Remote Learning Overview
Remote Learning PDF
Donley, J., Detrich, R., States, J., & Keyworth, (2020). Remote Learning Overview. Oakland, CA: The Wing Institute. https://www.winginstitute.org/effective-instruction-computers.
Digital technologies, required tools for most forms of remote instruction, are increasingly valued as a key component of K–12 education, and education stakeholders have devoted significant resources accordingly (Bulman & Fairlie, 2015). Some evidence suggests that these resources are well placed and that digital technologies have the potential to provide learning benefits for students. Hattie’s (2017) ongoing meta-analysis work, for example, shows a number of technologies, such as those used to support students with learning needs and those using intelligent tutoring and interactive video methods, have high potential to accelerate achievement.
However, some experts argue that digital technologies have not yet substantially transformed teaching and learning in meaningful ways (Darling-Hammond, Zielezinski, & Goldman, 2014; Gewertz, 2020; Herold, 2016; McGivney & Foda, n.d.; OECD, 2015). In theory, the use of digital technologies in remote instruction can offer a variety of benefits, such as wider student access to courses and more individualized, personalized instructional time not necessarily bound to time spent in school buildings (Chatterji, 2018). Still, equity gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students and between schools persist in the key tools and practices necessary for high-quality remote instruction, such as access to a computer at home and teachers who have the necessary technical and pedagogical skills to integrate digital devices into instruction (Bushweller, 2020; OECD, 2020).
While remote instruction has been increasingly available and used in the past decade, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the issue sharply into focus, and many educators are seeking understanding of best practice. This overview examines the effectiveness of various forms of remote instruction, what is known about best practice, and critical issues that must be considered for effective implementation.
What Is Known About the Effectiveness of Remote Instruction
Background and Terminology. Remote instruction encompasses instructional environments and tools supported by the internet, and can be (1) fully remote, in which all instruction and assessment are carried out virtually (sometimes referred to as distance education); (2) supplemental, in which students may take one or more courses of their choice virtually while still taking courses in physical classrooms; or (3) blended, in which face-to-face interactions between teachers and students are combined with remote learning (Bakia, Shear, Toyama, & Lasseter, 2012; Delgado, Wardlow, McKnight, & O’Malley, 2015; Lowes & Lin, 2018).
Remote instruction itself can be synchronous (students and teachers interact together in a specific virtual space at the same time) or asynchronous (students access content and learning activities on their own time) (Lowes & Lin, 2018). Synchronous instruction may include video conferencing (e.g., Zoom) and group project work in real time, while asynchronous instruction may include self-guided lesson modules and teacher-posted lecture slides and assignments. Digital learning is a term that can encompass remote/blended learning, and other uses of educational technology (Schwirzke, Vashaw, & Watson, 2018).
Remote instruction “is often suggested as a means for improving educational outcomes, expanding access at lower costs than conventional approaches or allowing talented teachers to focus on what they do best by automating or offloading more routine tasks” (Bakia et al., 2012, p. 15). Although very little K–12 research on cost-effectiveness exists (Bakia et al., 2012), one study of blended learning schools found that while start-up costs were high, these schools spent an average of $1,100 less per student than traditional schools (Battaglino, Haldeman, & Laurans, 2012). K–12 administrators also reported that blended learning approaches provided an advantage through potential reductions in operation costs (Bernatek, Cohen, Hanlon, & Wilka, 2012). More research is needed to document the return on investment of these approaches in terms of student outcomes.
Research on the Effectiveness of Fully Remote Instruction. While a good deal of research evidence supports the use of educational technologies to increase student achievement (e.g., Tamim, Bernard, Borokhovski, Abrami, & Schmid, 2011), much less is known about the impact of using these technologies to support K–12 remote learning (Brodersen & Melluzzo, 2017; Escueta, Quan, Nickow, & Oreopoulos, 2017; Means, Toyama, Murphy, & Bakia, 2013; Sparks, 2015). Despite this lack of research, most states now offer fully remote schools (Digital Learning Collaborative, 2019). Enrollment in these schools has increased significantly in the past decade, growing by about 6% each year (Digital Learning Collaborative, 2019), and some states now require students to complete an online course for graduation (Molnar et al., 2017).
