What Students Are Doing Is Remote Learning, Not Online Learning. There’s a Difference.

Apr 02, 2020

Having worked at the intersection of education and technology for over 20 years, I never would have predicted that the first excitement at home over learning online would be the result of a teacher yelling at my 5th grader to stop using Zoom’s virtual background function to turn his shirt into a forest fire. But I never would have predicted much of what’s happened over the past month, including that my non-French speaking neighbors would be tossing around French phrases like cordon sanitaire as though they were Charles Baudelaire holding a baguette, or Andre the Giant with a glass of Bordeaux.

Around the world, the media is touting an online learning “revolution” as hundreds of millions of students from kindergarten through grad school now learn virtually, including over 70 million in the U.S. alone. The World Economic Forum sees a silver lining in the dark COVID-19 cloud, citing it as a “catalyst” that could finally change “centuries-old, lecture-based approaches to teaching, entrenched institutional biases, and outmoded classrooms.” Or as one school superintendent reportedly said, “This was a nice, swift kick in the ass to get out there and innovate.”

There’s no question that virtual classroom discussions can approximate classroom discussions. Around the world, some are even producing the kind of learning moments, with focus and insights, that you’d see in sizzle reels for super expensive elite schools. As Yaffa Segal of New Rochelle High School told The New York Times:

“The conversation was explosive. Differing opinions flew left and right… I relished… the opportunity to argue and challenge their opinions. I didn’t even realize how isolated I was feeling until I was able to talk to them in a creative and intellectual setting once again.”

At the same time, what millions of students and their families are experiencing is also leading to a great deal of frustration, prompting a now-viral rant from one Israeli mom:

“Listen, it’s not working, this distance learning thing. Seriously – it’s impossible… The music teacher of my youngest sent over a musical score this morning. What am I going to do with that information? What, have I got some band in the house? I can’t read music! Just one second, let me pull out my clarinet and help my son with his score… I go from one child to the other. Here’s science, here’s math… How am I supposed to know how to transform an improper fraction… If we don’t die of coronavirus, we’ll die of distance learning.”

At home, the limits of Zoom class became clear when my 8th grader told me of students who are recording themselves sitting at their desk, and then playing that video as their virtual background for subsequent classes. Then there are all the distractions, like dogs, family members, students attending class from bed, and even offensive “Zoombombing” content. Michigan’s Department of Education acknowledged as much last week when it announced that Zoom time couldn’t count toward required annual instructional hours for K-12 public schools.

What millions of students around the world are experiencing right now on Zoom and other conferencing platforms is not online learning, but rather remote learning. Susan Grajek of Educause, the association of education technologists, distinguishes remote learning from “well-considered, durable online learning.” Remote learning, she said, is a “quick, ad hoc, low-fidelity mitigation strategy.”

Nathan Ecelbarger, founder and CEO of Freedom Learning Group (FLG), a leading instructional design services firm that primarily employs veterans and military spouses, describes a well-designed online courses as one that:

  1. prioritizes engagement by utilizing real-world, recent topics and case studies to stir discussion and even emotion, while incorporating interactivity and immediate measurable achievement;
  2. makes organization and navigation easy, removing unnecessary steps and clicks that don’t contribute anything to learning;
  3. rethinks assessment by encouraging research and original thinking instead of memorization; and
  4. always answers the “what’s in it for me” question for students by building intentional learning experiences and getting straight to the point.

These days—and particularly in this new economy—answering the “what’s in it for me” question often means prioritizing a good first (or next) job for college students. Incorporating digital credentials to make students’ skills visible to employers, and bringing real-work experience from employers into coursework, can go a long way to improving student outcomes. You won’t find any of this in a Zoom classroom.

While few online courses live up to these exacting standards, all use some modicum of instructional design. But nearly all are asynchronous and sometimes self-paced—primarily for the convenience of students, instructors, and institutions. And it’s as a result of this kludgy, asynchronous form that online courses, as we’ve known them over the past 20 years, invariably attempt to ape the classroom’s holy trinity: the lesson, the discussion and the assignment. Faithfully replicating these elements—the lecture in written or video form, the discussion via a discussion board, and a written assignment—has been highly limiting for online learning, particularly because some of these elements translate poorly to phones where online learning is now often consumed.

Asynchronous online courses are also notorious for low completion rates. This is primarily because it’s impossible to control student focus and behavior in such an environment. No matter how well designed, at any time during such a course, students have the choice to open a new app or browser or put the phone down.

So while remote learning has a long way to go in terms of incorporating principles of instructional design to improve student outcomes (and preserve parent sanity), online learning can learn from the experience of hundreds of millions of students who are suddenly endeavoring to learn remotely and synchronously. There is no legitimate educational reason why every online course should not include regular—somewhere between daily and weekly—synchronous classes with instructors and students. (2U, the online provider chosen by the crème de la crème of American universities, insists on synchronous sessions at least weekly.)

In so doing, instructional designers should be inspired by the explosive conversations and forest fires currently breaking out across thousands of Zoom classrooms, stop worrying about legitimacy, and break free from the strictures that have limited both innovation and effectiveness.

Will combining the best of remote learning and online learning rival a quality classroom experience? Magic 8-Ball says no. But it will be a lot better than virtually all of the learning currently conducted over the internet.


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