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Oct. 5, 2021

Ask the Expert: Online learning vs. classroom learning


Christine Greenhow, associate professor of educational technology in the College of Education, and 2018 Recipient of MSU’s Teacher-Scholar Award, answers questions about online and classroom learning during our second school year dealing with the pandemic.   


What is the new K-12 school year looking like in terms of online vs. in person?


The return to a “new, relatively normal” school year is anything but. There are opportunities for us as educators, parents and students to rethink what education can and should look like.    


With the delta variant of COVID-19 spiking cases and hospitalizations across the U.S., concerns over mask mandates, vaccination status, breakthrough infections and the increasing vulnerability of children under 12 who don’t have the option of vaccination, all are causing uncertainty as schools resume. Already, schools in some states have temporarily closed. Many are offering in-person and online learning options, and families are opting in.  We have the opportunity to be smarter about how we educate, incorporating what we have learned from a year of remote teaching and learning.


What are the new opportunities and challenges of online learning?


Having raced to reduce barriers to online teaching and learning since spring 2020, K-12 education should continue to push for expanded technology infrastructure, teacher development and virtual learning options to improve education long term. For learners who prefer or are unable to attend in-person school for various reasons, the continued option of virtual learning, with trained teachers and supported families, is an opportunity for permanent improvement. Furthermore, the rise in remote working is here to stay; with online learning, we have the opportunity to prepare students for their future workplaces.


Challenges are that students need high quality and multiple forms of interaction with teachers, peers and subject matter when in-person classes move online, and that takes redesigning instruction. We know from research that pedagogy matters. Educators can’t just scan the textbook, record the lesson, put them online and expect the same or better learning


Teachers need to distill their key goals and leverage technology features to meet them. Used well — online chat, discussion forums, replayable video lessons, online meetings, etc., offer tremendous opportunities to make students more engaged (and accountable) compared to time-strapped classrooms where students hide and few hands shoot up. But educators, students and their families will need continued investment in guidance and supports.


Have we, as a country, narrowed the gap regarding access to the internet in urban/rural districts?


According to national internet access surveys, we have made some strides in rural areas with more broadband at home and more mobile technology use, but not so much change in urban and suburban areas, and gaps between rural, suburban and urban areas persist.


To get students and teachers online, schools supplied tablets, laptops, mobile Wi-Fi hotspots and other resources but inequities continue, which in turn, forecast continued gaps in the quality of students’ online — and offline — learning experiences.


What have we learned from two years of remote learning?

We have learned that
connection and community are key. In the early days of the pandemic, K-12 online instruction included little synchronous “live” interaction between teachers and students as teachers put materials online and rethought approaches quickly, but over time, the level of interaction increased to foster students’ engagement. 


We also learned that community-building through technology is so important. In the absence of school-based training, for instance, teachers turned to teachers on social media to get their questions answered. We learned that social media platforms can play an important role in just-in-time teacher professional learning.


Now that the majority of teachers have integrated some form of distance learning we should leverage the educational benefits that remote learning revealed, while bringing down the costs.


What do we know about learning loss during these two years?


This question is difficult to answer. In fact, some teachers and students are questioning: Loss from what? Loss for whom? Who is gaining now? These are questions because their online schooling experience resulted in gains of various sorts. We have the chance to reflect on how we have typically taught, assessed, and held students accountable for their learning, and to rethink who loses and who gains from a return to the past.


How can teachers better use social media in teaching?


Before the pandemic teachers had a lot of latitude in how much and whether to teach online and personalize students’ digital learning. Students largely pursued their interests and opportunities out of school on social media through YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and other platforms.


But the pandemic forced U.S. teachers and students into some form of online teaching and learning. Teachers themselves sought out  personal and professional digital learning networks on social media to get their needs met, especially to learn from other teachers outside their district who had more experience teaching online.


Seeing the value of social media for their own just-in-time learning and community-building can pave the way for using social media in their teaching. Teachers can use social media to stay connected with their students — and help students stay connected with each other. Teachers can use social media to teach students citizenship and how to critically participate in important civic conversations.


In short, we should not be thinking of “online learning vs. classroom learning” — as either or — but how to combine them, in the best ways possible, to meet students, families and educators where they are, now.


By: Christine Greenhow

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