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Let's Not Confuse Pandemic Teaching with Online Learning


Back in the early spring of 2020, school buildings closed their doors, and most shifted to a model of distance learning. Students and teachers navigated this new style of teaching and learning amidst a devastating pandemic with severe health and economic implications. The stress of the “new normal” included loss of income, health challenges, and overall stress to students, teachers, and families. This was not a recipe for academic success for most students.


While school districts pivoted quickly to transition to remote learning, many students and communities lacked resources to make it practical. Between a lack of devices, poor or no internet connection, a lack of space at home to attend remote school, and life challenges that impacted students’ abilities to attend online school, pandemic teaching really became crisis teaching. In The Distance Learning Playbook Grades K-12, leading education experts Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie sum up the spring when they say, “To be clear, the pandemic teaching of 2020 was not really distance learning. It was crisis teaching.”


Over the summer, many schools and districts focused on professional development and ramped up technology supports for students and teachers in an effort to improve distance learning. In reality, many schools have indeed improved distance learning and have introduced other models such as hybrid teaching and one-on-one tutoring to support students during these times. However, distance learning alone is not a viable solution for long-term education for all students.


5 Reasons Why Distance Learning Does Not Fully Work!


1. Because of the challenges of distance learning, many teachers report a decrease in instructional time. Much of their focus is dealing with attendance and connectivity issues for students. In many circumstances, students only spend a few hours a day in synchronous learning, When time is so limited, teachers can’t effectively teach when having to help students connect or dealing with attendance issues from a distance.


2. In addition, students are missing out on important social aspects of school. Students need to interact with peers and teachers for social and emotional needs that impact their overall well-being.


3. Students also need more engagement during learning. This can be challenging when they are on Zoom calls for hours at end. Increased boredom leads to a loss of learning opportunities.


4. Students need variety in their learning, which comes from different activities and learning modes that they experience through a typical in-person school day. Zoom has turned most instruction into a “sit and get” model where students listen to a teacher and respond by completing work. This is not the most effective style of teaching, yet synchronous distance learning via Zoom leaves little room for alternative models.


5. Online learning doesn’t work for all students. Students who are working towards English language proficiency and students with disabilities cannot always access online learning as easily as others. Also, compared to older kids, younger students struggle with remote learning and being independent learners.


While distance learning fills a need when health reasons force schools to close their doors, it is not a model that should be used 100% of the time for 100% of kids. But let’s be clear: distance learning is not online learning, and it’s time to stop confusing the two.


Online Learning is Not Pandemic Teaching


Online learning is the idea of students learning from another source beyond the classroom teacher for topics and skills that may beyond the teacher’s knowledge base. Digital curriculum, when used effectively, supplements instruction and provides students with new opportunities they otherwise would not have access to. For example, online learning can be effective for foreign language classes in elementary schools where traditional K-5 teachers don’t have content knowledge of this type of curriculum. Likewise, middle school and high school students can learn skills that better prepare them for a modern workforce such as graphic design, computer science, or construction management.


There are decades worth of research and trial-and-error learning on how to best enable students to succeed in learning in an online setting. Schools that are new to digital delivery don’t have to start from scratch! They can gain from the experience and perspective of leaders in digital learning. In fact, incorporating supplemental digital courses into the distance learning model right now can support overall engagement and learning. As students transition back into in-person classrooms, this type of online learning can continue.

Online learning and digital curriculum has significant benefits when used as part of a comprehensive education plan. Online learning programs should be built on frameworks of quality online pedagogy. They are typically not meant to be used as the only learning a student encounters in a day. Online learning is meant to be one part of an effective instructional model to give students more opportunities that they would likewise not receive in a traditional classroom, whether it is an in-person or remote environment.

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