Although supplemental remote learning is far more prevalent, with close to 1 million course enrollments (Digital Learning Collaborative, 2019), full-time remote learning has also increased over the past decade, with now nearly 300,000 students enrolled (Molnar et al., 2019). Most students who take online courses are in high school (80%), and nearly half of course enrollments are in English language arts, math, science, and social studies (Digital Learning Collaborative, 2019). While the distinction between fully remote and supplemental remote learning may seem simple, in reality the instructional models used in both are complex and make research on their impact difficult:
Both supplemental and full-time online learning can encompass different instructional models, from paced virtual classrooms with both student-teacher and student-student interaction, to self-paced courses that rely primarily on student-teacher interaction; from courses where most of the interaction is synchronous to those where it is almost entirely asynchronous. One of the weaknesses of the literature is that the model is often unspecified, although it clearly affects both teaching and learning. (Lowes & Lin, 2018, p. 91)
Virtual schools, which offer fully remote instruction, can offer cost savings in areas such as school operations, student support services, teacher and employee salaries and benefits, disability services, and efficiency of cost distribution over larger numbers of students (Miron & Urschel, 2012). They also provide the opportunity for anytime, anywhere learning to students, and can offer added supports for disabled students and those at risk of failing (Toppin & Toppin, 2016).
Recent comprehensive analyses have shown, however, that in the United States full-time virtual schools underperform academically in comparison with blended and traditional schools, despite enrolling primarily students not possessing typical risk characteristics such as minority status or English learners (Molnar et al., 2017, 2019). Molnar and colleagues (2019) found that district-operated virtual schools were much more likely to achieve acceptable state school performance ratings (57%) than charter-operated virtual schools (41%), and only approximately half of students in fully virtual schools graduated on time compared with the national average of 84% (Molnar et al., 2019). Virtual schools run by for-profit education management organizations (EMOs), which enroll far greater numbers of students, had particularly low school performance ratings (Molnar et al., 2019). This research echoes findings of other studies, including a report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (2016) that found weaker academic growth for full-time virtual students compared with those receiving face-to-face instruction.
A recent comprehensive review of 126 high-quality studies similarly found that fully online instructional models generally were not as effective as traditional face-to-face classroom models (Escueta et al., 2017), particularly for students who were struggling (Rickles et al., 2018). In addition, some research has shown that teachers in virtual schools perceive a lack of collegial support and experience a sense of disconnection from their students and the profession (Hawkins, Barbour, & Graham, 2012; Toppin & Toppin, 2016). Such findings have led many researchers to recommend limiting expansion of these schools until additional research that addresses the specific instructional models used for remote instruction and their impact on learning is available (e.g., Molnar et al., 2017, 2019).
Research on the Effectiveness of Blended Learning. Christensen, Horn, and Staker (2013) have defined blended learning as
a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace, and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home… The modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience. (p. 10)
In a 2015 report, the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL) (subsequently renamed the Aurora Institute) summarized potentially positive aspects of blended and fully remote learning environments:
These new learning models are designed to enable richer student-teacher communication and interaction, either synchronous or asynchronous, and optimize each student’s learning experiences through robust personalized learning…. Collaboration and learning extend beyond the four walls of the classroom…These new learning models can help teachers personalize instruction and meet each student’s unique learning needs. (p. 4)
In fact, blended learning is designed to be a “delivery mechanism” for personalized learning (Patrick, Kennedy, & Powell, 2013), providing students with a personalized educational path and flexible learning environments (Horn & Staker, 2011). Through their research on blended learning schools and programs, researchers at the Christensen Institute (2020) identified the four blended learning models most prevalent in K–12 schools: (1) rotation models, in which students rotate among learning modalities (e.g., online learning, whole-group class discussion, projects, small-group instruction) on either a fixed schedule or at the teacher’s discretion; (2) flex models, in which online learning at the brick-and-mortar campus is the core vehicle for student learning, and students progress along an individualized and fluid schedule among learning modalities; (3) à la carte models, in which students take entirely online a course that is designed to support and/or complement learning experiences at the brick-and-mortar school; and, (4) enriched virtual models, in which students are required to have face-to-face learning experiences with their teacher but to complete their remaining classwork remotely.
