The head of the Digital Age Learning and Educational Technology (DALET) program at the Johns Hopkins School of Education considers the future of online learning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you were to consider the job title aloneÑfaculty lead of the Digital Age Learning and Educational Technology programÑyou might imagine its holder to be an outright champion of online learning. But Assistant Professor James Diamond, the present holder of that title at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, has some sobering news.
“I’m a skeptic,” Diamond says. “But I’m also a cautious optimist.”
He says his skepticism is born from knowledge of the research literature on the fortunes of online learning to date. Diamond says that K-12 online learning, in the form of individual courses and virtual schools, has been around long enough for researchers to have some understanding of its strengths and weaknesses.
“The research has generally not been positive,” Diamond says. “Though there hasn’t been a lot of rigorous research in this area, we know that, when compared to face-to-face counterparts, online KÐ12 courses typically aren’t as effective in terms of student outcomes.” He also noted the high turnover rates of fully online learning programs.
“There’s a reason fully online, virtual schools only represent a very small percentage of students nationally. The kids don’t necessarily perform as well as their peers in brick-and-mortar schools,” he says, adding that some research shows that students who don’t perform well in face-to-face settings are likely to do even worse online.
That trend notwithstanding, Diamond says that the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and its pervasive impact in virtually every school district in the country should force a great reckoning in the American educational systemÑone that will require deep thinking, hard choices, and significant short- and long-term investments in the future of online learning.
Diamond believes the world can likely expect to face future challenges like the massive migration from school to home due to COVID-19. Our school systems and policy makers must, therefore, be prepared to triumph over these sorts of instantaneous, wide-ranging shutdowns by planning for the implementation of high-quality digital and blended learning environments.
“This is probably our future, and this is probably our model for how to deal with eventual disruptions,” he says.
In the short term, Diamond says that we must simply strive to get through until the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders are lifted and kids and teachers can return to some semblance of normal, face-to-face education. This will require quick planning with readily pressing, near-term goals.
The first goal concerns access to technologies. School systems need to make sure that all kids have access to the equipment and materials they need to succeed. For learning in digital environments, that means working laptops, tablets, and smartphones with good, high-speed internet connections. This will be a hardship for many districts, but it is a necessity for schools to accomplish their mission of an equitable education.
The purposes and forms of schooling in the U.S. have always been debated, Diamond says, but the idea of a public, or “common,” primary or secondary school has long included a safe space that is open and free to all kids and that has the people and materials necessary for learning to occur. That idea and those resources will have to extend into the home if equitable formal schooling is going to happen there, at least part of the time.
Diamond’s second short-term goal is about establishing routines. Just as in a traditional school setting, having predictable schedules and routines is key to achieving normalcy. This will beget a number of practical questions that many school districts have not necessarily dealt with before. For example, will there be real-time, teacher-led lectures? Will whole classes meet online for discussions? Will teachers offer “office hours” to meet with students individually? How will assignments be made, turned in, and graded?
His third near-term goal is simple: Teachers and administrators must communicate frequently among themselves, with students, and with students’ families. In a period of upheaval like this, no one expects anyone to have all the answers, he says. The key is for administrators and educators to find ways to be in regular contact and to reinforce that they care about their students’ well-being, despite the difficult circumstances. Digital technologies are probably the only avenue for those communications during social isolation.
“I’m optimistic that these things are within our reach if we have the will and if we put the resources into it,” he says. “Then, over the summer or next fall, if we’re fortunate, we can begin to make longer-term plans.”
Diamond says that if he looks into his “crystal ball,” he can foresee that districts will have to assume that immediate, lasting disruptions will become more commonplace. In response, districts will have to plan for and develop “blended learning plans” in which schools can seamlessly transition between face-to-face classroom instruction and online environments when disruptions occur.
“When necessary, we’ve got to be able to flip a switch and make sure the teachers are ready to teach online and that every student can access the necessary tools and resources,” Diamond says. “For that to happen, schools of education in higher ed have to prepare all teachers to teach online and face-to-face.”
The default model, he adds, should be blended learning. Education schools need to ensure that educators have the skills to instruct and to create learning communities in both environments, and that they can help their students connect learning activities in both spaces so that they reinforce each other.
For Diamond, one certainty is that the planning for that future cannot be left to the individual schools. Entire districts will have to prepare, but state and federal agencies will need to step up as well to ensure that the whole country is ready for the next, inevitable crisis.
“We’d be remiss, if not negligent, if we come out of all this believing it won’t happen again,” he says. “Online learning may not be the perfect solution, but it is better than no learning at all. For now, we must be ready to make the most of it. For the future, we must ensure that all our children have what they need to succeed, face-to-face and online.”