Lessons Learned: Online Education in 2020

What is the true potential of online education? How can we reach this potential?

For many of us, the 2020 shift to online education was an awakening to the incredible potential this mode of learning possesses, and to the chaos and frustration it can bring. This is especially true for K-12 educators, students, and parents who were asked to do the impossible: tackle online learning without the necessary training or resources.


My daughter is a first grader, and I think it’s fair to say our eLearning experience fell on the ‘chaos and frustration’ side of things: her teacher retired on the first day of school and the replacement teacher was pulled out of an in-person classroom and away from a teaching assignment that she had worked for years to land. Needless to say, I, too, experience cold sweats and nausea at the thought of eLearning days, despite the fact that online education is the foundation of my business!

So I understand the desire to say good riddance to eLearning as the world heals and returns to some level of normalcy. But current trends indicate that this mode of learning is not going away.Many schools are already replacing snow days with eLearning days, and smart districts are working to expand and improve eLearning options for non-traditional students who are unable to attend in-person classes on a regular basis. This experience fueled colleges and universities who were already working to put more courses online prior to the pandemic. And many institutions who previously turned away from eLearning now see the potential benefits of offering online options. By not embracing the eLearning platform 2020 gifted us (perhaps one of its few, if not only, gifts) we miss out on a rare opportunity to reflect on what we've learned while it's still painfully fresh, which would allow us to make improvements so we are better prepared to offer quality online education in this new and inevitable eLearning era.


In short, online education was already at your door before the pandemic, and now it’s inside your house! So let’s get to know our new house guest by reflecting on lessons learned and unlocking the true potential of online education.


What are the Potential Benefits of Online Education?


I could go on for days about this topic, but the short and sweet answer is that online education has the potential to close achievement gaps by making learning more equitable and accessible.


It’s important to note that this potential can only be met through the creation and proper execution of well-designed, high-quality eLearning experiences. Poorly designed and/or executed eLearning methods have been shown to cause achievement gaps instead of close them, and these gaps are not evenly dispersed across all populations. Results from the U.S. Census Bureau’s weekly Household Pulse Survey helps quantify the vast socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps that exist in our society, revealing the lack of access to internet and devices in low-income households, the majority of which identify as Black.


Overall, online education can be classified as either ineffective (widens achievement gaps) or effective (closes achievement gaps). Let's take a look at the characteristics associated with both.


What is Ineffective Online Education?


Ineffective online education is that which tries to imitate its face-to-face counterpart.

Assumption: It works in my in-person course, so it will work in my online course! Reality: Nope.

Learning is impeded by online course designs that attempt to mirror their face-to-face counterparts. The interactivity and engagement found in traditional classroom-based teaching and learning tools does not carry over into the online classroom. Attempting to use these traditional tools without adapting them to the non-traditional environment can lead to achievement gaps for all students, but especially those who are underprepared and at-risk (Bettinger & Loeb, 2017).


Instructional methods should account for the constraints of the learning environment, and take advantage of opportunities allowed by the environment. The constraints and opportunities found in face-to-face and online learning environments vary drastically, so the instructional methods and tools should follow suit.


The number of variations between the two modes of learning can be a bit overwhelming, so I’ve condensed and organized them for you in the graphic below. You’ll find the course components in the far left column, followed by guiding questions you can ask yourself as you consider the differences between your face-to-face course and your online course. The last two columns provide brief answers to each question, thus highlighting the difference that will have the greatest impact on how your online course should be built. Enjoy!

What is Effective Online Education?


Where Ineffective eLearning tries to imitate its face-to-face counterpart, Effective eLearning uses it as a launching pad for the creation of a new learning experience, tailored to the unique characteristics of online education.


As outlined above, face-to-face and online learning methods are quite different. Recognizing those differences helps us identify the ways we need to adapt the content to overcome constraints and take full advantage of the many opportunities found in a virtual classroom. The result is an online learning experience that closes achievement gaps by providing an accessible and equitable learning experience.


Let’s hone in on each of the 7 course components from the handout above, and outline specific examples of how you can create an effective online course.


Learning Environment

A common misconception is that teachers are not a critical part of online learning, or that their role in the classroom ends when course development is complete. In reality, teachers shape the online learning environment by crafting the entire course prior to the start date, facilitating all elements when the course begins, and then making improvements to better meet student needs the next time around!


The online learning environment allows educators to flip the classroom. Students direct their own learning while the teacher serves as a facilitator, providing support as needed, monitoring progress, and encouraging them to think critically and problem solve.


My favorite characteristic about online education is students can move through the content at their own pace within the parameters you set for them. We’ve all been there: rushing through content to beat the bell, knowing some students were left behind; slowing down to support struggling students, knowing the more advanced students are bored out of their minds. Effective online courses make these scenarios a thing of the past thanks to the flexible schedule and the multiple delivery methods you can use to convey content. More on that to come!


Classroom Management

Many classroom management tools and practices can be reused in the online learning environment with some slight adjustments.

Start by communicating your expectations clearly in a well-structured introduction ‘Getting Started’ module, which can be based on your syllabi if you have one. You’ll want to break the key elements down into smaller chunks, each with their own course page. Here’s a sample outline of what your Getting Started module might look like, including a brief summary of what could be included in each section.


GETTING STARTED

Welcome

Welcome message or video that - you guessed it - makes them feel welcome!

Instructor Bio

A picture of yourself and a brief overview about you.

Introduce Yourself

A discussion forum where they can introduce themselves and chat with one another.

Course Overview

A text page with learning objectives, a course outline, and important course information.

Course Rules

A text page that details the student conduct, academic integrity standards, online etiquette rules!

Navigating the Course

A video or text page that focuses on navigating the course in the LMS.


Having students learn about your expectations early on is key, but making sure they meet these expectations is equally important. Here are a few ways you can keep track of behavior virtually:

  • Actively moderate and participate in all chats and discussion forums.

  • Provide options for students to report inappropriate behavior.

  • Make it easy for students to reach you when they need help.

Course Schedule

The access and flexibility allowed by online learning en