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Is There a Backlash to Online Learning? (And is it justified?)

Conventional wisdom holds that the era of online learning is upon us.  After all, we have the technology, and now that nearly every school and college in the country has quickly changed from traditional classrooms to “online learning,” nothing can stop it.

But we’ve heard “nothing can stop online learning” before, and it’s never worked out that way.  Today, there’s evidence that a backlash to “online learning” is coming.

That’s the conclusion of eLearning Inside, which has noted that hundreds of students are now filing class action suits against their colleges, claiming that the online learning environment they got as a result of the pandemic simply isn’t comparable to what they were paying for as residential students.  

This was perhaps inevitable, eLearning Inside suggests, when masses of people who had never experienced online learning were forced into classes with professors who had never intended to teach that way.

“For those who had never experienced quality online learning before, the results of the ‘experiment’ were clear. (Online learning is) stressful. It doesn’t work. It isn’t valuable,” they write.

Students (and parents) who aren’t suing may still end up voting with their feet:  responding to an Axios Poll, 65% of students said they would return to their campus in the fall even if there is no solution yet to Covid-19.   Another 4% said that they wouldn’t attend in-person classes without a vaccine, but that they also wouldn’t stay enrolled in online courses, preferring to withdraw from college all together.  

That leaves just 31% of students who say they’re willing to go to an online school.

Not surprisingly, many of the students who say they’d prefer in-person classes say they’re having problems with online learning:  45% say they attend class less often, and 70% say they are distracted when they do attend online class.  

Another survey of k-12 students found similar, widespread, problems in the adoption of online learning.  While students largely appreciated the more relaxed schedules online learning provides, they had significant challenges with self-discipline and motivation.

But the issue that had the most impact on their experience, they said, wasn’t the format at all, but the teachers:  did the teachers know how to conduct an online class?  Did they understand how to be helpful to students struggling in this medium?

Both this, and the potential backlash to online education, make perfect sense, because as we’ve noted before, “online learning” isn’t just one thing.  It represents a whole host of best practices which not only have to be understood and worked with, but need to be targeted at specific populations, and their specific needs, to be effective.  

That is the opposite of what has happened with the emergency mass migration of courses online, which is not “online learning” but “emergency remote teaching.”  

There can, and probably should, be a backlash against that kind of education:  it’s not well designed, it’s not created with the needs of specific populations of students in mind, and the people teaching it are often not well trained in it, or even trained at all.

Schools and colleges had to do it, the circumstances were dire, but no – that is not what we want anyone’s education to look like in the future.

Calbright was created to offer online education to people for whom online education would be their best choice.  People whose needs simply weren’t being served by conventional colleges.  That means we have to design our classes to focus on the needs that these specific student populations have, the obstacles they need to overcome, and the opportunities that online learning can offer;  and it needs to be done by people who are experts in these specific teaching methods.  Just throwing pre-existing classes onto a screen does not meet those needs.  It isn’t good enough.  It doesn’t serve them, and they know it. 

Effective online learning requires experts, and courses designed around specific populations.  

It will be a shame if there is a backlash against online learning as a whole, because it can – it must – serve a vital role in the educational ecosystem.  But it’s entirely understandable if there is a backlash against emergency remote teaching.  It was a necessity, to be sure, but it’s not good enough.  

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