#85 – Online Learning: What People Think It Is, What It Actually Is, and What It Can Be

Unpacking Education March 30, 2022 41 min

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a tidal wave of emergency online teaching and learning across the United States. Schools and teachers did their very best to implement a learning system to keep students engaged and moving forward in school, even though they had little or no preparation for this transition. This sudden exposure to distance learning has simultaneously increased people’s awareness of online learning, given them some insights into what it is like to learn online, and led to misconceptions about what an intentional and well-planned online learning program can look like.

In this episode, we are joined by Jeff Plaman—the Online and Digital Learning Specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education—and we dive into this topic of online learning. We explore the current status of online learning programs, discuss some misconceptions, and consider the potential benefits of a well-constructed online program.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

They cannot stop me. I will get my education—if it is in home, school, or anyplace.

Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani female education advocate and Nobel Peace Prize recipient

The Quest to Understanding and Improving Online Learning

In many ways, online learning is still in its infancy. Platforms, tools, structures, and practices continually evolve as we learn more about what works best for student learning. Because of the fast pace of change, there is still a deficit of quality academic, peer-reviewed research to guide our next moves. Because of that, schools must rely heavily on the experiences of those who have lived in the world of online learning—their successes and their failures. We must also listen to our students and other key stakeholders and constantly ask the questions that will move us forward in an informed and intentional way.

During our conversation, we seek to better understand both the current landscape of online learning and where it can potentially lead us in the future. Listed below are a few key takeaways from our discussion:

  • The Current State of Online Learning: Online learning is not new, and it was steadily growing in popularity even before the pandemic. Programs have been in place for both comprehensive (full-time) and supplemental (part-time) enrollment options for years. Supplemental programs have traditionally been used to provide additional course options to students, and all types of online programs have also been used for credit recovery.
  • Impact of the Pandemic: There has been a significant surge in online learning since the start of the pandemic. In Minnesota, for example, enrollment is up 90% from March 2020. Demographics are shifting, too, with more students of color enrolling in online programs. The increased exposure to online learning has also prompted more questions from key stakeholders: Will enrollment and demographic shifts stick in the long term? Will online learning and the investment in these programs be sustainable? How many of the new online providers will still be around in 3 to 5 years? Perhaps most importantly, how can we be more flexible, and how can we best meet the needs of every student?
  • Struggles and Challenges: First, let’s assume that the motivation for online learning is to do what is best for kids because that must come first. In that context, a lack of resources—such as time, money, and people—must be addressed. Getting the right people in the right places is key. Secondly, we need more peer-reviewed academic research and studies into what effective practice in online learning is. Third, we need to make sure that progress toward online learning is intentional and well guided. We must know why we are doing it, and then we must use our resources purposefully toward achieving that clear goal.
  • Benefits: To address this topic, Jeff shared student survey data. The top two reasons that students say they enroll in online education are: “It’s a better fit for how I learn” and “Online learning lets me avoid uncomfortable social settings like bullying and drama.” In general terms, online learning has provided students and families with options to find a program that best fits their personal and individual needs.
  • Role for Marginalized Students: Studies have shown a higher proportion of LGBTQ+ students enrolling in online schools. We need to make sure that online schools become a safe and inclusive place for them, while not just being a place to hide. As Jeff says, we need to “make sure every online student has the opportunity to thrive as their authentic, beautiful selves and form real relationships with peers and adults in their schools as they’re ready to do so.” As in brick-and-mortar schools, relationships are foundational in achieving this goal.
  • The Future of Online Learning: We first need to acknowledge that online life is real life, and that extends to education, too. We can’t, and shouldn’t, separate online and offline experiences. Online relationships are real. In fact, people meet online every day, and those meetings often lead to long and lasting positive relationships. We then need to identify what aspects of each learning modality best serve which students. In that context, we must leverage the benefits of both online and offline learning. In many cases, this means integrating the two modalities. Finally, we must be intentional about what we do, both in designing online learning experiences and in empowering students with the skills necessary to thrive in this setting.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your teaching team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What is your current understanding of, and experience with, online learning?
  • How has the pandemic impacted online learning in your classroom, school, or district?
  • What struggles or challenges do you see with effectively implementing online learning?
  • What benefits can online learning provide?
  • What role does online learning play for marginalized students?
  • How would you describe the ideal online learning experience or program?
  • What questions do you want to answer in order to continue moving toward a better online learning experience?

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