Online Education and COVID-19 — The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly changed the state of education. Online education has taken on central importance, becoming essential to the continuity of education for millions of students and teachers at every level. But remote learning has also received a steady stream of criticism for its inevitably haphazard rollout, buggy execution, and for many, an absence of guidance, support, experience, or technical training.

Online Education and COVID-19 — The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Online education has proven both essential and highly flawed. Moreover, the pandemic has only magnified long-standing inequalities that impact access to, and availability of, online education resources. With this in mind, we explore the primacy of online learning in our new reality. We take a look at the positive developments in online education of the last year, the negative factors that have impeded its effectiveness, and the troubling social realities which have only been deepened by our growing dependency on online learning.

COVID-19 has changed everything. Even as vaccine distribution begins and a light appears at the end of the tunnel, the collective experience of living through a pandemic has profoundly changed us—how we perceive things, what we accept as normal, and what we expect from the immediate future. Certainly, this is true for those of us in education, who have faced head-on the reality that the classroom experience can be pulled out from under us just as swiftly as a power outage can deprive us of internet access.

With lockdowns, shutdowns, and outbreaks forcing us into varying and fluctuating stages of social distancing, isolation, or outright quarantine, our experience in education is forever transformed. For teachers, counselors, students, and parents, this past year has been a true test of our adaptability. Millions of learners and teachers were thrust into distance education with no background, experience, or preparation. Remote learning, online classes, asynchronous lectures—though all increasingly popular options at the higher education level—have never realistically been positioned to fully replace classroom learning.

Then the unthinkable happened, and these things were forced to replace classroom learning. This pandemic will not last forever. Likewise, the wholesale replacement of classroom learning will not last forever. However, some things have likely changed forever. The role played by online learning during this time of greatest need, and the mainstream penetration of remote education, suggest that some things may never quite go back to the way they were.

The line between online and in-class educational opportunities has blurred considerably.

We must be grateful for online education, which has provided us the educational access, connection, and continuity that survivors of the 1918 Spanish Influenza could hardly have imagined in their isolation. But the haphazard transition thrust upon so many of us means that the flaws and vulnerabilities of online education have also been laid bare.

We know now that we have no choice but to better integrate online educational realities into the existing educational landscape. However, in order to do so, we must reflect on where this year of sudden and tumultuous change leaves us. Let the unwanted test created by this pandemic serve as a data sample from which to improve our approach to online education.

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Online Learning Before the COVID Crisis

Online education had already penetrated mainstream learning well before the emergence of COVID-19, especially at the higher education level. Over two decades, fully online colleges have become a major force in higher education. Moreover, online learning strategies have increasingly been integrated into the array of course offerings at traditional brick-and-mortar colleges. Hybrid learning strategies which combine some online and in-person education had also begun to permeate education at the elementary, middle- and high school levels, especially through tech-based charter schools.

According to the World Economic Forum, “Even before COVID-19, there was already high growth and adoption in education technology, with global edtech investments reaching US$18.66 billion in 2019 and the overall market for online education projected to reach $350 Billion by 2025.”

But these trends could not have foretold the events of 2020, in which a global pandemic forced American schools and universities into sudden closure, and consequently, presented students, families, and teachers with the very immediate impetus to dramatically scale up their adoption of online education.

According to Interactive Learning Environments, the “Covid-19 pandemic initiated digital transformation of higher education, and as a result of the crisis brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, novelties in higher education that would typically take many years because of differing managerial regulations were presented quickly within limited number of days (Strielkowski, 2020) and this has also turned the branding of online learning as disruptive process to a ‘messiah’ status.”

But researchers offer a clear distinction between the gradual adoption of online education which has occurred over the last two decades and, by contrast, the “emergency remote teaching” demanded by the COVID-19 crisis. While the former is a product of ongoing technological refinement and demonstrated use cases, the latter has been marked by an absence of planning, training, consistency, or infrastructure.

