The use of Internet-based distance learning has become commonplace among for-profit colleges and at traditional universities, with most programs focusing on older, non-traditional students who are seeking a degree while balancing other work/life commitments. With the mass closings of K-12 schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic, distance-based learning is now being deployed at the primary school level to ensure students remain engaged and educated.
Schools have taken myriad approaches to using technology to provide education and instruction to K-12 students, beginning with acquiring and distributing technology hardware to students who don't have access to a laptop or tablet, as well as working with Internet providers to ensure students can access the Web from home via free accounts.
Anecdotal reports of teachers holding real-time instructional lessons via videoconferencing links, or utilizing online learning platforms from Google Education, Moodle, or via Office 365, seem to indicate that educators are doing their best to ensure children are receiving some degree of instruction. However, because of the rapid escalation of the COVID-19 outbreak, few school districts had developed specific plans in advance for solely using distance-based education; those districts that had previously used online tools had a head start.
Dearborn Public Schools, a district serving roughly 20,000 K-12 students in Michigan, has used the open-source Moodle Learning Management System (LMS), for the past 10 years, to provide a number of learning tools and aids to teachers in the district, from integrated classroom blogs written by each teacher, to video-based classroom lectures hosted in BigBlueButton, a videoconferencing solution that is geared toward classroom-like interactions. BigBlueButton resides on Dearborn's own servers and is being made available only to district students, making it more secure against hackers compared with commercial videoconferencing applications such as Zoom.
As the COVID-19 pandemic escalated, many of the teachers who had taken the time to learn how to create and integrate classroom material for use in open-source learning platform Moodle were able to more easily transition to a distance-only learning environment, says Christopher Kenniburg, webmaster at Dearborn Public Schools. "The teachers that have taken the time to actually learn the LMS, they're sitting quite comfortably right now, because much of their coursework and many of the materials that they need the students to engage with, it's all been done and it's there for them to use," Kenniburg says. "Part of the benefit to working in a blended learning environment is that the learning can happen asynchronously, and the teacher is doing more facilitating than needing to have direct contact with the student."
Other schools also are integrating technology quickly into the classroom, such as the Campus Laboratory School of Carlow University, a K-8 private school located in Pittsburgh, PA. The school uses Google's G Suite for Education, and rolled out Google Classroom to all students in grades 3 through 8, incorporating a variety of different methods for learning, according to Head of School Jessica Webster.
"In our upper grades, each content area has its own [Google] classroom for each grade level," Webster says. "We have teachers that are incorporating things such as Khan Academy lessons and IXL personalized learning opportunities for kids." Webster says that, depending on the teacher and subject area, the specific tactics for checking in with students to measure progress will vary.
"We have some teachers that are doing weekly assignments, where the kids have all week to complete them," Webster says. Other teachers may check in every day or two or three times a week, she notes, while school subjects that require more direct instruction, such as math, may be handled via Zoom video technology. "So far, it's been a really positive experience; we've gotten a lot of positive feedback from parents saying how much they appreciate that the [academic] rigor hasn't diminished online."
Clearly, the sheer number of children being forced to learn from home likely will cause many districts to develop distance-learning plans for the future. However, there are also benefits to incorporating distance-based approaches in concert with traditional classroom teaching, particularly for students with special needs. "Children with learning disabilities, developmental delays, and special needs require some level of individualized support no matter the learning platform," says Annie George-Puskar, assistant professor in the Curriculum and Teaching program at Fordham University's Graduate School of Education. "The best student outcomes come when practitioners develop a dynamic online learning environment that is customized to their specific student needs, coupled with individual follow-up and support."
To date, there is little research on the effectiveness of online education, particularly at the elementary school level, and few studies actually compare randomly assigned students to one modality or another. That said, a 2017 study of online Ohio charter schools conducted by June Ahn, an associate professor of learning sciences and research-practice partnerships in the University of California, Irvine, School of Education, and Andrew McEachin of the RAND Corporation, found that "performance of students in e-schools is considerably lower than peers in traditional charter schools and traditional public schools."
The current environment has forced school administrators, teachers, and parents to at least consider how online or distance learning can be better integrated into the classroom so that the quality of education can be on-par with traditional education, in the event of another round of school closings.
"We will learn quickly through this crisis that online learning presents challenges, from creating the same level of community, to maintaining student focus, to checking the validity of a student's work," George-Puskar says. "I predict that not only will more schools, universities, and special education programs adopt online platforms, but that these platforms will get much better much faster."
NYSUT's "Continuity of Learning" Guidance for Educators During the COVID-19 Pandemic: https://www.nysut.org/resources/all-listing/research/fact-sheets/fact-sheet-continuity-of-learning-guidance-for-educators-during-covid-19
School Closings, by State: https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/map-coronavirus-and-school-closures.html
Ahn, J. and McEachin, A. "Student Enrollment Patterns and Achievement in Ohio's Online Charter Schools." Educational Researcher, (2017). Vol. 46 No. 1, pp. 44–57. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.3102/0013189X17692999
Keith Kirkpatrick is principal of 4K Research & Consulting, LLC, based in New York.