When the pandemic forced education online almost overnight, many saw it as a temporary solution. Two years later, the impact of distance learning has helped to transform our nation's centuries-old traditional classroom model.
School closure tracker Burbio shows that the majority of classrooms have been in-person since March 2021. Further, school disruptions, where in-person learning does not happen for a pandemic-related reason, have been below 100 for most weeks since April 2022, down from the almost 7,500 disruptions a few months earlier during the peak of the Omicron wave.
This data highlights why it is unlikely that distance learning will replace traditional classrooms completely. In-person schooling is still the preferred form of learning for teachers, students, and parents.
But even in traditional classrooms, online learning is here to stay. Not to replace the face-to-face instruction but to augment it.
Rethinking the classroom
Research found that the learning loss from pandemic distance learning may be evidence that many pedagogical practices are much harder to replicate on a screen, especially for younger students.
Learning is an inherently social practice. Informal, community-building moments keep students motivated and mental health can suffer without them. But as difficult as it was, pandemic-era schooling revealed a silver lining—it forced society to confront the assumption that learning only occurs within the four walls of a traditional classroom. Through innovations in educational technology and tools like virtual labs and simulations and augmented reality, distance learning doesn't feel so distant anymore.
Will distance learning replace the traditional classroom?
While the pandemic proved that distance learning limits academic progress and strains student mental health, the lessons learned from this crisis have permanently impacted pedagogy and will drive educational innovation forward.
Even pre-pandemic, technology forced educators to reexamine the structure of a traditional classroom. Blended learning and flipped classrooms gained popularity for their effectiveness in personalizing learning.
Armed with nearly two years of virtual learning experience, educators will continue to use digital tools to enhance their practice. According to the Clayton Christensen Institute, nearly 80% of teachers say they have discovered new resources and practices during the pandemic that they plan to continue using after the pandemic is over. A survey of teachers revealed that around two-thirds of teachers believe remote learning will continue to impact classroom practices in the future.
It's clear that mutually exclusive modalities—in-person or fully online—are a thing of the past. Fluid, hybrid learning is a new reality and for many the future of distance learning. During the first half of 2021, hybrid learning was used in over 25% of K-12 classrooms, according to the Burbio tracker.
The benefits of hybrid learning
There are many benefits of hybrid learning, including:
- Flexibility. Hybrid learning gives students the option to move between modalities based on learning needs and location.
- Access. Offering some form of distance learning benefits various populations with limited access to in-person schools such as rural students or students with physical or learning difficulties. It also expands access to a wider variety of courses otherwise not available in person.
- Continuity. Distance learning mitigates learning loss from school closings due to weather.
- Remediation. For students falling behind, distance learning offers an opportunity for credit recovery.
- Equity. During the pandemic, the Hechinger Report found that families of color disproportionately preferred virtual learning to in-person instruction. Offering distance learning options can help alleviate existing inequities.
- Effectiveness. Studies on the hybrid "flipped" classroom model—where students use asynchronous time for expository instruction and synchronous, in-person time for interactive instruction—show positive effects on learning.
Distance learning vs. traditional classroom: Thoughts from stakeholders
Those fearing that distance learning will replace traditional classrooms need only to look at survey data from educational stakeholders during the pandemic.
Teachers overwhelmingly view virtual learning as inferior to the traditional classroom setting. In one survey conducted by the World Economic Forum, 58% of teachers found it to be the least effective form of teaching during the pandemic.
Teenagers surveyed strongly favored in-person learning over distance learning, although there were noticeable differences based on race and household income. Only 18% say they prefer a mix of online and in-person instruction, and 9% would choose a fully online option.
Survey data from parents of K-12 students show the desire for options. Parents with children attending in-person school during the pandemic were much more likely to be satisfied with their child's instruction. Even during the Omicron surge, over half of parents said schools should be offering a mix of online and in-person learning. But distance learning worked well for some.
Next-gen technology to enhance in-person learning
Learning is a uniquely social endeavor. Over two years since COVID-19 first started closing schools, there's little reason to believe distance learning will replace traditional classrooms, but the pandemic has transformed pedagogy permanently.
Technology will continue to augment face-to-face learning in innovative ways. To ensure academic progress, virtual learning needs to innovate beyond the digitized lecture and embrace next-gen technology like virtual and augmented reality, robotics and other new education technology.
Through these methodologies, teachers at Verizon Innovative Learning schools are individualizing instruction and seeing enhanced engagement. Expanding access to this innovative teaching is critical to closing the digital divide and ensuring all students are prepared for an increasingly digital world.
Learn more about how Verizon can help you modernize your classroom and transform learning experiences.
The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.