What Is High-Quality Digital Learning? A Modest Proposal | 2 Min Read

Among the challenges for the advocates for high-quality digital learning throughout much of 2020 was distinguishing good practices from the emergency remote learning that was too often implemented poorly by schools, colleges, and universities.  

Apparently that particular challenge hasn’t gone away with the new year, because early this morning (New Year’s Day) I was triggered by this sentence in an article in Forbes:

“[H]igh school and college students are exhausted by online learning. They long for the personal connections that online learning simply cannot provide.”

So much for my hope that we could move on to greener pastures with the changing of the calendar.

As I began the new year in this freshly agitated state, I considered how we might finally change this frustrating dynamic, and came upon two related ideas. First, we need to re-brand. Second, we need to make it clear that we are re-branding to distinguish bad educational practice from good practice, regardless of the source of either. As such, a modest proposal follows.

From this point on, advocates for high quality digital learning will refer to the alternative (bad digital learning) as Circumstantial Remote Agonizing Pedagogy. This is the type of learning that doesn’t engage students, doesn’t support teachers, and rarely produces good results. Yes, we are branding the alternative to good practice, but sometimes you have to work with the negative space.

Each of these words is critical:

Circumstantial refers to the circumstances that surround the pedagogy. So much of remote learning in the past year was a response to the circumstances of the pandemic, and as such some (not all) of it was poorly planned and executed. But Circumstantial can also refer to poorly planned pre-pandemic online learning as well, or even fraudulent people taking advantage of students seeking online learning options. The alternative is digital learning that is well-planned, with substantial support of teachers and students.

Second, what we’re describing is Remote. But not just remote as we think of learning at a distance, but remote in the emotional sense. No connection, no affect, no personal interaction. Too much online learning has been remote for many years. The pandemic has highlighted that teaching and learning should always be based on personal connections, and should never be remote—whether it is online or in person.

Third, let’s be honest, bad online learning is just plain Agonizing. It’s agonizing for the learner who perceives a disengaged teacher. It’s agonizing for the teacher who doesn’t want to be teaching online, or who doesn’t receive the necessary support to teach well. Sometimes it’s been agonizing for me as an observer, as when students in an online credit recovery lab once showed me how they could just keep taking quizzes until they randomly got enough answers right to “pass” the test.  

Finally, it’s a form of Pedagogy, which just means a method of teaching. A “method of teaching” doesn’t imply good or bad—it’s just a mode of instruction. Like digital learning, it can be good or bad.

With this blog post, we seek to inspire a new catchphrase. When someone says digital learning doesn’t work, those of us who know it can work should say, “that wasn’t good practice.” We can explain that what the other person was referring to was, in fact, just “Circumstantial Remote Agonizing Pedagogy.” And if those four words are too long, just substitute the acronym.


John Watson

As Evergreen’s founder and primary researcher, John Watson is responsible for conducting, writing, and presenting research as well as providing testimony on digital learning matters to state boards of education, legislatures, and charter school commissions. He has extensive knowledge and experience based on his two decades working in online learning and education technology. This background has afforded him a wide-reaching network across the spectrum of education professionals, policymakers, and subject matter experts as well as the ability to provide insightful, dimensional analysis and recommendations.After earning his MBA and a MS in natural resource policy at the University of Michigan, John went to work for one of the first Learning Management System companies, eCollege, in early 1998. He launched eCollege’s K-12 division, called eClassroom, and managed eClassroom’s research and business development. This experience was the springboard for John’s independent consulting in environmental policy and education which evolved into what Evergreen Education Group is today.John is deeply moved by stories of students and teachers who have been positively impacted by technology in classrooms, online courses, and innovative schools. He strives to tell these stories accurately and to clearly explain the challenges inherent with digital learning in order to bring an honest, balanced perspective to Evergreen’s insight and recommendations. His ability to approach research and relationships with consideration for bias and hierarchy makes him a natural connector between information and people.John has presented and led panel discussions at numerous conferences and convenings. In addition to his research for Evergreen, John writes regularly about various issues related to digital learning and is a contributing author of the Handbook of Research on K-12 Online and Blended Learning. His and Evergreen’s work has been cited in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Education Week, and eSchool News, and he has also appeared on NBC Nightly News.

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