What Decades of Research Tells Us About Student Success in the Online Classroom

If you think video meetings are hard, imagine learning algebra over Zoom.

Schools around the U.S. have gone completely digital, with mixed levels of success. The plunge into this new setting might leave students, teachers and parents wondering if it’s worth bothering with recorded lectures and emailed worksheets. The whole experience might even leave everyone reluctant to try digital education again.

But what teachers and students are going through is different from traditional online education, says Leanna Archambault, a learning technology researcher at Arizona State University. In classes that are digital from their very conception, educators have preplanned learning outcomes and activities. The teachers leading those lessons want to be distance educators. Right now, it’s more of a crash course for everyone involved. “Teachers are doing the best they can,” says Archambault.

That being said, some teaching strategies that work well for online classes might not appear in brick-and-mortar classrooms. Adopting some of these methods could make the next few months of homebound lessons feel like less of a burden — and may improve education in the long run. 

Comparing Apples to Apples

Comparing how students fare in online versus in-person classes is tricky. Ideally, researchers would randomly assign a nearly identical group of students to either setting and track how they do. Not many of those studies have been done, and some think the research points toward online education producing worse outcomes. However, much of the success of an online class hinges on the teaching strategies used, says Rick Ferdig, a learning technology researcher at Kent State University. Setting up online students with the exact lesson plans and resources as their in-school counterparts won’t achieve the same results. “What we do know about online education is that if all you’re doing is taking what you’ve done traditionally face-to-face and putting it online, it’s not going to work.” 

When online classes use techniques that fit the format, Ferdig and Archambault think the two types of K-12 classrooms produce comparable outcomes for students. There are two interpretations of that comparison, points out Archambault. “That doesn’t mean online is wonderful — it might mean face-to-face isn’t always that great.” Still, online education is part of everyone’s life now. And since researchers have been studying what a quality online education looks like for decades, there are some clear strategies for making the lessons as helpful as possible. 

Digital Lessons Look Different

For starters, successful online K-12 teachers develop alternative techniques to check in on their students’ emotional well-being. Archambault thinks this should be the first priority of teachers right now — ensuring that students are coping with the transition well, and letting them know their teacher is there to support them. Since teachers can’t watch how their students walk into class or interact with their friends when everyone is in their respective homes, checking in might be more direct, with one-on-one chats or regular email updates, Ferdig says.

How teachers present the curriculum has to change, too. Standing in front of the class and reciting information isn’t that helpful in real life, and it doesn’t translate well to Zoom, either, Archambault says. Effective online educators might think of themselves less as lecturers and more as curators — someone to gauge how students are doing and tailor information or assignments based on how each individual is progressing. Online learning might have kids working on different projects entirely. “Not everybody has to go in lockstep,” Archambault says. If the lessons change, so too might assessments of how much a student has learned. A multiple-choice test could be substituted with a way for students to demonstrate their new knowledge. 

A lot of parents might feel pressured to help their kids along with their lessons. That’s an intimidating ask — working from home and coaching kids through lessons is even hard on the parents and professionals who study online education for a living, Archambault says. But some research indicates that when parents try to teach curriculum, online students end up with lower grades. Students did better when their parents instead encouraged them to stay on track. 

To keep students in a digital class from turning to their parents any time they are confused, Ferdig says teachers should be clear about how kids can come to them with questions — when office hours are, for example, or at what times of day students can send emails and expect a response. Parents should also let educators know if the current system isn’t working, Archambault says. Teachers are probably unaware that Mom or Dad might be stepping in often. 

Giving Teachers the Right Tools

Some teachers (and students) might have had an easier time transitioning to distance learning if online education was a larger part of the student-teacher curriculum. “That’s an area for growth, and researchers like myself have been calling for this,” Archambault says. Her 2016 survey found only 15 teaching colleges in the U.S. that included digital K-12 learning as part of the student-teacher experience. Experts have been requesting that colleges introduce online education as part of their teacher training programs, but few have listened, Ferdig says. Now that everyone is switching to online-only school, “most states are woefully underprepared,” he adds.

Teachers who already blend key online teaching methods into the normal school day stand the best chance of a smooth transition to fully online education, Archambault and Ferdig say. Everyone has room to grow, however. Teachers looking to make the digital experience easier have formed chat rooms and other problem-solving meetings to discuss strategy. The academic journal Ferdig edits, the Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, is also putting out a special issue in a few weeks that will gather all the research-supported online education recommendations with explanations on why those tactics work. Ferdig and his collaborator, Kathryn Kennedy, also recently published an updated version of an online K-12 teaching handbook.

The coming weeks and approaching summer could be the perfect time to do what Ferdig calls a “health checkup” on our education system. States and school districts could assess who was prepared, why they were ready and how to spread that knowledge around, he says.

“I’ve been calling for this for a long time,” says Archambault. “I never would have thought that a pandemic would have brought it to the forefront.”

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