Given the speed with which teachers, some of whom had spent decades in front of a physical classroom, had to transition to all-remote learning with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s amazing that they — and their students — have done as well as they did. Now, 14 months later, as we move back to in-person classes or hybrid models of instruction, it’s time to take stock of exactly where education succeeded and where it could have done better.
The Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit research organization that promotes innovation in education, recently released a report detailing teachers’ and administrators’ experiences working with completely online learning over the past year. While many teachers have changed their approach to one more tailored to individual students’ needs, and while the vast majority indicted they’ve gained skills they’ll continue to use after the pandemic ends, the data reflect a more sobering situation. It’s what many online learning experts have been saying all along: the online learning that’s been offered doesn’t represent the best that such learning can be, and most teachers were underprepared for abruptly switching to a completely new instructional model. Yet, there are reasons to hope that more robust online learning will remain viable for schools in the long term.
The report reveals that many teachers have simply tried to re-create the physical classroom experience in an online environment, hosting long, whole-group videoconference calls and sharing documents in the learning management system (LMS); these practices go against the advice of online learning experts. In fact, just over 40% of teachers reported that their face-to-face time with students lasts about as long as a regular, in-person school day.
But while students were “in class” more or less the same amount of time, teachers indicated that their workloads have dramatically increased, with 85% saying they spend more time now than before the pandemic planning and preparing for the school day, including creating their own curriculum materials. It’s important to note that much of that additional time may include navigating and troubleshooting technology platforms, tracking down absent students, and developing new social-emotional learning activities to help students cope with the effects of our current health crisis. These all should improve over the coming months.
The Christensen Institute offers a couple of ideas to ease some of the largest burdens teachers are experiencing with online instruction.
- State education departments should review curriculum materials with an eye to which ones work best for online instruction. Those teachers comfortable with online and student-centered teaching should coach and lead training sessions for their struggling colleagues.
- Schools should establish virtual programs with autonomous staff that tap into the expertise and resources of their traditional school partners to “give students benefits that neither conventional schools nor virtual schools alone can offer.”
“We’ve seen the organizations that survive disruption and reinvent themselves, they start with an independent team building from a fresh slate, as opposed to a team that’s trying to build on a bunch of work they’re already doing,” comments Thomas Arnett, lead author of the Christensen Institute report.
The momentum for a path to online teaching is building. For example, the report indicates 69% of administrators say their schools currently offer their own full-time virtual programs, compared with only 27% before COVID-19. And 83% of teachers surveyed said they regularly teach online now, compared to 16% before the pandemic.
Many educators believe that the return to full-time, in-person teaching is coming, but they see the value of a hybrid teaching model — say 70% of the students in class with 30% participating remotely. As Arnett observed, “For some students, the conventional classroom works a lot better. For some, they’re seeing some real benefits to online learning.”
The population that most benefits from online learning is that which benefitted the least from traditional K-12 education: students of low socioeconomic status, those who live in remote areas, and, disproportionately, those of color. Many parents are tired of dealing with schools’ racial tensions and curriculum bias. Some say they feel empowered by remote learning, which has provided them with a new view into classroom instruction and curricular material they didn’t have before, as well as a new visibility with the educators and administrators.
Surely, there’s a lot of room for growth and development of educational models, but perhaps one benefit we can take away from the pandemic is that it’s forced us to think outside the box and adapt to new situations. That in itself is a great learning experience.
 Arnett, Thomas. (January 2021). “Breaking the Mold: How a global pandemic unlocks innovation in K–12 instruction.” The Christensen Institute. Retrieved from https://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/BL-Survey-1.07.21.pdf.
 Lieberman, Mark. (January 11, 2021). “How Online Teaching Needs to Improve — Even After the Pandemic.” Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/technology/how-online-teaching-needs-to-improve-even-after-the-pandemic/2021/01.
Herold, Benjamin. (January 7, 2021). “‘No Going Back’ from Remote and Hybrid Learning, Districts Say.” Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/technology/no-going-back-from-remote-and-hybrid-learning-districts-say/2021/01.