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virtual learning 2

Virtual improvements

April 4, 2022
Schools and universities can take the lessons learned when Covid-19 forced an abrupt switch to online instruction and create more effective virtual learning programs.

Online instruction has been a part of educational offerings for years at many schools and universities—the ubiquitous presence of smart phones, tablets and other connected computing devices combined with the widespread availability of high-speed access to the internet has made virtual instruction an appealing option for students who otherwise could not take part in a class in person.

But when the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the nation in March 2020, virtual teaching and learning was forced to assume a much different role in education institutions. Rather than being an option that supplemented in-person instruction and expanded opportunities beyond the physical borders of a campus, virtual instruction became an urgent necessity. To keep students and staff safe and deter the spread of the virus, school buildings were shut down. Thousands of schools and universities had to quickly pivot and convert their in-person lessons to online presentations delivered over the internet by teachers in their homes to students in theirs.

The switch to online education came with its own set of challenges: Could school systems provide enough devices to make online instruction feasible for all students? Did families have adequate access to the internet in their homes so that students could take part in the lessons being offered online? Would students be able to keep up with the schoolwork outside the structure of a classroom and regular social interaction with classmates?

The answers were as varied as the thousands of schools that had to make the switch. But, in acknowledging the problems brought on by the rapid conversion to virtual learning, students, parents, teachers, and administrators realized that everyone involved was coping as well as they could with an unexpected crisis.

Now, two years down the road, the presence of Covid-19 has subsided, and most U.S. schools and universities have returned to full-time in-person instruction. But as administrators examine their successes and failures in providing online classes to students, they must decide the degree to which they will incorporate virtual learning into their programs going forward. They may need it in case schools are again victimized by a resurgence of Covid-19 or the outbreak of another pandemic. They also may want to take the lessons learned during the pandemic and use online education to provide an alternative learning method for students who have proven to be more comfortable in an online setting.

Pre-pandemic popularity

Even before anyone ever heard of Covid-19, distance education represented a significant part the student experience at colleges and universities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 19.6 million students were enrolled in postsecondary institutions in fall 2019, and 37.2% were enrolled in at least one distance education course; 17.6% of those 19.6 million were taking all their courses virtually.

The success of online options, especially for more independent college-age students, was understandable. Online learning has obvious benefits.

The most basic advantage is that online instruction connects a school or university with students who otherwise would be excluded from a class. They may live too far from the campus in question; they may have physical or financial limitations that prevent them from traveling to a campus; or they may attend a school without the resources to offer a specific course that a student wants.

Online courses also can be more flexible than traditional in-person classes. Teaching and learning do not have to be confined to a particular time and date; instructors can post lessons and lectures online, and students can do their coursework at time convenient to them.

But it’s not the same as being there.

Without regular in-person interaction fellow students, a student may develop feelings of isolation. Without a teacher to keep lessons and assignments on track, a student without good time-management skills and self-discipline may lose interest or fall behind. Online instruction is at the mercy of the technology that makes it possible, and if the equipment or the training in how to use it is inadequate, student performance may suffer. The increase in screen time needed to take part in online learning also may increase sedentary behavior and lead to physical maladies like eyestrain and muscle aches. Instructors delivering lessons virtually without specific training in how online learning is different, as was the case with most teachers in the pandemic, may not be up to the task.

Remote v. Online

The National Council for Online Education, a partnership of the Online Learning Consortium Quality Matters, University Professional and Continuing Education Association, and WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, stresses the point that becoming an effective online instructor is more than just turning off the classroom lights and turning on a computer.

In a statement earlier this year, the council took pains to make a distinction between “remote learning” and “online learning.”

“Remote learning is an emergency measure used to assure continuity of learning,” the statement says. “It involves taking a course that was designed for the face-to-face classroom and moving it quickly into a distance learning modality.”

Online learning, on the other hand, “is a planned experience over weeks or months where the course has purposefully been designed for the online environment.”

In an emergency, like the one that confronted education institutions in March 2020, the rushed switched to remote instruction was understandable, but not ideal. The council cited a survey in which 97% of U.S. higher education institutions assigned faculty members with no prior online experience to teach remote courses

“While faculty teaching remote classes are trying their best, they simply have not had the necessary development time,” the council says. “And the process to build those courses, and to prepare instructors to teach them effectively, does take time—a resource not afforded by the rush to respond to Covid-19.”

Now that the Covid crisis appears to have eased, schools and universities can afford to take the time and establish well-planned courses specifically designed for online delivery.

“High-quality online learning is the result of faculty trained and supported in online pedagogy, intentional instructional design and a host of other important ingredients that we have been fine-tuning for more than 25 years,” the council says.

The council urges schools and universities who plan to continue or expand their online programs to recognize that more rigorous training is needed for instructors to deliver a high-quality online curriculum.

“By empowering our faculty members to teach even more skillfully online, we will make courses more engaging and learning more effective,” the council says. “By re-envisioning ad hoc and remote teaching materials, we can offer students new online courses that both adhere to well-established frameworks of quality and expand the opportunities that have made online learning a meaningful experience for millions of learners.”.

Sidebar: Tech spending

Covid-19 showed school districts that they could quickly get online classes up and running in an emergency. But many of them also learned that if they want to have a more effective virtual learning program, they need to beef up their technology.

Many school systems across the nation have decided to allocate some of their Covid relief funds for a wide array of technology upgrades that will provide more flexibility and enable them to incorporate more virtual learning into their programs.

FutureEd, an education think tank based at Georgetown University, has analyzed Covid relief spending plans as of mid-March from 3,544 school districts and charter schools. The schools account for about 63% of the nation’s public school students and about $71 billion of the $122 billion in ESSER III funds approved by Congress in the 2021 American Rescue Plan. 

“Remote instruction and technology remain key investments despite the widespread return to in-person school,” FutureEd says. “Across the country, about a third of districts and charters...list spending on student mobile devices, and others plan to pay for “technology that supports learning and enables students to learn anywhere,” plan to invest in internet connectivity, virtual models, online school or distance learning.”


Number of education agencies that have allocated funds

Mobile devices1,048
Technology supporting learning anywhere1,035
Infrastructure/hardware       949
Connectivity      713
Distance learning/online school    529
Smart panels 250
Student information systems 169
Cybersecurity      118

Sidebar: Online expansion

Before the pandemic, the Los Angeles district provided online learning at its independent study school, City of Angels, and the typical student yearly enrollment was about 1,800 students. Then Covid-19 came, and all of the district’s 575,000 students were learning online.

But when the district returned to in-person instruction in August 2021, thousands of students—some medically vulnerable, others unvaccinated—could not. Enrollment at City of Angels—the district’s only school set up to provide long-term independent study—mushroomed to more than 16,000 students.

So the district has responded with a significant expansion of its online offerings. The school board has approved a proposal that will create six Virtual Academies in 2022-23 for student in transitional kindergarten through 12th grade.

“The opening of these new schools would provide families who are unable to send their students to in-person learning with a variety of quality choices for online learning,” the district says.

Each academy will have a specific theme—STEAM (science technology, engineering, art and mathematics); Business & Entrepreneurship; Arts & Entertainment; International Studies & World Languages; Leadership & Public Service; and Computer Science.

“In the morning, students will join their teachers in the virtual classroom, where they will have an opportunity to engage in learning from a standards-based online curriculum,” the district says. “In the afternoon, students will work independently to complete individual assignments from six different course subjects.”

The district is projecting enrollments of up to 2,500 students per online school. Federal Covid relief funds will cover much of the costs of establishing the schools.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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