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Distance learning: Let’s not reinvent the wheel


Apr 21, 2020

Amidst the sea of chaos brought on by COVID-19, while most schools are having to hoist new sails in uncharted waters, a handful of others have been able to more or less stay the course. Before the pandemic began, approximately 375,000 of America’s 56 million K–12 students already attended school online full-time. The schools serving these students have years of experience with distance learning—decades in some cases. Of course, these schools too are facing added challenges of serving families strained by unemployment, illness, or added stress and anxiety, and in many cases, educators are having to juggle teaching with tending to their own children at home. But when it comes to the core elements of instruction, “social distancing” and “shelter in place” have meant more or less business as usual for online schools. So what can brick-and-mortar schools learn from them?

Virtual schooling in context

Historically, online schools haven’t been seen as the bastions of quality in the public education landscape. According to a 2015 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, virtual charter schools—a major subset of the state, district, and charter online school landscape—perform worse than comparison schools in 67% of cases. 

In fairness, however, online schools do not exist because they outperform conventional schools. Rather, demand for online schools comes mainly from students whose needs go beyond what conventional schools can offer: students who are homebound for medical reasons; students who drop out of conventional schools due to personal challenges; students who flee conventional schools to escape bullying; or aspiring artists and athletes who need a way to keep up their schooling while pursuing their passions. These students’ circumstances make them “nonusers” of brick-and-mortar schools. In response, online schools have developed unique strengths when it comes to facilitating distance instruction, customizing students’ learning and integrating with students’ home lives.

Learning from online schools

Now, as brick-and-mortar schools across the country face up to a global pandemic, they find themselves in a situation where all their students are suddenly the types of “nonusers” that online schools aim to serve. Faced with this reality, some worry that online schools will swoop in to nab enrollments and funding. Yet it’s unlikely that this will happen to the extent some fear. State funding mechanisms, semester-based schedules, and capacity limits, by and large, constrain online schools from taking on large numbers of new students short term. 

Unfortunately, focusing on turf wars over enrollment obscures the opportunity for brick-and-mortar schools to learn best practices from their online cousins. Online schools have spent years honing their expertise at working with the limitations of purely virtual interaction. Conventional schools would be wise not to reinvent the remote learning wheel.

Where can conventional schools go to learn from their online counterparts? 

  • The Wisconsin Digital Learning Collaborative (WDLC) homepage features a Remote Instruction Checklist and has teacher, parent, and student online learning guides. 
  • Montana’s state virtual school has a great one-page guide on the pros and cons of various distance learning approaches. 
  • Connections Academy and K12 Inc., two companies that run virtual schools across the country, have web pages for helping brick and mortar schools set up distance learning during the pandemic. 
  • The Idaho Digital Learning Alliance and K12 Inc. offer free webinars on practical topics related to online teaching, such as student motivation, classroom management, and supporting all learners through virtual learning. 
  • The Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance, an association of state virtual schools, has a page on its website that points to resources from its members for helping with distance learning during COVID-19 school closures. 

Additionally, school districts might consider working with organizations such as ASU Prep Digital, VHS Learning, Fuel Education, Pearson Online and Blended Learning, and Edgenuity that specialize in helping districts set up online programs. 

Building in-house expertise in online learning

Looking to the long term, school districts should consider building their own online learning programs as a way to fortify their readiness for school closures. 

In normal times, such programs expand a district’s capacity to serve its students: They provide “a la carte” electives that the district might not otherwise offer. They give students additional access to learning experiences that might not fit in their on-campus schedules. They provide options that attract some homeschool families. Most importantly, they engage students whose life circumstances otherwise preclude them from brick-and-mortar school—such as those described above. 

In times of crisis—be those due to pandemics, hurricanes, floods, blizzards, or other unforeseeable emergencies—a district’s online learning program can make the transition to full-time distance learning much easier. Districts with online learning programs have the infrastructure for distance learning ready to go. Furthermore, if a district encourages most teachers to teach online at least part of the time during normal times, those teachers have the skills to quickly move all learning online when needed. To help districts launch their own online schools, the Digital Learning Collaborative offers valuable guides on starting, growing, and improving digital learning programs.

Right now, there is a glut of websites and lists aimed to help schools shift to remote learning. But in many cases, these resources reveal the blind leading the blind: people without expertise in online learning quickly cobbling together off-the-cuff and unproven ideas. In times like these, districts should seek to learn from those with the most experience navigating distance learning.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.