Forecast 2021: Will COVID Kill Digital Learning Long-Term? | John Watson | 5 Min Read

January 21, 2021 – John Watson

As we leave 2020 behind and transition to the new semester and new year, what’s the latest prognosis for developments in digital learning?

Here’s the summary as we see it: the evidence continues to emerge that the post-pandemic landscape will be marked by two seemingly contradictory elements:

  • An increase in permanent online and hybrid learning options for students, and
  • Little long-term change in most physical schools, for most students.

Let’s look at each of these a bit more deeply.
An increase in permanent online and hybrid learning options for students

My Google news alert has at least one article about a district starting or expanding an online school just about every day, and often more than one such article. As one example (from Dec. 20), Botetourt schools setting virtual learning academy foundation, reports that:

COVID-19 wreaked havoc on Botetourt County schools’ way of doing things, but the distance learning that it enforced also opened a new niche in the division: a virtual learning academy…School officials are in the early stages of developing a perennial online school that would begin in fall 2021.

This quote captures much of what we have heard in other districts:

COVID, while it is a bad thing, has given us this silver lining, in that we have to now force ourselves to be flexible enough to pivot into a virtual program,’ board member Tim Davidick, who represents the Valley District, said during the board’s November meeting.

That article goes on to mention that a neighboring district, also in Virginia, started an online school that it intends to continue post-pandemic.
We envision some bumps in the road for many of these school districts in school year 2021-22 and beyond. One reason why: many of these articles, and some conversations that we have had with districts, suggest that district leaders haven’t fully thought through whether the demand from students and families is more for hybrid schools (combining online and onsite) than for fully virtual. Our research over nearly two decades shows that only 1-2% of students and families choose fully virtual options. Most hybrid schools are much newer, such that we don’t have good data on them, but good reasons exist to think they may attract a larger number of students. Districts that believe they should build fully online may have to re-think their approaches and add some hybrid options.
Little long-term change in most physical schools

While many of our readers are likely to cheer the “more online options” finding, at least some may question the “little long-term change” view. And it’s true that we can already find evidence for the new district online schools, while the return to “normal” prognosis is just that—a prediction. But it’s worth noting that we’re not the only ones who are making this prediction.
Larry Cuban, long-time education observer, former teacher, and superintendent, writes:

“Will brick-and-mortar schools succumb to online instruction as the major form of schooling as Macy’s and other department stores shift to online shopping? I don’t think so.”

Why? Because the changes implemented to switch to remote learning during the pandemic have been largely within existing frameworks:

“Let’s count the changes that have occurred in organization, curriculum, instruction, and calendar since Covid-19 struck public schools in March 2020.

Apart from changing calendar dates for starting and ending public schools and daily schedules of school hours, the nearly 100,000 age-graded elementary and secondary school across the country in 13,000-plus districts have not altered their graduation requirements, district or departmental organizations, or assigning one teacher to each class. The age-graded school remains intact.
Nor have I noted any changes in curriculum other than minor adaptations to remote instruction. A jiggle here or there, perhaps, but not much else…
Online instruction will become another option for schools and individual teachers to use now that it has been the prime deliverer of content and skills during the pandemic. “Option” is the keyword because tax-supported public schools are expected to do a whole lot more than transmit information and develop skills in the next generation.
Thomas Arnett at Christensen looks a bit more broadly, applying the disruptive innovation framework to ask whether learning pods, micro-schools, and other changes will stick. His answer is no, for three reasons:

The pandemic has certainly created nonconsumption—a key starting point for disruptive innovations. Until last March, many families relied on schools to provide a range of services, including reliable childcare, social communities, and a structured setting for learning. Then COVID-19 created a void, and pods and micro-schools sprung up to fill in. 

But this response to nonconsumption differs from the normal pattern of disruption. Normally, serving nonconsumption gives disruptive innovations an opportunity to grow and improve without inciting a competitive response from incumbents. But the nonconsumers of schooling today are not families and students that established schools routinely ignore. Rather, established schools see students who leave for pods or micro-schools as lost enrollments; and as the pandemic draws on, conventional schools will respond to try to rake those enrollments back…
Second, pods and micro-schools are too expensive and complicated to be disruptive. Disruptive innovations don’t enter as premium offerings that command premium prices. Rather, they appeal to people by offering affordability and convenience. In contrast, parents take on a massive workload to create their own pods or micro-schools….
Third, pods and micro-schools won’t have the runway they need to be disruptive. Disruptive innovators start off crummy and only start pulling people away from the mainstream options after they’ve had time to improve on their early iterations. Remember when YouTube was only about cat videos and Netflix was only mailing DVDs? Both had a long way to go before challenging video rental and cable networks. For pods and micro-schools, the runway offered by pandemic-induced nonconsumption will likely run out sometime next year—long before they can evolve into attractive alternatives to conventional schooling. When the pandemic ends, most families are going to say “good riddance” to their COVID-19 stop-gaps and go back to the incumbent system they’ve long relied on.”
Arnett does raise the possibility (that he calls “the outside chance”) that these pods, micro-schools, and other innovations will push education policy in substantial ways, in part by implementing backpack funding for students. I agree that there is an outside chance of this. I would put that probability at well under 5% and possibly under 1%—which is to say, not high enough to think much about unless/until we see concrete signs of such changes, for example, bills being introduced in state legislatures with substantial support.
What are the early signs in legislatures? Mostly conversations and bills that are tweaking the status quo, addressing funding concerns, and in some cases allowing online charter schools for the first time in a state. In other words, to this point, the serious policy discussions seem to support the forecast that post-pandemic changes in public education will mostly be related to expanding online learning options, mostly at the margins.

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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