It's Time To Know The Difference Between "Remote Learning" & Virtual Learning
They are not the same. Yet, confusing the two is forcing us to miss an important opportunity moment for young people trapped in outdated K-12 education models
Angela Williams | Stride Learning
Dial-up internet and WiFi are clearly not the exact same thing, right? They both have something to do with how we access the Internet or information super highway with our computers and other devices. Yet, one is in the past and the other in the present. Which is why it would be a problem if we removed all WiFi capabilities from schools, homes, and businesses around the country and replaced them with dial-up. That’s not something we’d tolerate.
Well, if we know that there is a key difference between dial-up and WiFi then we should be able to understand the differences between remote learning (which, for many, was a rushed first time in the midst of a pandemic emergency) and the more experienced and structured virtual learning. It can be problematic when we confuse the two.
For example, we know – of course - that dial-up internet is now an analog experience that’s completely incompatible with today’s fast digital world. Similarly, remote learning is just as incompatible with the needs of today’s education system. When considering that, it’s critical to ensure that educators, parents and students understand the difference between what most students were required to do during school shutdowns - known as remote learning - and the high-quality, structured programs other students chose before and during the pandemic – known as virtual learning. That distinctions aid us in transitioning away from the former as we fully embrace the latter.
The pandemic gave us a very clear view of the limitations of remote learning. Remote learning during school closures was administration-centered. It was created to suit the needs of overly worked and under-appreciated staff who did their best to cobble something together so students could learn during the pandemic. Remote learning attempted to mimic the stay-all-day model of learning with an expectation that even the youngest of students would be in front of a screen for hours at a time. Remote learning leaves teachers isolated and tasked with creating curriculum for a format that most of them have not been trained in. And at a time when students and families needed support and services more than ever, remote learning, instead, couldn’t accommodate their needs.
Students, parents, teachers and staff did what they could with the remote learning options they had. Ultimately, it proved inefficient at best. This was especially true for already burdened low-income and mostly Black, Brown, Indigenous and Asian Pacific Islander communities.
Quality and experienced virtual learning, however, is modeled in a way that makes the concerns of remote learning irrelevant.
Quality virtual learning models are student-centered. One year into the pandemic and 12 million students still did not have access to the internet or devices adequate enough to engage in the “remote learning” set up. Yet, one of the first steps in a virtual learning model is to ensure that students and parents not only have the internet connections and devices they need, but that they possess the necessary training and knowledge to use the technology. Support networks are also provided if problems should arise.
Support isn’t just limited to technology, either.
Virtual learning environments provide teams of counselors, staff, and paraprofessionals who are tailored to meet the needs of each student. Meanwhile, according to Education Week …
Nearly 40 percent of all school districts nationally, enrolling 5.4 million students, did not have a school psychologist in the first full year of the pandemic, according to an Education Week analysis of the most recent federal data. Just 8 percent of districts met the National Association of School Psychologists’ recommended ratio of one school psychologist to 500 students.
While most districts did have a school counselor in the 2020-21 school year, only 14 percent met the ratio of one school counselor to 250 students recommended by the American School Counselor Association.
Without the essential infrastructure of training, technical support, counselors and other staff, “remote learning” can end up being very isolating for both students and families. In stark contrast, virtual learning models create an ecosystem of services and assistance which help students with specialized personal needs, mental health, and overall development. They also allow students and families to incorporate learning into their own schedules.
Think about it: 30 percent, or more than a quarter, of all high school students have a job. More than 1.5 million students between the ages of 8 and 12 serve as caregivers for a sibling or older adult. Millions more students with disabilities require individualized pacing and scheduling that suits their unique needs and responsibilities. Virtual learning doesn’t leave anyone behind: it enables students to succeed no matter what their schedules look like at the pace that is best suited for them.
“Remote learning,” however, is all but married to the idea that everyone must bend over backwards to meet the administrative schedules of the local school district. That model is incongruent with the realities of students and families in general, but it took on an especially troubling tone for families struggling to balance life, work, and school on the front lines of a pandemic. Structured virtual learning programs, however, protect students with added responsibilities and commitments outside the classroom by accommodating their schedules and needs. They don’t punish them for being supportive family members and productive workers.
Once the support networks and technological needs for each student and family are put in place, students in virtual learning environments are offered curriculums that are crafted through close collaborations between teachers, scientists, experts, technologists, designers, writers and researchers with input and feedback form students and parents. They are also implemented by teachers who are trained and certified in online instruction.
The differences between remote learning and virtual learning couldn’t be clearer. That level of clarity will be important as we move forward and attempt to strengthen the American education system.
Virtual learning environments are created with the understanding that education can and should be built around the student as a whole person by the best trained and most concerned faculty and staff. Remote learning largely forces students to accept and fall in line with whatever their schools and administrations offer them. That may have made sense when school systems were first developed during the Industrial Revolution. It may have even made sense in the days of dial-up internet. But that doesn’t make sense in the Digital Era.
We don’t have to metaphorically tie students to a chair in a small room for eight hours a day. We don’t have to ignore their personal needs or the obstacles presented to learning that they face in their households and communities. We don’t have to provide substandard curriculums and poorly constructed benchmarks. If we transition to carefully constructed and high quality virtual learning, we can overcome these obstacles and truly support student achievement.
At Stride, for example, students in their virtual schools had proficiency gains of 12 percent in reading and 27 percent in math as compared to national test scores during the COVID closures. Nationally, the typical 3rd – 8th grader lost 3-6 points in reading and 8-12 points in math. One system, Stride, deployed a virtual learning model. The other, conventional brick-and-mortar schools, used remote learning models.
Ultimately, there might be confidence that remote learning, like dial-up internet, may have served its purpose – but, now it’s time for the transformative next level. In order to move away from the Industrial Era and into the digital future, we’ll need to upgrade our systems, pivot from the constraints of one-size-fits-all learning and begin embracing the promise that quality virtual learning has to offer. Let’s not deny our young people that opportunity.