It goes without saying that schools, educators and students have confronted a number of instructional hurdles this past year. But will the forced adoption of online learning accelerate innovation in K-12 education and its transformation toward more student-centered learning? Results from a nationally representative survey research project I led in partnership with Bay View Analytics offer some answers.

Our survey collected responses from 596 U.S. K-12 teachers and 694 school and district administrators during October 2020. Though the data was collected last fall, the findings remain relevant as remote and hybrid learning arrangements continue into the new year.

Online learning has become the new normal in many schools. Among teachers surveyed, 83 percent reported that they were teaching either remotely (30 percent), or in a hybrid arrangement (53 percent) where some instruction happens in person and some is remote. Given the renewed rise in COVID-19 cases starting in November, these numbers likely lean even more toward remote learning now than they did when we conducted the survey.

We wanted to know, however, not just where students are learning, but what methods are used to instruct them. Accordingly, we asked teachers operating in remote and hybrid formats how much of their instruction was synchronous (i.e., live class meetings over video calls) versus asynchronous (i.e., via independent study materials and delayed communication such as email). Only a small portion of teachers (15 percent) reported that all remote instruction was asynchronous. On the other end of the spectrum, nearly half (42 percent) indicated that their version of remote learning resembled a conventional school day’s worth of synchronous instruction (i.e., teaching live from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. over Zoom, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams).

The remote learning that happened last spring demonstrated to many that asynchronous education doesn’t work. That approach unreasonably expected students and their families to manage most learning on their own and lacked the human element of face-to-face, real-time interaction.

Yet remote instruction that is almost entirely synchronous also has its shortcomings. When educators focus on replicating their tried-and-true classroom-based instruction over video calls, they miss out on opportunities to leverage technology for student-centered learning.

A mix of asynchronous and synchronous online learning, when executed effectively, can have important benefits for students. For example, with on-demand online resources, students don’t have to miss out on learning when life happens — doctor’s appointments, family emergencies, plain old bad days — and teachers don’t have to work double time to catch them up. If a student doesn’t understand something the first time it’s explained, online learning resources are easy to replay, review and supplement. Software can give students immediate feedback when practicing basic skills online, like solving math problems, learning rules of grammar or structuring the first draft of an essay.

Most importantly, asynchronous online learning can unlock new possibilities for how teachers support their students during face-to-face time. With online materials to cover basic content and skills, teachers are freed to focus on learning activities that both enrich and deepen understanding through personal interactions with students such as workshops, discussions, projects and tutoring. Online learning can also help make the logistics of mastery-based learning more workable, enabling teachers to move beyond having to teach to the middle and then dole out grades that rank and sort students.

Unfortunately, the heavy reliance on synchronous instruction revealed in our survey data suggests that much of pandemic-era education is falling short of its potential. Instead of bemoaning the shortcomings of distance learning, educators and families should focus this year on figuring out how to leverage the best of what online learning resources and face-to-face learning experiences each have to offer.

Our survey results also reveal a curriculum gap that is closely connected with the unfulfilled potential of online learning. Pre-pandemic research shows that quality curricula can make a big difference in supporting student learning. Yet our findings suggest that most teachers don’t have high-quality materials well-suited to their current circumstances. When we asked teachers about their primary source for materials, their top responses were “materials I develop”; “commercial curriculum designed for classroom-based instruction”; and “various resources collated from online sources.” Only 3 percent of teachers said they use “commercial curriculum designed for remote instruction” as their primary source. Furthermore, administrators’ decisions and expectations seem to reinforce teachers’ experiences: 87 percent of administrators surveyed said they expect their educators to use materials that the teachers themselves develop.

Unfortunately, when teachers’ primary curricula come from materials they have to create, adapt and curate, that activity has a cost. A large majority of teachers (84 percent) indicated that they spend more time on preparation and planning now than they did last year. This is time teachers can’t devote to connecting personally with students and their families or learning best practices for online student-centered learning.

At face value, the obvious recommendation here is for schools and districts to purchase high-quality online learning materials for their teachers. However, part of the problem seems to stem from holes in the online curriculum market. When we asked administrators about the factors that influenced their offerings this fall, the second-most-cited factor, selected by 60 percent of respondents, was “quality of technology and programs available for purchase.”

It’s worth noting that materials designed for online instruction have been available for years from providers such as Edgenuity, Edmentum, Fuel Education, FLVS, ALEKS and Connections Academy. But these brands are likely not well known to administrators accustomed to vetting print-based curriculum. Furthermore, there’s no independent source like EdReports to help sort the wheat from the chaff in the online curriculum market.

Although heavy doses of synchronous instruction with DIY materials dominated the K-12 distance learning experience last fall, one trend in our survey data suggests potentially positive shifts toward student-centered learning. A large majority of teachers (79 percent) reported that they’ve discovered new resources or practices that they plan to continue using after the pandemic. Many noted tools for creating their own online lesson materials (such as PearDeck, Flipgrid, and EdPuzzle) and for managing online content and assignments (such as Google Classroom).

Teachers’ adoption of these online learning resources does not guarantee that online instruction becomes student-centered. Nonetheless, teachers’ growing familiarity with these resources makes the shift to student-centered practices much easier. Here’s how that shift can unfold:

At first, most teachers will likely use online instruction tools to improve how they deliver lessons over live video — for example, adding visuals, administering online quizzes and distributing assignment materials online. But once they have their homemade lessons and materials in a digital format, it isn’t hard to record and post those resources so students who are absent or who need extra review can access them. Then, with materials available on demand, teachers are just one small step away from flipping their instruction: reserving face-to-face time for discussions, practice problems or collaboration on projects while directing students to learn foundational content by watching lessons on their own. Further, when lessons and activities are posted online, individually paced and mastery-based learning is much more manageable.

In sum, our survey data show that it’s going to take more than a massive shift to remote, online instruction for student-centered practices to become widespread. As many students’ experiences with remote learning attest, online learning is not inherently student-centered. Unfortunately, if teachers, students, parents and leaders take last year’s average experience as proof that online learning doesn’t work, they’ll be throwing out the baby with the bath water.

When schools can go back to normal, many families and educators may be eager to say good riddance to online learning and run back to the status quo. But it’s encouraging to see educators discovering ways to use online learning to make their instruction far more student-centered today and into the future.

This post first appeared in The 74 Million.


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    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.