Not So Fast: K-12 Schools Should Slow Pace Towards Online Learning

By Erica DeCuir, Ph.D.; Associate Professor; Albany State University School of Education

The COVID effect on K-12 schools intensified a troubling shift towards online teaching and learning for both students attending class in person and those who are still distance learning. Online learning is favorable as a form of instructional technology to better engage 21st century learners. In synchronous online instruction, students participate in a livestreamed class lecture and complete assigned tasks in an online learning platform. In asynchronous online instruction, students watch pre-recorded lectures and instructional videos. They complete lessons individually, often at a self-directed pace, and submit assigned tasks to an online learning platform. In both formats, nearly all instructional delivery occurs behind a computer screen. Teachers talk. Students sit, watch, and listen. 

Online learning is trending in all schools post-COVID, whether traditional, virtual, or hybrid. According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, 80% of households with school-age children were using online resources for student learning. High-income households reported higher rates of online learning (85.8%) compared to low-income households (65.8%). This disparity is fueling a “digital divide” debate in policy circles, in which low-income children and Black and Hispanic children are more likely to lack access to computer devices or internet services just as more schools shift to online learning. What makes this debate so appealing to policy advocates is the guise of equitable access to high-quality learning through equitable access to technology for online learning. 

But a computer is only a tool for teaching, not an actual teacher. It can provide access to information and global connectivity, but it cannot teach a child to read or write. Certainly, basic skills can be practiced or reinforced online, but learning to read and write well requires a gifted teacher. Popular learning theories indicate that we learn new knowledge by relating it to previous knowledge. And to retain the new knowledge, we must experience it in a real-life context that has meaning to us. Teachers do this by making curriculum relevant to their students and by creating instructional activities that offer real, tangible experiences for students to apply their knowledge in a meaningful way. Learning is a social activity; learning and language are interconnected. 

Online learning formats devalue the socialization of learning, leaving many students struggling to figure it out on their own. A recent study comparing student achievement in online versus traditional charter schools found students “experienced large, negative effects on mathematics and English/language arts achievement that persisted over time and that these effects could not be explained by observed teacher or classroom characteristics.” Middle and high-income families are able to minimize negative effects of online learning through tutors or learning pods that provide supplemental instruction with an actual teacher. For poorer students, the financial burden of hiring a tutor or losing parental income to a participate in a learning pod is too much to bear. In a 2020 study of Zearn, a math application used for online instruction, researchers found that low-income students showed large decreasing gains in math achievement on the software as COVID forced all schools in virtual education. High-income students saw small decreasing gains in math, but for low-income students the decrease was astronomical in many states across the country. Clearly, mere access to computer technology is only one battle in the fight for educational equity. 

Online learning should be viewed as a short-term solution to closed campuses in the wake of the COVID pandemic. It provides the benefit of convenient, accessible instruction regardless of time and location. It can track student performance efficiently, and expand the volume of instructional resources for student support. But, it should not replace actual teaching and learning in a post-COVID classroom context, when most students will return to physical buildings for classroom instruction. Learning occurs through language and real, tangible social connections to curriculum. This is where online learning falls short. 

1 US Census Study

2 Study on Digital Divide

3 Constructivism

4 Charter school Study