Rotation models are more widely used than the other models, particularly at the elementary level, and offer the benefit of allowing teachers to work with smaller student groups, making differentiated instruction more cost-effective and efficient (Christensen et al., 2013; Staker, 2014). The flex, à la carte, and enriched virtual models involve more dramatic changes to traditional school models and are more often used at the middle and high school levels, where students are considered more capable of self-regulated online learning (Means et al., 2013). These models may enable students to learn at their own pace and engage with teachers more effectively; allow more students to take electives, foreign language, and advanced placement classes unavailable in their brick-and-mortar school; and recover more dropouts by removing traditional classroom barriers (Staker, 2014).
Much of the literature is descriptive and discusses the perceived benefits of blended learning, such as increased learner engagement and motivation (Stein & Graham, 2014), allowing for competency-based learning (Horn & Staker, 2015) and providing immediate formative feedback to students (Vanderkam, 2013). Blended learning is touted as offering the opportunity for differentiated learning tailored to students’ needs, which many proponents argue is essential to address the needs of learners with vastly different learning styles, knowledge, skills, and learning pace (Brodersen & Melluzzo, 2017; Tomlinson, 2000). Digital technology can help teachers use real-time data to differentiate instruction according to students’ varied progress (Hilliard, 2015), as well as allow for sufficient independent practice that often is not possible in a traditional classroom lacking digital support (Johnson, Perry, & Shamir, 2010).
In fact, some evidence suggests that students with access to blended learning models outperform those experiencing only one type of instruction (Bakia et al., 2012; Means et al., 2013; Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2010; Pane, Griffin, McCaffrey, & Karam, 2014; Pane, Steiner, Baird, & Hamilton, 2015), although the diversity of blended learning designs make it unclear which aspects of blended learning enhance achievement (Halverson, Spring, Huyett, Henrie, & Graham, 2017).
Brodersen & Melluzzo (2017) reviewed rigorous studies that evaluated the impact of blended learning programs incorporating differentiated instruction and found statistically significant positive results for several programs. For example, the Cognitive Tutor Algebra program, which combines an intelligent tutoring computer-based system with regular classroom instruction to provide personalized, mastery-based learning, was shown to significantly improve algebra proficiency after 2 years of implementation (e.g., Pane et al., 2014). Recent meta-analytic reviews of a variety of intelligent tutoring systems that differentiate instruction and provide for blended learning approaches suggest these systems generally offer powerful learning support, raising test scores the equivalent of approximately three quarters of a standard deviation beyond conventional levels, or from the 50th to 75th percentile (Escueta et al., 2017; Kulik & Fletcher, 2016).
Blended learning approaches are increasingly being used at the elementary level, with positive impacts shown in several studies examining reading instruction (Prescott, Bundschuh, Kazakoff, & Macaruso, 2018; Shannon, Styers, Wilkerson, & Peery, 2015; Wilkes et al., 2020). Prescott et al. investigated the impact of a schoolwide blended learning elementary reading program at a Title I school (Lexia Core 5), and found significant 1-year standardized reading assessment gains for students across grades and for both English learner and non-English learner low-income students. Indeed, evidence is emerging that blended learning approaches may be particularly effective for at-risk student populations, such as English learners and low-income students (Kazakoff, Macaruso, & Hook, 2017; Schechter, Macaruso, Kazakoff, & Brooke, 2015).
