Remote vs. online learning

This topic has come up several times in discussions I’ve had with others on the impact of coronavirus on the lives of, well… everyone. So I thought it might be a good time to clarify where we stand in terms of making a shift to educating students from a distance. Remote learning is a response to a crisis with a focus on continuity of learning using whatever means possible. Online learning is a thoughtful approach to an alternate delivery modality that adheres to specific guidelines and practices in order to result in the best possible outcome for learners. While online learning can certainly be a part of remote learning, it is not the focus of the current approach, and rightly so given the circumstances. I think it’s important to understand these differences as we navigate through our new normal. 

I also thought it might be helpful to share some differences in the two approaches because I do see a time when remote learning will no longer be enough, and we will need to transition to a more defined form of online learning in a deliberate way. Below is just a quick distillation of the characteristics of both approaches. Some of this is purely conjecture just from my reading and conversations over the last few weeks. The online learning characteristics are sometimes more of an “ideal” than what we actually see in practice. My point is that there are specific practices in online learning that are needed to make it an effective delivery model as we move forward. 

Remote LearningOnline Learning
Expedience is most important. The focus is on making sure all students have access by whatever means possible.Focus is on supporting learners through intentional design and instructional strategies based on best-practices.
A mix of traditional and online delivery with a focus on whole group and individualized, just-in-time instruction – whatever works in the short term.Move to personalized approaches which include choice in place, pace and path of learning. 
Multiple delivery methods including physical paper and digital. All course materials are typically delivered entirely through an LMS or provided in some other coherent and consistent way. 
Communication may still be haphazard and reliant on whole group approaches because it is familiar. Established protocols for communication and feedback including both whole group and individual. Communication logs are closely monitored and tracked through an LMS. 
Seat-time requirements may still be an important factor leading to extensive time on the computer for learners and greater stress on families. In some cases seat-time has been replaced with content mastery and competency-based assessment. In others, there is a working solution so that schools meet the seat-time requirement in ways other than hours sitting in front of a computer screen. 
Hardware and Internet access are inconsistent creating inequity for some students. This is changing however, as schools and districts across the country are starting to distribute computer hardware and Internet access to those in need. Fully online learning providers distribute computer hardware and other supports such as enhanced Internet access. In the case of part-time virtual programs, equitable access has been provided through school computer labs. Since this is no longer possible, there is some risk that these students will also experience inequities.
Still very much teacher-led. The teacher is the central figure of power and knowledge, and directs what is learned and how it is learned. Focus on student-centered instructional practices. Students are provided opportunities to take responsibility for how content is learned as well some choice in how mastery is demonstrated. 
System-wide and policy irregularities (reliance on policies not amenable to online learning, lack of system supports, crisis decision-making processes) may interfere with coherent application and may also create confusion.System-wide support from multiple stakeholders (administration, LMS and platform, site coordinators, clear evaluation criteria supported by established best practices). Policy irregularities may exist but in general, policy has been thoughtfully implemented over time. 
Variable parent participation (many parents must still work full time and from home). Other responsible adults may be enlisted to help. Online tutoring supports may help here, but only if it is affordable. Parents, or another responsible adult, are highly engaged in the learning process. Parental support is the cornerstone of effective online learning, especially for younger learners. 

This new normal highlights, in stark reality that perhaps wasn’t apparent before, how access to computers and the Internet is still very much limited for so many of our students. It is also becoming clearly evident that our school policies are woefully outdated. Of course, no one expected such a drastic change in our everyday lives that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic. But, now that the inadequacies of our current system have been revealed, there is no better time to rethink the national and state level policies that drive our decision-making at the school level. Just to name a few… 

  • outdated seat-time requirements 

  • those that focus on grading over mastery of content 

  • inflexible workday policies for teachers 

  • policies for students with disabilities that do not account for alternative therapy delivery methods 

  • challenges with our infrastructure in reaching all students, but especially those that are underserved due to poverty and low socio-economic standing. 

Below are some resources for further information as well as some articles that may spark an idea on how we can better support schools, teachers and parents. 

Aurora Institute Announces Federal and State Policy Agenda

NCTQ How are school districts adapting teacher work policies for emergency closures?

Idaho’s two largest districts call tens of thousands of families to map Internet access

Parent supports

District Administration School leaders make quick adjustments to online learning: How educators can adjust assignments so parents can help 

EdSurge A Challenge For Remote Teaching During a Pandemic: Making Classes Feel Relevant

School Supports

NSCC Leading communities of courage through disruption 

CER Urging States to Continue Educating Students with Disabilities, Secretary DeVos Publishes New Resource on Accessibility and Distance Learning Options 

Educating All Learners Alliance  

Teacher Supports

Teachers find ways to connect with their students  

5 Strategies for Teacher Self-Care 

PBL for Remote Learning


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