Online Learning Is Acquitted; Traditional Education Found Guilty | Ray Ravaglia | 5 Min Read

We have spent much of the last year listening to reports that online learning is failing students.  The story goes something like this: Covid put an end to in-person education, schools used Zoom or Google Meet to move classroom instruction online, students did terribly, therefore online learning doesn’t work. The story is usually bolstered by anecdotes highlighting one or another ridiculous aspect of the system.   

Because the move to online learning was a solution made in desperation, often without much preparation, the fact that it has so often failed students comes as a surprise to no one.  And yet, for those of us who have lived our lives in online education, the failure is less the weakness of online learning and more suggestive of a systematic failure of the standard model of teaching. 

The argument I present here is involved, and one that could be elaborated into a much longer document, but out of consideration for readers, I will endeavor to be brief. 

Beginning in the early 1990s, with projects from the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Foundation, the availability of online courses rapidly increased. Online schools and programs at all levels of education became commonplace by 2000. During the late 1990s and early ’00s, a wide body of research was published showing that there was no discernable difference between online and in-person courses, at least as far as content learning went. Work in the late ’00s and early 2010s took this finding a step further, showing that when properly done, online learning could produce not just content knowledge equivalence but equal success in the social-emotional dimension as well. (For those interested, a detailed discussion of this topic can be found here.

Why, then, did online learning in the Covid era so badly miss the mark?  

One is tempted to blame it on the technology, or lack of familiarity with the technology. And while this may have been a factor, a lack of preparation and a lack of familiarity have always been with us.  

One might also blame the failure on the fact that the online option was being forced on students and instructors, rather than being something that they opted into. But necessity has long been a reason for online learning. Plenty of students and instructors who succeeded in the courses in the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s found themselves there for reasons other than personal…

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Ray Ravaglia

Raymond Ravaglia, Chief Learning Officer at Opportunity Education, founded Stanford University’s Education Program for Gifted Youth, was the principal architect of Stanford University’s Online High School and is also author of Bricks and Mortar: the making of a Real Education at the Stanford Online High School. He has presented regularly at conferences on gifted education and e-learning for the past 15 years. He has published in scholarly and professional journals on different aspects of e-learning, was the 1996 recipient of the paper of the year award from GiftedChild Quarterly, and in 1997 received a Central Pioneer Award. Raymond has served as an external reviewer for the Office of Post-Secondary Education of the U.S. Department of Education, has been an advisor to the College Board on the subject of online education, and was a founding board member of the International Council for Online Learning. He received his BA and MA degrees in Philosophy from Stanford University.