Some schools are operating as full-time blended learning schools (as opposed to incorporating blended learning models, programs, or practices by some teachers or at some grade levels within a school); a recent analysis identified 300 of these schools in the United States serving approximately 133,000 students (Molnar et al., 2019). Similar to the fully remote schools described previously, fewer than half of these blended learning schools demonstrated acceptable school performance ratings, although they graduated a slightly higher percentage of students on time (61% versus 50%). The Molnar study also found that the academic performance pattern observed for fully virtual schools, in which district-run schools outperformed those operated by for-profit EMOs, also occurred for fully blended learning schools. Both types of schools evidenced higher student-to-teacher ratios than the national average, with full-time virtual schools averaging 2.7 times as many students per teacher, and full-time blended schools reporting slightly more than twice as many (Molnar et al., 2019). Whether this factor contributes to poor outcomes is uncertain; additional factors that may influence the outcomes of remote instruction are discussed below.
Important Considerations for Fostering Implementation With Fidelity and Ensuring Equity in Remote Instruction
The research to date, while far from conclusive, suggests that blended instruction is more effective than fully remote instruction. Clearer evidence shows that blended learning that includes technology to enable differentiated instruction can be effective, particularly for at-risk learners. It is likely that implementation factors influence the results seen regarding the effectiveness of fully remote and blended learning (Schwirzke et al., 2018); several key considerations for implementation are highlighted below.
Ensuring Equitable Digital Access for Remote Instruction and Learning. Digital access may vary greatly by school and by student socioeconomic status. While access to digital tools and broadband in schools is now widely available (EducationSuperHighway, 2019), many homes lack the high-speed connectivity and digital learning tools necessary for remote learning, leaving many children, particularly those in low-income, non-white, and rural communities, without the capacity to use digital tools for homework and school projects (OECD, 2020). Many educators and researchers have expressed legitimate concerns regarding the potential for remote learning environments to exacerbate educational inequalities (Lewis et al., 2014). A recent survey conducted by Education Week found that nearly two thirds of districts with high percentages of students from low-income families reported that a lack of basic technology at home was a major problem for remote learning, compared with just one in five districts with few economically disadvantaged students (Herold, 2020). Furthermore, the data showed that rural, urban, and high-poverty districts were far less able to provide online learning opportunities to all students. It is clear that ensuring all students have the digital tools and internet access they need for remote learning is a first step in enabling equitable remote instruction and learning outcomes.
Building Engagement and Metacognitive Competency. Students must be encouraged and supported to be active rather than passive learners in any learning environment, whether instruction is face-to-face, blended, or fully remote. The International Society for Technology in Education (Snelling & Fingal, 2020) recommends that remote instruction include ample opportunities for collaboration, frequent feedback, clear expectations for student participation, and plenty of human connection through, for example, virtual meetings or live chats. Engagement can also be fostered by building students’ metacognition. Educators must reconsider their roles and build students’ self-regulated learning to help students gain the agency and responsibility critical for personalized, remote/blended learning to be successful (Murphy et al., 2014; Powell, et al., 2015). Murphy et al. argued that for students to fully benefit from remote/blended learning, schools must establish a productive and self-directed learning culture through activities such as setting weekly progress goals.
Metacognitive strategies that allow students to self-regulate their learning are strong contributors to student academic performance, and are essential for success in remote/blended learning environments in which students are expected to manage their own learning to some degree (Farrington et al., 2012; Hattie, 2017; Lewis et al., 2014; Redding, 2016). Self-regulated learners set goals, plan, organize, monitor their use of learning strategies, and evaluate their skills and knowledge as they construct new skills and knowledge (Zimmerman, 1990). Students in remote/blended learning environments must have these capacities, and “teachers must be skilled at differentiating instruction and providing customized supports for students to progress, as well as helping them to develop the metacognitive and self-regulation skills that will enable them to progress” (Lewis et al., 2014, p. 7), or inequitable outcomes between higher and lower income students may worsen.