These conditions have also merged with a high degree of native skepticism amongst traditional teachers about the effectiveness of online education in general. Inside Higher Education points out that in the fall of 2019, just prior to the start of the pandemic, 46% of instructors had taught online or hybrid courses. However, among those surveyed, fewer than one third agreed that “online courses can achieve student learning outcomes at least equivalent to in-person courses.”

These conditions—steadily increasing adoption and lingering skepticism—offer some context for the mainstream status of online education just before the onset of “emergency remote teaching.”

To state it simply, we are fortunate to even have the option of emergency remote teaching—a utility, it bears repeating, which was not afforded to our historical counterparts during the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918. And yet, in our necessary haste, we have lurched fitfully into this new era under deeply compromised conditions. The result is that online education has seen momentous growth in its sphere of influence and, likewise, its shortcomings have become glaring and obvious.

It is impossible to criticize online education wholesale, both because it has been such a valuable instrument for even marginal educational continuity and because its implementation has been so wildly inconsistent across states and districts. But that doesn’t undo the enormous amount of work required to bring online education into this new era. To our view, the best way forward is to identify what is working, what requires improvement, and what negative realities currently stand in the way of this meaningful improvement. This informs our closer look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in this new era of online education.

The Good

Let’s start with the good news. Online education is immeasurably valuable today. Indeed, as we have been deprived of the traditional modes of in-person communication, connection, and contact, remote learning has proven itself nothing less than essential. And because online education now has several decades of evolution under its belt, outcomes are probably good in places where training, resources, and infrastructure exist, and where implementation is done right:

Online Students Retain Material Better

In spite of the skepticism shared by some educators, there is some proof that online education gets results. Students in fully online colleges have historically reported high levels of satisfaction well before the pandemic. And the World Economic Forum notes that many students learn with greater efficiency online than in person. On average, says the Forum, “students retain 25-60% more material when learning online compared to only 8-10% in a classroom. This is mostly due to the students being able to learn faster online; e-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they choose.” Those with access to well-curated online educational experiences have generally enjoyed positive educational outcomes.

Teachers Have an Improved Attitude Toward Online Education

While many traditional classroom teachers are quick to state their preference for in-person instruction, there is evidence that many teachers have become more receptive to, and optimistic about, online education. Inside Higher Education cites a survey from Every Learner Everywhere and Tyton Partners called “Time for Class COVID-19 Edition Part 2: Planning for a Fall Like No Other.” Researchers suggested that for many instructors, “their experience with remote learning last spring has enhanced their view of how they can use technology to improve their own teaching and to enable student learning. The proportion of instructors who see online learning as effective may still be just under half – 49 percent – but that’s up from 39 percent who said so in a similar survey in May.” Though borne out of pressure and necessity, recent events have improved acceptance on online education among educators.

Teacher Training is Getting Better

The most obvious and immediate challenge for schools and districts has been with training. The emergency circumstances that placed online education at the center of American schooling also revealed the far greater need both for digital literacy and direct training within new Learning Management Systems (LMS). With the passage of months, schools and districts with the resources to do so have adopted training programs, and in doing so, have helped to improve the mainstream penetration of digital literacy. According to Insider Higher Education, “Four in five instructors said they had participated in professional development for digital learning to prepare for this fall, with community college professors (86 percent) more likely than their peers at four-year colleges to say so. Two-year-college instructors were also likelier to say that they were required to participate in instructional professional development, by 40 percent compared to the average of 27 percent. More than half of instructors credited their institutions with providing sufficient training for the fall, compared to fewer than two in five who felt that way pre-COVID.” This is education that America’s instructors will carry with them into a post-pandemic era, one where online education is more coherently blended with traditional education strategies.

The Bad

Just as the value of online education has become self-apparent this year, so have the shortcomings in its application and implementation. The criticism below must, however, be contextualized. What follows is not a set of grievances with online education specifically, and instead is a recognition of the challenges that students and educators have faced in adopting online education in the midst of this pandemic.

