Apr 26 2021

Is Virtual Learning Here to Stay for K–12?

As students return to post-pandemic classrooms, many are wondering if remote learning will remain an option — and to what extent its impact will be felt.

Last year’s mass shift to virtual learning altered the landscape for K–12 education. Districts fast-tracked long-term plans for upgraded technology and teacher training. Educators and students worked together to troubleshoot technical problems as they arose, and companies innovated remote learning software to provide the best experiences. With all of the changes, adaptations and, in many cases, improvements, educators are beginning to wonder if schooling should return to the way it was.

Despite overwhelming eagerness for the country to return to pre-pandemic normalcy, many students and their families are opting to continue with virtual school when given the chance. According to a survey of 1,000 parents of K–12 students, 45 percent would opt to keep their children fully online given the chance, and 22 percent would choose a hybrid model for their children.

For some, safety is a top concern. Others have discovered their children enjoy the freedom of remote classes and are performing better academically online. While many students have the option to choose whether they’d like to take classes virtually or in-person this spring, districts are still deciding whether virtual learning will still be available in the fall — and to what extent it will remain.

Rethinking the Future of K–12 Education

A fall 2020 RAND survey of district leaders found that 1 in 5 schools have already adopted or plan to adopt virtual schooling after the pandemic.

Tom Ryan, chief information and strategy officer for Santa Fe Public Schools, is one district leader who understands the need for continued virtual education.

“We’re seeing some kids who were extremely successful in the remote environment,” says Ryan, who is also a Consortium for School Networking board member. “There were lots of kids who weren’t successful in the face-to-face model, and all of a sudden we figured out how to personalize instruction.”

Personalized instruction allows educators to adapt education to fit the needs of individual students. Much like a structured choice approach to learning, students can complete lessons in ways that best fit their learning styles. Personalized instruction can also benefit students’ schedules. It allows them to fit schoolwork around their personal lives and, for older students, part-time jobs.

“Traditional operation or instruction was being delivered to support the physical operations of the school,” Ryan says. The number of students in a classroom, the time spent in each class and between classes, and the bus schedules are determined based on what will allow the school to operate most efficiently, he notes.

“We didn’t make those decisions because it’s great for kids to have seven different subjects that are 48 minutes long. To some extent, the physical school has to prioritize the operations over the academics.”

Tom Ryan, Chief Information and Strategy Officer, Santa Fe Public Schools
There were lots of kids who weren’t successful in the face-to-face model, and all of a sudden we figured out how to personalize instruction.”

Tom Ryan Chief Information and Strategy Officer, Santa Fe Public Schools

Virtual learning doesn’t conform to those constraints. Students can log in and complete work on their own schedules. They are able to take classes they may never have had access to before. One educator can now teach classes in multiple high schools using livestreams, recorded lectures and online lessons. This broadens a student’s access to Advanced Placement classes, language classes, electives and more.

RELATED: Remote learning creates new opportunities for K–12 education.

The Virtues of Virtual Learning for Post-Pandemic Classrooms

Many advancements have resulted from the time schools spent educating online. Schools worked to push out one-to-one programs, and teachers experienced increased levels of professional growth through training and through innovating on the fly.

Not only are educators learning how to operate new programs and technologies, but the students are improving their digital skills as well.

“Kids know how to log in, they know how to open multiple windows and applications,” Ryan says. “They are getting really good at typing out their ideas. I think you’re going to see that some of their reading and writing skills have been enhanced because there’s a big dependence on that in online environments.”

Students who may not have had access to this level of educational technology in their schools prior to the pandemic are now learning how to work on newly provided devices. Federal funding and other programs have helped get this equipment to schools so that students can be online.

DISCOVER: A push for equity drives computer science education at Aberdeen High.

For all the changes that virtual and hybrid learning have seen, Ryan still thinks this is just the beginning of where virtual learning can go. “When they first went to a radio, the sound of music was not as great through the radio as it was going to a live concert, but it was better than nothing at all,” he says. “I think that as we develop the skills and resources, and people develop the digital content and ways to engage kids, we’re actually going to see online learning get better and better and better.”

What Does the Future Hold for Virtual Learning?

Of the district leaders surveyed by RAND, many of those choosing to adopt virtual learning cited a demand from parents and students for the opportunity.

Across the country, fully online schools are seeing an increase in enrollment. The Tennessee Connections Academy, which began offering online learning for Tennessee K–12 students in 2019, now supports more than 3,000 students, according to WJHL, a local news station in the area. When the academy opened, it had just 1,300 students enrolled.

Neria Sebastien, an elementary teacher for Alpha Omega Academy, a national online school based in Iowa, also notes a rise in enrollment. “Due to COVID-19, there are a lot of students who have never experienced online before whose parents decided to put them in an online school,” he says.

Given the demand, districts that are able to continue offering online learning in some capacity should consider doing so. Santa Fe Public Schools will continue offering virtual classes for students who want that option.

“There’s going to be a group of families saying, ‘Regardless of what happens with illnesses or viruses, I want my kid to stay home another year,’” Ryan says. “If we don’t offer that, they’ll go somewhere else.”

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