The past 15 months may have created an inflection point for digital learning for two related reasons. The first reason is the huge growth in awareness of online and hybrid learning created by the pandemic, which required essentially all schools to shift to remote learning. Even as we identify a distinction between true online/digital learning and remote emergency instruction, it is undeniably the case that tens of millions of teachers, students, and families now have far greater experience with online tools and resources than they did 15 months ago. Some of these experiences have been negative, but others have been positive. Even if, hypothetically, only a quarter of experiences were positive, that would still represent roughly a 10-fold increase in the number of students who have had a good experience with digital learning.
Tied to this first point, online schools and course providers have experienced huge enrollment increases. Therefore, the increase in exposure to online learning is not just due to students experiencing some version of emergency remote learning. Our preliminary research for the 2021 Digital Learning Snapshot suggests that the number of students enrolled in online schools or fully online courses has increased substantially, often by 20-40% or more for each school or provider. This represents a major jump from the steady but slow increases in online and hybrid learning that we were seeing prior to the pandemic.
The second related point connects schools and society. In the early days of widespread school closures, when more than a few policymakers and media outlets were focused on whether state assessments would be required, school leaders were instead meeting the immediate challenges of feeding students reliant on schools for meals and addressing social and emotional needs of students. The pandemic laid bare issues of inequity in our society that our schools both reflect and address. The killing of George Floyd in May 2020 cast a needed spotlight on the links between injustice and inequity, and the need for renewed efforts to address these issues across society. While digital learning and the killing of George Floyd may not seem related, they are. Injustice and inequity must be addressed in many ways, including within our education system. Even before the pandemic, innovative schools and districts were using digital learning to meet the needs of the full range of students that had not been well served by traditional schooling. With the events of this past year, we have seen many schools—online, hybrid, and traditional—increase these efforts.
As of mid-May 2021, the overall digital learning situation in the U.S. can be summarized as:
- Almost all students and teachers have experienced some form of digital learning.
- More students, families, and teachers have taken (or taught) an online course or enrolled in an online school than ever before.
- Schools and society are addressing issues of inequity and injustice in unprecedented ways.
- Schools that seek to meet the needs of all students as individuals now have the experience and interest to be able to apply innovative approaches to meet those needs.
- A subset of those approaches involves some form of online, blended, or hybrid learning.
Taken together, these points suggest a robust future for digital learning.
But as always, current events will soon begin to fade into the past. The near-future challenge for our field is to build on the present interest and momentum, to determine:
- Will issues of inequity and injustice continue to be addressed broadly in education and within digital learning?
- How can experienced digital learning educators build on the momentum of the past year while getting past the negative experiences with emergency remote learning that too many students and families experienced?
- How can the digital learning field combine growth and scale with improved quality and outcomes?
Of course, we don’t know the answers to these questions yet. But it seems highly likely that when we look back at this time, perhaps two years from now, it will be clear that either we took advantage of the moment, or we did not. I hope that we will look back and say yes, we seized this opportunity to increase student opportunities, and improve student outcomes.
Republished from May 20, 2021, Digital Learning Collaborative