Online Education Strategies Have Been Implemented Without Educational Infrastructure

The emergency circumstances surrounding the near total adoption of online education revealed that implementation takes far more than simply logging on and finding the mute button on your Zoom window. Far too many schools, it was revealed, had little to no preparation in place for such events. Many schools had neither invested in the resources to facilitate online education, nor did their initial rollout draw any connection between implementation and the actual, individual needs of students. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “research on homeschooling shows that it works well for students for whom intentional, personalized, and sufficient resources are available. The crisis-induced delivery of homeschooling without time for planning around children’s learning styles and circumstances means that many children homeschooled during the pandemic are not replicating such model and thus not reaping the associated benefits.” While most schools logged on, far too many schools lacked the wherewithal to provide a meaningful educational experience. Without the proper infrastructure in place, many schools have been unable to replicate the personal attention, support, or intervention that so many students require.

Low Digital Competency Impacts Both Teacher and Student Performance

Given little to no time for preparation, students and instructors alike were cast into the virtual space for all their learning and teaching needs. But there exists an extremely wide variance of capabilities within this space. Digital competency varies according to a wide range of factors including age, socioeconomic status, geography, and even mere personal preference. The pandemic allowed no opportunity to level the digital playing field for those who have lagged behind for any number of reasons. According to a study in Interactive Learning Environments, research demonstrates that, for higher education learners, digital competence is positively correlated to the ability to access and use online content such as digital libraries and Learning Management Systems. However, digital competency is, itself, highly variable among students and instructors. In the face of the pandemic, those with lower digital competency have inevitably experienced greater discontent, disorientation, and declining performance with the sudden shift to online education. This has often been the case even for students who are otherwise competent learners.

Online Education Creates Many More Variables That Can Disrupt Learning

As if life in 2020 wasn’t quite disruptive enough, our experience with online education has itself been marked by fits and starts. As the article in Interactive Learning Environments notes, and as we’ve all learned over the last year, “the unexpected appearance or interruption of family members, friends and or pets…may cause disruption or diversion of online learning participants’ attention during the online teaching and learning process.” Of course, the occasional curious kitty or waving toddler can be entertaining, but less entertaining are interruptions caused by downed internet connections, buggy application performance, or power outages. All of these are natural hazards in a time when we are completely dependent on the resources available in our homes. These disruptions are inherent drawbacks of the online learning landscape, but they are hazards which we must largely learn to navigate and tolerate.

The Ugly

While some of the shortcomings in the current state of online education are readily attributable to the urgency of the pandemic and the absence of any true opportunity for preparation, it is also true that the dramatic unevenness of our collective response has only intensified already deeply ingrained inequalities in education. The ugly truths about education in America have been made uglier by the pandemic. The imbalance of resources, access, opportunity, training, and infrastructure is highly tethered to racial, regional, and socioeconomic inequalities. These are not as easily corrected as are the flaws revealed by a haphazard and decentralized roll-out. By carrying long-standing inequalities into online education, we risk intensifying their impact and widening the achievement gap.

Access to Online Learning Technology is Highly Correlated with Socioeconomic Status

While the move to online education was a manageable jump for many schools and colleges, the effectiveness of implementation remains highly variable. It is well-established that schools with larger at-risk populations, and especially schools in communities of color, have lesser access to quality instruction, technology, facilities, and resources. In the midst of the pandemic, online education has become just one more marker of this inequality. According to the World Economic Forum, “in the US, there is a significant gap between those from privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds: whilst virtually all 15-year-olds from a privileged background said they had a computer to work on, nearly 25% of those from disadvantaged backgrounds did not.” In addition to lacking access to working computers or internet connections, many disadvantaged students lack the most fundamental access to a safe and healthy home life. This, in turn, has amounted to the absence of a safe and healthy learning environment during the pandemic.

