online learning

Potential unfulfilled: COVID-19, the rapid adoption of online learning, and what could be unlocked this year

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June 22, 2021
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After the COVID-19 pandemic forced school buildings to close, online learning became a lifeline for K–12 education. It let schools carry on in “the cloud” when they couldn’t meet in person. But online learning’s potential benefits for K–12 go well beyond providing stop-gap solutions during school closures. It offers an opportunity to transform school instruction to better serve the needs of all students.

The foundational tenets of conventional instruction hinge on uniformity and compliance. Schools and classrooms, by and large, need students to conform to a common set of requirements in order for cohort-based learning to work. Unfortunately, nearly all students struggle to one degree or another to fit conventional instruction’s norms.

For example, conventional instruction requires students to show up to school ready to learn at times dictated by the school schedule, but for some students, life gets in the way. Conventional instruction moves all students through content at a uniform pace, but not all students master content in the time allotted. And 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. Fortunately, online learning offers the ability to replace many of these systemic rigidities with greater adaptability to students’ needs.

To learn from the unparalleled mass adoption of online learning, the Christensen Institute is conducting a series of nationally representative surveys during the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years that document the programs, technologies, and instructional practices schools and educators turn to as they grapple with the effects of COVID-19. Our aim is to learn not just how educators use online learning, but whether online learning leads to the benefits we have long documented in our blended learning research. In this brief, we share some of our initial insights from 1,042 teacher responses collected in April and May of 2021.

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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.