Explicit teaching and guided practice with metacognitive strategies is essential for students functioning in online environments (Soto, 2016). For example, Pilegard & Fiorella (2016) found that middle schools students who used a cognitive tutor blended approach in pre-algebra classes and were engaged in generative learning strategies (e.g., summarizing or explaining what was learned to a peer) during instruction improved self-regulation behaviors (e.g., seeking help) compared with those not using these learning strategies. The researchers concluded that these simple paper-based metacognitive strategies offered an example of how computer-aided instruction can be effective in blended learning environments.
Lai and Hwang (2016) also found evidence that building metacognitive skills in the form of self-regulated learning strategies (e.g., setting goals, planning and using study time) into a flipped (i.e., a blended learning approach in which students access and learn content at home and work on extension and reinforcement of skills during face-to-face instruction) elementary math classroom resulted in increases in learning and self-efficacy. Their study provided evidence that metacognitive strategies can benefit students’ online learning outside of school.
Teacher Preparation and Professional Development. Remote and blended learning requires teachers to have a different skill set from than is provided through most teacher preparation programs (Rice, 2014), and the majority of teachers have not been prepared to engage students with remote instruction (Archambault & Kennedy, 2018). After reviewing teacher education programs, Kennedy and Archambault (2012a, 2012b) recommended that these programs incorporate coursework in online pedagogy, experience with designing instruction for online environments, and practicum experiences with blended and/or fully remote teaching. Cowan (2013) suggested that these programs also include extensive immersion in technology-rich coursework and observations of peers already skilled in technology integration and receiving support for embedding these skills in their classrooms.
Professional organizations have developed standards for online teaching that reflect the skills and dispositions necessary for success (i.e., National Standards for Quality Online Teaching developed by the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance and Quality Matters, 2019); these standards include themes such as online pedagogy (i.e., feedback and classroom management); instructional design that incorporates methods of accessibility and accommodation; assessment of student learning; technical expertise; and professionalism and ethics (Archambault & Kennedy, 2018). Mentors are also key in building both pre-service and in-service teachers’ capabilities in remote instruction, although little research on mentoring programs exists (Dawson & Dana, 2018a).
Professional learning for in-service teachers must improve technological pedagogical content knowledge, or TPACK (Harris, Mishra, & Koehler, 2009), while simultaneously empowering teachers to generate educational innovation that better meets students’ needs (Lafuente, 2018). Lafuente noted:
The goal is not to learn how to run technological devices to better meet student needs. There needs to be professional learning where practitioners form learning communities and share materials and best practices. Investing resources in technology is not enough if teachers do not have the competence to use them in a pedagogically sound fashion; otherwise, technology in the classroom can even have detrimental consequences (OECD, 2015). (pp. 108–109)
Unfortunately, many teachers receive no training prior to beginning their teaching roles in online environments (Dawley, Rice, & Hinck, 2010), and most training is generic and not integrated within a content area (Dawson & Dana, 2018b). Little is known through research about what enables fully remote and blended teachers to have “not only an excellent grasp of their given content area but also an appreciation of how technology and the online environment affect the content and the pedagogy of what they are attempting to teach” (Archambault, Debruler, & Freidhoff, 2014, p. 87, as cited in Greene & Hale, 2017). Dawson and Dana (2018b) suggested that professional development for K–12 remote teaching incorporate but extend the five core features of effective professional development suggested by Desimone (2009) to address remote instruction:
- Content focus: Emphasize subject matter content and how students learn it, but also address the varying roles within remote learning contexts (i.e., administrators, content designers, counselors, etc.).
- Active learning: Include more options for active learning; the variety of media typically used in remote instruction can support simulations, modeling, role-playing, etc.
- Coherence: Align professional development with state and district goals but also with standards for online teaching and learning, content standards, and the type of media teachers will use for instruction.
- Duration: Optimize remote teaching by including both short- and long-term opportunities to prepare teachers for more technical, skills-based knowledge needed to be effective in online settings.
- Collective participation: Encourage teachers to work together to learn; remote professional development lends itself well to this cause due to greater teacher comfort working and collaborating together in online environments, and the geographic distance that often separates online teachers.
