Three Ways to Make Distance Learning Actually Work
Published by: WCET | 2/16/2023
Today’s blog emphasizes the need to continue iterating on how digital learning works and how we can leverage technology to deliver successful outcomes for learners. Thank you to Katie Brown, founder of EnGen, for this look at the shift to remote learning and building upon the shift to provide high-quality digital learning.
By most measures, the COVID-19 pandemic – and the resulting shift to remote learning– was devastating to education in the United States.
In K-12 settings, students lost as many as 22 weeks of in-person instruction during the 2021-2022 school year. The shift to remote and hybrid instruction has been linked to a widening achievement gap across predictable – and frustrating – racial and socioeconomic lines.
We can track similar achievement gaps in adult learners: COVID-related shutdowns propelled a 25% decrease in workers’ participation in on-the-job training. Here too, varying levels of access and digital literacy drove disparities as front-line workers and those with lower levels of formal education saw their learning opportunities drop twice as much as those with more formal education.
Yet despite the documented shortcomings of remote teaching and learning, the pandemic was a boon for U.S. education technology startups, who raised over $2.2 billion in venture and private equity capital in 2020 alone. Disparate trends suggest that higher education leaders, entrepreneurs, and investors in the edtech sector still have a lot to learn about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to building distance learning platforms that actually support learning.
For more than 25 years, I have worked at the intersection of technology and learning – specifically for adult English learners – and have consistently found that most tech-based learning platforms are ineffective, not based on research, and don’t help advance learning outcomes.
Through my experiences in higher education as well as building a new type of digital learning platform, I’ve gathered several insights that I believe will help educational institutions and edtech companies successfully enhance student learning outcomes and work toward eliminating the unjust divides discussed above.
There’s a reason the “ed” comes first in edtech. Technology should be a way to foster a well-thought-out learning strategy. Unfortunately, technology is often viewed as THE learning strategy rather than a tool to support a more innovative approach. Instead of online schools that simply replicate traditional classrooms in virtual environments, educators and innovators should use technology to differentiate instruction, immerse learners in virtual experiences, and open access to learners not served by traditional models.
For adult English learners, for example, offering digital, mobile-friendly language instruction solves the challenges of overbooked in-person ESL classes, waitlists, transportation, and childcare issues. Tech can also be leveraged to offer customized, contextualized content that resonates with learners’ lives and livelihoods – a benefit that is applicable to other groups of learners as well.
Strong instructional design is critical to ensuring that distance learning fosters actual educational outcomes. Distance learning provides us the opportunity not only to leverage technology to drive these outcomes, but it also often gives us the tools we need to make sure we actually do it.
I’ll offer another example: Traditional methods of language teaching frequently focus too much on teaching about howthe language works – think conjugating verbs, flashcards, and complex grammar explanations – rather than giving learners an opportunity to actually use the language. Well-designed distance learning courses can give learners ample opportunities to practice using the language to do real things, such as watching videos aligned with their interests, participating in virtual experiences, and collaborating with speakers of the target language. Further, because these real-world tasks are all being accomplished in a technology-mediated way, learner outcomes can be tracked and measured, ensuring that experiences are delivering results.
Technology gives us the power to connect in ways we never thought possible. But it can also create divides that leave learners feeling left behind – as we saw during COVID-19.
The traditional “sit and get,” one-size-fits-all learning is simply not effective online (the truth is, it may not be effective at all!). When it comes to language learning, for example, technology gives us the power to use machine-learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to build customized learning plans that adapt to the learner and offer actionable insights to teachers and coaches – all at scale. Using insights from technology-mediated learning, instructors and administrators can connect learners for targeted support and intervention. These connections also foster community – one of the biggest drivers of success in distance learning, according to decades of research.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, I’ve heard one question consistently: “Will online learning go away once COVID ends?” The answer, of course, is absolutely not. People were learning online pre-COVID; digital learning will be part of our post-COVID “new normal” as well.
What I hope happens, though, is that the education community continues to iterate on how distance learning works and leverage technology to deliver outcomes that are not possible in traditional settings. The pandemic has offered a wide window to better understand what is possible with digital learning and we also got to see what simply does not work. Technology can open opportunities at incredible scale – if we use it the right way.
Dr. Katie Brown is the founder of EnGen, a Certified B Corporation that delivers personalized, contextualized, mobile-first English language upskilling to immigrants, refugees, and speakers of other languages, using patented technology that has served over 4 million language learners worldwide. Learn more at getengen.com