What COVID-19 Taught Us About Students and Digital Learning

by | Jul 14, 2020


It’s no secret that COVID-19 caught us all off guard and left most school leaders without a robust digital learning strategy when schools needed to close this spring. Although some students were able to complete assignments at home with the help of video meetings with their teachers, many students were left behind in the curriculum:

  • An estimated 14% of households with school-age children do not have reliable access to the internet. With most public libraries around the country closed for the last two months of the school year, these students would have had to complete printed versions of coursework in isolation without teacher support.
  • Minority students are even less likely to have a reliable internet connection. 37% of American Indian and Alaska Native children lack internet access, 19% of black children lack internet access, and 17% of Hispanic children lack internet access.
  • Over 7 million students nationwide have special needs and require additional supports from teachers. Without a comprehensive digital learning strategy, most teachers were unprepared to properly support these students during school closures.

Even without a national health crisis, many students often must miss school due to a lack of reliable transportation, extended illnesses, and other reasons. As we plan for the 2020-2021 school year, school leaders must develop a digital learning strategy which will engage students if and when they need to complete schoolwork remotely again.

Consider the following research findings as you incorporate engaging online learning into your 2020-2021 curriculum:

Evidence suggests students typically don’t perform as well in completely-online courses.

A 2017 Brookings report found that students who complete an online version of a course had significantly lower achievement than students who completed the face-to-face version. Additionally, students who are already falling behind in the curriculum tend to perform worse through online courses because they rely on extra supports offered in a classroom setting.

On the other hand, evidence suggests that learners “in blended courses appear to do about the same as those in fully face-to-face courses”. In a blended learning  course, students are able to complete some work online and some work in a traditional classroom setting.

A successful blended learning strategy formats lectures so students have plenty of opportunities to relearn challenging material.

Research from the Poverty Action Lab suggests schools should structure blended learning courses to offer natural breaks for struggling students to “catch up”. For example, your online courses may:

  • Include short lecture segments, lasting less than fifteen minutes each, so students can easily re-watch videos or re-read content if they didn’t absorb all the information the first time. Keep in mind that students have different accessibility needs; some may learn best through video demonstrations, through videos with captions, or through written transcripts of lessons.
  • Include short activities between segments to test student understanding of each concept or skill. If students answer questions incorrectly or aren’t able to complete an activity, the online course should reteach the concept and/or offer students the chance to work one-on-one with an educator before they move onto the next lecture segment.
  • Include step-by-step demonstrations to further illustrate specific course expectations. In a traditional classroom setting, teachers typically demonstrate how to work through problems with a white board or projector. They may also have the whole class work together on a problem before asking students to demonstrate their individual understanding or skills. Teachers can recreate this experience online through recorded videos and/or step-by-step images.

A successful blended learning strategy also prevents students from feeling isolated in their learning.

One of the most important benefits of a blended learning strategy is that virtual tools empower teachers to easily provide differentiated instruction. Students can usually move through the material at their own pace, and have the opportunity to re-learn challenging material, or further enrich their learning if they move through the initial material quickly.

However, blended learning can also isolate students if school leaders don’t build in collaborative communication tools. Virtual classroom tools can help students get the support they need from teachers and peers:

  • Google Classroom lets teachers develop their own courses (including slideshows, quizzes, and more) and moderate group discussions on the Stream page.
  • Canvas offers tools to develop scaffolded learning courses, and also provides a platform for discussion groups.
  • Zoom creates audiovisual meeting rooms where teachers can give live lectures, record and caption lecture videos, and even send students intobreakout roomsfor small group discussions.

Teachers need frequent, consistent, professional development to successfully carry out your school’s blended learning strategy.

Something else we learned from COVID-19 school closures is that educators have varying degrees of comfortability with educational technology. Even teachers who feel they have mastered online learning concepts may not be on the same page as the others at your school, which can result in students having to learn a new online system with each of their teachers.

The Center for Student Achievement Solutions can work alongside your school leaders to develop a custom blended learning strategy, and offer evidence-based professional development to help teachers seamlessly incorporate technology in their lesson plans. Schedule a free consultation call with us to learn more.