Fostering Parent Engagement. A substantial amount of research has documented the influential role of parents in student learning and educational attainment (e.g., De Fraja, Oliveira, & Zanchi, 2010; Dufur, Parcel, & Troutman, 2013), and particularly may benefit low-income and minority students the most (Henderson & Mapp, 2002). Much less is known about how parents can effectively be involved in K–12 fully remote or blended learning settings (Hasler Waters, Borup, & Menchaca, 2018); however, some research suggests that the level and type of engagement may be important to student outcomes, particularly when students are learning from home (Borup, Stevens, & Hasler Waters, 2015; Liu, Black, Algina, Cavanaugh, & Dawson, 2010).
For example, Black (2009) found that parental praise of children’s schoolwork positively related to student performance in virtual schools, but the reported level of engagement in instructional activities by parents negatively related to student grades. Black suggested that parents often lack the knowledge and skills to help their children learn, but they may increase their involvement when their children’s performance is poor. Parents, particularly those with children enrolled in fully virtual schools, likely need help to develop the skills and knowledge to support their children’s learning at home remotely (Hasler Waters et al., 2018; Molnar et al., 2015). This finding may be particularly true for parents supporting children with disabilities (Curtis & Werth, 2015; Franklin, East, & Mellard, 2015).
Research suggests that parents may underestimate the roles they need to assume and the commitments necessary to support their children’s success in remote learning environments, thinking they may only need to provide encouragement and support (Burdette & Greer, 2014; Molnar et al., 2015). Remote learning may require parents to assume the role of teacher for which they are not prepared or licensed, leading to student learning problems. In the role of teacher, a parent is often expected to be an organizer (planning a daily schedule and using a learning management system to access and track homework), instructor (tutoring), motivator (incentivizing with rewards), and manager (tracking and monitoring student progress and providing discipline) (Hasler Waters et al., 2018). Parents of students with disabilities have reported even greater responsibility (Burdette & Greer, 2014).
Hasler Waters and colleagues (2018) reiterated that there was still much to be learned about how and under what conditions parent engagement can positively impact students’ remote learning:
More work needs to be done to develop a comprehensive understanding of the types of parental involvement that lead to student academic success or how to measure the quality of support parents are lending to their own students. Indeed, the [National Education Protection Council] NEPC (2015) has stated that research is critical given the lack of accountability and regulation of these schools and not just on connections to academic achievement but also to establish exemplars and models for virtual environments where parents serve as de facto educators and perform other educational support roles for their children. (p. 418)
Curtis (2013) suggested that parental involvement in blended instruction could help mitigate the distance between student and teacher; however, research thus far has neglected to address the role of parent involvement in blended learning environments (Hasler Waters et al., 2018).
Remote instruction is touted as having a number of benefits, including enhanced and extended access to learning, the possibility of greater differentiation and personalized learning, and the potential for reduced costs. Remote instruction can be structured to be fully online, supplemental, or blended in a variety of ways to include face-to-face instruction with a teacher in a traditional classroom. While the research is still in its infancy, evidence is accumulating that fully online instruction is less likely to provide positive academic outcomes, leading many experts to urge caution in scaling up this type of program. Blended instructional models, however, show more promise. Particularly effective are models that use technology in the form of intelligent tutoring to provide differentiated instruction and supports for at-risk learners; however, thus far blended learning schools have not shown as much promise.
A number of implementation factors likely impact the effectiveness of remote instruction. Students may not fully engage in virtual learning environments, but fostering students’ capacity for metacognition and self-regulated learning can boost engagement. Teachers need (and often don’t receive) adequate preparation and high-quality professional development that equips them not only with the competency to use digital tools effectively, but also with the technological pedagogical content necessary to deliver instruction successfully in virtual environments. Finally, parents are an important part of the equation for effective remote instruction, as they may be asked to fill a role for which they are not prepared. Additional research is needed to better understand how parent engagement can be optimized to support children’s learning in remote environments.
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