At-Risk Students are Falling Through the Cracks in Online Education

The gap in access to resources is directly connected to a worsening education crisis for students from already disadvantaged and at-risk backgrounds. Indicators show that students in these contexts are experiencing a sharp decline in preparation and performance after nearly a year of life in the pandemic. USA Today reports that “in high-poverty schools, 1 in 3 teachers report their students are significantly less prepared for grade-level work this year compared with last year, according to a report by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research institution. Class failure rates have skyrocketed in school systems from Fairfax County, Virginia, to Greenville, South Carolina. Fewer kindergarteners met early literacy targets in Washington, D.C., this fall. And math achievement has dropped nationwide, according to a report that examined scores from 4.4 million elementary and middle school students.” It’s difficult to say how and when these drop-offs may be corrected, especially as they reveal a rapid acceleration of trends which are already deeply ingrained in our educational system.

Moreover, USA Today reports that, in the absence of in-class education, schools with disadvantaged populations are seeing a frightening decline in their capacity to track the whereabouts of at-risk students. “Tens of thousands of children are unaccounted for altogether,” says USA Today. “Hillsborough County, Florida, started the year missing more than 7,000 students. Los Angeles saw kindergarten enrollment drop by about 6,000. There’s scant data about missing students’ progress, of course, but few presume they’re charging ahead academically.”

Students with Special Needs Lack the Critical Support Services Available Through In-Person Instruction

Other populations which have been overlooked include “Children with disabilities and those learning English [who] have particularly struggled in the absence of in-class instruction. Many of those students were already lagging academically before the pandemic. Now, they’re even further behind – with time running out to meet key academic benchmarks.” While there are many ways to provide direct support to these populations through online education, the haphazard and decentralized roll-out of emergency remote learning has often relegated students with specialized need to secondary consideration. This oversight means that many students who have previously benefited from in-class support structures are suddenly left to their own resources in navigating online education.

Conclusion

At the time of writing, we have collectively experienced a year of life under the pandemic. A great many educational institutions have come to recognize that the initial state of “emergency remote teaching” must give way to a concerted and centralized online education strategy. Training, planning, and infrastructure are required if online education is to be more than a mere band-aid on a deeply wounded system of education. Likewise, disadvantaged communities require a tremendous investment of resources—in terms of training, technology, and support—in order to not fall even further behind as online education takes on a more consequential role in mainstream education.

The pandemic has proven that this system of in-person schooling that we’ve spent more than a century building can be taken away from us in mere days. Students writing book reports, studying for finals, approaching graduation, and preparing for campus life saw these things abruptly and dramatically transformed. Online education was our life raft, and while it could not restore normalcy, it proved necessary.

The proof of that necessity is greater than a single moment, or even a year at the mercy of COVID-19. Instead, the pandemic provided the inflection point that made the necessity of online education incontrovertible. Consequently, we as a whole nation are charged with the duty of creating a centralized approach to planning, training, establishment of infrastructure, and distribution of resources around online education, not so that it can supplant in-class education, but so there will never again be a chaotic moment of emergency remote teaching like the one we’ve just experienced.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) points out that “Major world events are often an inflection point for rapid innovation – a clear example is the rise of e-commerce post-SARS. While we have yet to see whether this will apply to e-learning post-COVID-19, it is one of the few sectors where investment has not dried up. What has been made clear through this pandemic is the importance of disseminating knowledge across borders, companies, and all parts of society. If online learning technology can play a role here, it is incumbent upon all of us to explore its full potential.”

This full potential includes treating online education not as a last resort, but as a failsafe so that we can never be deprived of our connection, communication, and contact again, and so that every student and family, in every community and learning context, has access to the very same technology, the same quality of instruction, and the same support services. The pandemic has proven that every student and teacher needs access to technical training and experience in online education, and that this training and experience should be built outside the anxious and urgent context of a pandemic.

The EPI notes that “a lack of contingency planning exacerbates the negative impacts of recessions, natural disasters, and pandemics on learning. Contingency planning thus needs to be institutionalized and include emergency funding to replenish the resources drained during emergencies.”

We are now armed with a year of knowledge and experience, so we understand how essential online education is but also how many obstacles, both practical and institutional, have stood in the way of its performance in the shadow of crisis. As we do eventually emerge from this pandemic, we must do so with a meaningful and coordinated online education strategy, one that prepares us for the next time, because there will be a next time.