The Great Distance Learning Experiment

There are approximately 50.8 million students in U.S. public schools. As of March 17, 2020, 41.6 million of those students had been affected by school closings due to the COVID-19 virus. 91,000 U.S. public and private schools in 39 states are closed, are scheduled to close, or were closed and later reopened.  In many cases, decisions have been made by school districts to reallocate teaching to online and at-home resources, suddenly making online learning a daily experience for families and educators nationwide. Once largely confined to homeschoolers and child actors, the current situation has rapidly mainstreamed this type of learning delivery.  We would be remiss as a thoughtful and evolving society if we did not take stock of this unprecedented experiment to gain insights that may affect the future of education.  

Debate around the merits of distance learning is not new. Educators, administrators, and local officials have all weighed in on the topic. Online learning has played a large role in distance learning for colleges and professionals for a decade.  In fact, one third of all undergraduates in the US are taking some online classes to fulfill their degree requirements (NCES, 2017). The benefits (lower costs, greater flexibility in scheduling, geographical openness, etc.) have been widely expressed, and so have the drawbacks (social isolation, inconsistent quality, limited accountability). The greatest strength of distance learning was that it allowed for higher education to more easily mesh into the lives of many who were not be able to attend if classes were only campus based. And today this situation applies to many millions, for an indefinite period.  



When effectiveness of online learning is considered for K-12 students, the picture is less clear and does not provide conclusive evidence to direct educators and policy makers toward action. Several published studies suggest that online learning has shown positive results in general, even more so when utilized with blended approaches. This research, however, isn’t conclusive enough to either hasten or limit the integration of distance learning into the curricula of K-12 schools nationwide. While some educators have advocated stemming the spread of online delivery options, many administrators have proposed expanding online offerings in order to help close budget gaps. 

With the current crisis forcing large numbers of kids to do distance learning, however, it may not be productive to parse the findings at this time and pick a side of whether it’s a “good” thing or not. Of more value would be to explore how accessibility and quality of online learning may vary across different segments of the population.  


Equity of Access

Despite the effectiveness of the delivery method, participating in online classes is likely a challenge for students who lack reliable and fast internet access at home or who will now have to learn in a cramped or distracting home environment. Because of this, some educators and other stakeholders have raised concerns over whether the transition to remote learning could cause educational equity issues by disproportionately impacting students of low socioeconomic status (SES). 

Based on National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) data from 2017, 14% of households with children ages 3-18 reported having no internet access at home, and 34% of those who did not have access stated that the reason was that they could not afford it. Internet access is generally lowest among racial or ethnic minorities, rural households, and lower-income families. Additionally, a portion of those households that do report having internet access at home are “smartphone-only,” meaning they rely on mobile internet services or data plans to get online.  In 2017, NCES found that 22% of households with children ages 3-18 that reported having internet access do not have broadband internet services installed at home, such as cable, DSL or fiber-optic services.  And according to Pew, the proportion of smartphone-only households has only risen since then.  Pew also found that low-income adults are more likely to rely on smartphones for access to the internet.  This raises concern that a lack of broadband internet service at home might be a barrier to participating in online classes for a portion of low-SES students.

Access to a laptop or desktop computer to use for online classes is also an issue for families. NCES found that 83% of households with children ages 3-18 have a desktop or laptop in the home and 80% have a tablet in the home.  Presumably, in some of these households, students will either have indirect or shared access to a computer that needs to be used by multiple people, such as siblings or other children who also need it for class or schoolwork. According to the 2018-2019 CoSN Infrastructure Survey, only about 10% of school district officials surveyed said that all of their students have access to non-shared devices at home, a number that has been about stagnant for three years. These numbers indicate a “homework gap” where, although most students are now expected to complete homework on computers, some students have easier access to computers than others. 

Amid the mass school closings that have occurred since the outbreak of COVID-19, the implications of this “homework gap” have been amplified tremendously, and school districts and government entities have attempted to fill it by lending students laptops that they may use to access online classes at home. Additionally, some broadband internet providers have begun offering free service to households with school-age children, and the FCC has asked internet service providers not to disconnect and waive late fees for consumers who miss payments. School and government officials hope that through these efforts all students can have equal access to online learning even if they would otherwise be without a computer or broadband internet connection.  


Physical Environment

What seems to be a more common challenge currently than access and providing some degree of educational continuity is the home environment that students and families are finding themselves in. The physical home learning environment is another important element which likely impacts equitable access to online classes. Factors that are often linked to a family’s SES, like the availability of a quiet and private area in the home for a student to concentrate or speak virtually with teachers, the functionality and tidiness of a student’s workspace, the ability of a parent to supervise or help a student, and the presence of distractions or stressors in the home, all play a role in educational success. These factors have been known contributors to disparities for many decades in the context of homework but could now have a larger impact since children will be physically at home while attending class during the outbreak. Thus, competition for resources and competing interests among family members may offer a far bigger challenge than issues of broadband access.

While school districts have a plan for addressing the need for laptops and broadband internet for low-SES students, how effective will this plan be in the long-run and what can be done to lessen inequities in home learning environments? How will these gaps and inequities impact disparities in educational success?



Another issue is, how we can effectively measure outcomes when standardized testing, attendance, graduation rates, and other common measures may no longer be reliable or even available. In an educational climate in which demonstration of learning has relied heavily on testing, many are concerned that, with a lack of classroom supervision, students will cheat. New and innovative methods that require students to demonstrate the synthesis of information and skills rather than producing memorized facts might need to be tried and tested on a wider scale.

Where we choose to place our resources and efforts, especially during a time of crisis, should be driven by the best information that we have available. For the time being, online or distance learning is the new reality for many, despite any differing opinions as to the role it should play in traditional education.


The New Normal

The current situation of imposed distance learning is simultaneously a unique challenge and a fascinating opportunity. As we adapt and grow through this challenging time, researchers, educators, parents, and policymakers should be monitoring how distance learning can be more thoughtfully incorporated into the portfolio of learning methods to bring more resources and opportunities to students and families.

What do we want to learn from this experiment in mass, involuntary adoption of distance learning — about the experience (for both students and parents), about the impact on learning, about the effects on public attitudes towards distance learning?  Will it create a backlash or produce a new population of advocates? Will we see the generation of new forms of educational disparity, or find we have discovered a new means to overcome the old inequities? 

Perhaps equally important, what messages should educators and families send to companies providing online education products and services? Should there be a call for solutions that operate equally well on smartphones, tablets, and laptops? Should VR headsets be promoted as providing ‘soundproofing’ for children trying to study in a crowded bedroom or family room? Can telecommunications providers be cajoled into providing more bandwidth to students at little or no cost?

As researchers specializing in education and educational media and technology, we at Fluent are fascinated by the opportunity to explore the effects of this global experiment in distance learning. As parents, we hope that the lessons learned from this experiment not only better prepare us for future crises but are used to enhance children’s access to quality education in normal times as well, regardless of what that “normal” looks like.

Sofia Polo co-authored this article.

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