on faulty assumptions limits the options available to them.

If K-12 leaders are going to have productive conversations about what’s best for students, they will need to dispel the myths about online learning. Here are two common ones.

Pandemic-related learning loss proves that online learning isn’t effective

It’s true that students nationwide have experienced significant learning loss during the pandemic: An analysis from global research firm McKinsey & Company found that students might have lost the equivalent of up to nine months of instruction, on average, by the end of the 2020-21 school year.

However, when assessing the reasons for this learning loss, there are two important factors to keep in mind:

First, in the rapid shift to remote instruction, many students unfortunately were left behind. According to a Pew survey conducted in April 2020, about one in five parents (21%) said it was likely their children would not be able to complete their schoolwork because they lacked access to a computer at home or would have to use public Wi-Fi because there was not a reliable home internet connection (22%). Nearly three in 10 parents (29%) said it was at least somewhat likely their children would have to do their schoolwork on a cell phone.

While schools have been able to bridge some of the divide by loaning devices and Wi-Fi hotspots, these technological barriers still prevented many students from learning online at the same rate as their peers.

Next, what students have experienced during the pandemic is not high-quality online learning by design: It was emergency remote instruction. And there’s a big difference between the two.

Much of the “online learning” that students have received in the last 18 months is not true online learning, but rather remote lecture-based instruction that aimed to replicate a teacher’s face-to-face teaching via Zoom or another web conferencing platform. In contrast, high-quality online learning puts students at the center of the learning process, using online best practices developed on a robust learning platform, in combination with hands-on activities that are completed offline.

In high-quality online instruction, the learning is activity-based, with students learning and applying key skills through authentic, hands-on projects. Courses are built within a learning management system and take full advantage of online tools for learning. Individual student support is also a high priority: Teachers work closely with students, providing frequent feedback to ensure they don’t feel lost in class, and local resources are available to provide additional support as well. When all these elements are working together, students can be highly successful learning online.

The teachers and administrators leading the abrupt shift to remote and hybrid learning have worked very hard to ensure that learning would continue uninterrupted for as many students as possible during this unprecedented crisis. Despite their best efforts, few schools have consistently used best practices in online instruction during this period. It would be a mistake to use the experience of the last 18 months as a referendum on online learning in general.

Students’ interactions with teachers, peers suffers when they learn online

Strong relationships between students, their teacher and their peers are at the heart of successful instruction. That’s true whether the instruction takes place in person or online. Just because the instruction takes place online doesn’t mean that students must learn in isolation.

The value of a certified teacher who is well-trained in online learning best practices, who guides and inspires students and helps engage them in online learning, cannot be overstated. When educators are highly skilled and experienced in teaching online, they know how to foster strong student engagement and interaction in a distance-education setting. They bring students together through collaborative learning assignments that involve a great deal of interactivity between students.

That this hasn’t happened more frequently during the pandemic is a function of teachers not having the training or the experience to lead this type of collaborative learning effectively in an online environment.

What’s next?

Where face-to-face instruction isn’t available or expedient for students, online learning plays an important role in filling those gaps.

Being able to learn remotely makes education more convenient for some students, such as those who have health problems or those who feel threatened while at school. Online learning can help build equity so that all students have access to courses that engage and inspire them. When students have the necessary tools and infrastructure, supplemental online learning helps level the playing field by bringing AP® courses, advanced STEAM education and other learning opportunities to students who otherwise wouldn’t have these choices.

Suggesting that online learning is inherently inferior to classroom-based instruction is a deeply flawed inference that ignores evidence to the contrary. Despite what some people have experienced, online learning can be highly successful under the right circumstances. What matters most is the quality of instruction and the methods that teachers use, not the learning modality.

Jane Gallagher is the vice president of operations at VHS Learning, a nonprofit provider of full-time and supplemental online instruction for high school students for the past 25 years.


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