Harnessing the 5 benefits of online learning post-COVID

Online learning can help students overcome some of the challenges of traditional instruction
By: | July 8, 2021

Despite educators’ efforts best efforts, online learning hit some speedbumps during the COVID pandemic. But educators also know that online and hybrid learning have vast transformative potential beyond a rapid, stop-gap response to a historic crisis.

The massive, nationwide shift to remote learning revealed how many students struggle, to some degree, to fit the norms of conventional, cohort-based instruction, says Thomas Arnett, author of the Christensen Institute’s new “Potential Unfulfilled” report.

Conventional instruction requires students to learn during a strict school schedule and move through content at a uniform pace, Arnett writes, but students’ family responsibilities can get in the way while not all learners master content in the time allotted.

“Conventional instruction often obliges students to sit and work or sit and listen for large portions of the day, yet some students struggle to sit quietly for extended periods of time,” Arnett wrote. “Online learning offers the ability to replace many of these systemic rigidities with greater adaptability to students’ needs.”

More from DA: 5 solutions for fixing the flaws in online learning 

To help educators unlock online learning’s potential in the 2021-22 school year and beyond, Arnett gathered insights from more than 1,000 teachers this spring. Here are the highlights of their feedback on online learning’s potential:

  1. Potential benefit #1—Flexible timing: While a majority of teachers’ conducted synchronous online learning,  a sizable portion (20%) mixed in asynchronous instruction, allowing students to do their work anytime they have access to the internet and to catch up if they are absent or late.
  2. Potential benefit #2—Flexible pacing: About one-third of teachers allowed online students to move at their own pace in individual lessons or throughout an entire class. This allows teachers and learners to supplant “rigid semester and school year calendars,” which can be a challenge for some students.
  3. Potential benefit #3—Flexible learning pathway: About one-third of the teachers surveyed said they had used digital, adaptive platforms to better personalize lessons for students. This practice can accommodate how each student learns best, such as watching a YouTube video, doing practice problems on Khan Academy, or video-conferencing with their classmates.
  4. Potential benefit #4—New metrics of progress: Online learning should aid educators in shifting to mastery-based learning and away from the traditional A-F grading system. Though Arnett’s research showed mastery-based learning has not yet been widely adopted, he says it can better help students see a clear connection between their effort and their progress. “It also encourages students to see struggles and mistakes not as failures, but as valuable learning opportunities along the road to mastery,” Arnett says.
  5. Potential benefit #5—Expanded teacher capacity: Online learning may have an even bigger benefit in expanding the capacity of teachers by giving them more time to devote to building relationships with students, orchestrating deeper learning experiences and providing students with individual coaching and feedback.

The massive influx of federal relief funding provides an opportunity for schools to design instructional models that leverage the benefits of online learning, Arnett said. “Last year’s headaches were not the inherent product of online learning, but of the chaos of COVID-19 that led to poorly designed approaches to online learning,” Arnett said. “Unlocking online learning’s power to enable flexible instruction, mastery-based grading, and an expansion of teacher capacity requires more than just plugging technology into schools. It takes foresight, time, and strategic implementation to institute the shifts in practices that unlock the benefits of online learning.”

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