Online Learning Strives for its Identity | John Watson | 5 Min Read

A colleague put an interesting question to me recently:

Why did schools struggle with online learning so much during COVID given that it’s been around longer than most teachers have been in the profession?

That’s a great question, and I’m not sure there’s an easy answer. Perhaps it’s because there are quite a few issues in play, some of which combine into a tangled mess of differing needs and interests, inertia, and complacency. Let’s untangle a few key points.

1. K-12 online learning remains mysterious to many people

As Amy Valentine, CEO of Future of School, likes to say: “Online learning isn’t new, but it’s still new to many people.” Consider that we could soon, if not already, have our second generation of K-12 online learners. The earliest online K-12 students could be putting their own children into online schools, even if those current parents were elementary-aged when online schools first appeared on the scene in the mid- to late-1990s. But many parents, policymakers, and reporters remain only vaguely aware of how  K-12 online (and hybrid) learning really works. When the pandemic first hit, the producers of a major national radio show called me and asked “Do the tools exist to handle school closures and teach at a distance?” My answer was: “You’re asking the wrong question. The tools have been available for decades. The question is “do enough teachers, students, and parents understand the tools?”

This lack of awareness of K-12 online learning means that demand is not as high as it might otherwise be. Henry Ford is said to have believed that if he asked people what they wanted, they would have answered “a faster horse.” Even people who are dissatisfied with education are often not aware of online and hybrid options. They may want schools to be better or different, but they also may not be sure how they want schools to be different.

Additionally, in many cases distance learning — even and perhaps especially pre-online — was created to address a lack of access to education. Paper-based correspondence courses and very early online courses were certainly inferior to their traditional, face-to-face counterparts, and even as online courses have caught up to traditional courses in terms of quality and outcomes, the legacy view of distance education as inferior to face-to-face may remain.

2. Most people are satisfied with their local school

Education is a bit like politics. People will say in surveys that they highly disapprove of Congress, but Senators and Representatives are re-elected at very high rates. Similarly, some polls show general disapproval of public education, but plenty of others demonstrate that most people are satisfied with their local school. Although school and district leaders are of course concerned about state accountability measures and other issues, they must be responsive to the local community and parents — and generally, the community is likely to be supportive of the school.

3. Teachers and school leaders had a few other issues to worry about, particularly during the pandemic

In the very early days of the pandemic, I asked a district superintendent about her remote learning plans. Her response was “we’re getting that in place, but at the moment I’m worried about feeding my students who depend on us for meals.” Later in the pandemic, I asked the same superintendent how her remote learning was going. Her response: “Pretty well, but we just had three staff members die of COVID in the past two weeks.”

This is a superintendent, by the way, who has now put in place one of the very few online programs in her state. But to me, she also served as a valuable reminder of the stark reality of the issues that education leaders have had to address during the time of COVID-19. 

4. Teacher preparation programs have largely ignored online learning

This seems to be starting to change, but the fact remains that most teachers start teaching with lots of training in physical classroom practices, some training in technology used in physical classrooms with standard bell schedules, and little or no exposure to teaching online. Therefore the path to teaching online is almost always a second journey that starts after they have learned to teach face-to-face. If they have become comfortable in that instructional mode, they may not be interested in learning another.

5. Our systems are small-c conservative. 

Many of our systems are designed to make change difficult. Outside of education, just think of how the U.S. Senate was created specifically to be a slow and deliberative body. (Whether one likes that or not is of course a separate question.)

To create change in education, many people and decisions must line up and be supportive. But change can be blocked by just one decision, one layer of decision-making that withholds support. 

Looking to the future

Despite these widespread challenges, we estimate that somewhere around a thousand districts are starting or significantly expanding online and hybrid programs that they intend to remain in place once the pandemic has abated. The key question is: to what end are they investing in these programs? Are they meant to serve as the basis for future emergency response, whether that is another pandemic, or a hurricane, snow, or other events? Are they meant to keep in place a flexible option for students and families who found they liked learning online? How much will students be able to mix and match between online and onsite options, selecting a learning modality at a micro-level instead of macro? Perhaps most importantly, will online and hybrid schools, courses, and tools continue to serve a very small niche, or a significantly higher percentage of students, or — perhaps — be seen as valuable assets and strategies that should be applied to the large majority of schools and classrooms?

These are, as yet, unanswerable questions. But chaotic times can lead to long-term change, and advocates for change are still in the midst of what may be a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

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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