So How’d Virtual Learning Go?

A few weeks back Parker posted an interesting article on twitter regarding virtual learning that got me thinking about the subject again. In the future when we look back at the COVID-19 pandemic beyond the sad loss of life it has caused, I expect we’ll analyze the changes it drove in our every day lives. Just look at life in the workforce for example. Many companies in the course of weeks or even days had to flip from an office-based workforce to one that was entirely remote. A lot of businesses still succeeded in this format and their workforce has embraced the idea of remote work with many businesses choosing to retain the model or take a new hybrid approach to business. Can the same be said about education? One might think that given that todays youth have been highly exposed to technology early on in their lives, that virtual learning would have been a success. For crying out loud my nephew Jack could unlock an iPad before he could even talk! Unfortunately, the data so far seems to show otherwise.

What Is Distance Learning For? | The New Yorker

Throughout February and March 2021, The Horace Mann Educators Corporations surveyed 941 U.S. educators which included K-12 teachers to see how the pandemic was impacting academic learning. A staggering 97% of responses said the pandemic was having a significant loss of learning (53%) or some loss of learning (44%). Within this same survey, 85% of respondents believed that student’s academic progress vs. prior years was behind by a month or more. 55% believed that students were behind by 3 months or worse. These are staggering numbers and unfortunately were not limited to the United States. McKinsey and Company ran a separate survey globally and found that their responses from the eight countries surveyed concluded that teachers did not believe that remote learning was a good substitute for in classroom learning. Teachers in the United States and Japan were very critical of it and touting its effectiveness as only slightly better than skipping school all together.


While impacts have been felt across the spectrum, they aren’t necessarily equal in weight. For example, minority students, students with disabilities, low income students, and students whose first language is not English have been hit particularly hard by the shift to online learning. Often these characteristics may be in combination of one another making the impact worse. Children in minority communities and low-income communities often lack the appropriate technology and home environments to best suit independent study. Children with disabilities and who are learning English as a secondary language struggled with the absence of in-class instruction.

Academic impacts have not been the only set back from the virtual learning environment throughout the pandemic. Pediatric studies have shown that virtual schooling has led to students with increases in anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, conduct problems, pro-social behavioral problems, sleep issues, and worsening of preexisting mental health disorders. Beyond learning the study also found that students in virtual environments rather than in class environments were more likely to have decreased physical activity, were likely to spend less time outdoors, and were likely to spend less time with friends both virtually and physically which takes a toll on their mental well-being. Studies also showed that in addition to children virtual learning had adverse effects on parents like juggling work and childcare as well as financial impacts to support the switch to virtual learning.

Rob Tornoe's cartoon for Friday, September 18, 2020.

The question then becomes where do we go from here and how do we ensure we get kids back up to speed as well as creating an environment conducive to online learning in the future if it becomes required. To answer this brings us back to the point made in the article Parker shared which focuses on digital equity. When schools shifted to online learning, they neglected to look at it from the perspective that not every school district and community has the same resources. I think as a society we often taken for granted this aspect of life. I am guilty of it myself. But the fact of the matter is there are a great deal of people in this country and the world for that matter who don’t have easy access to the interest and often don’t have access to the tools that make virtual learning possible like computers, tablets, etc. I think the pandemic has shown that we need to make investments in these communities, or we risk the growing trend of income inequality to get even worse. Lastly, I would say we need to empower teachers and give them the resources they need to succeed. Much of my post focuses on how virtual learning impacted students but it no doubt has been a challenge for teachers as well. My sister teaches kindergarten. I must imagine its tough enough keeping them attentive in person let alone on zoom. Here at Boston College we even had hick ups with online class. Over the summer I had a teacher mute himself and not know how to get it off mute which at the time was good for a laugh but in reality how many classrooms across the country do you think went through the exact same thing. If we are going to expect our teachers to teach virtually we must give them the resources to make sure they can do it effectively.


  1. allietlevine · ·

    Virtual learning is tough, I have sat through my fair share of technology glitches! Personally, I am happy to be back in the classroom.

    A friend of mine who is a high school English teacher in NYC shared with me some stories from the past 18 months. For example, she shared that she had a student who was trying to complete homework assignments by picking up the wifi access from the bodega underneath their apartment. Another student had to write their entire paper via a cell phone. In my opinion, students should not have to have these extra challenges. I worry that students have grown to have a negative perception of attending school and learning. School shouldn’t be something that is dreaded. While I am huge proponent of introducing technology into the classroom, I am hopeful that we won’t have to be dependent on virtual learning again.

  2. shanpopzaruba · ·

    There are so many people who have jobs I do not envy, but kindergarten teacher during a pandemic is one of them. I can only imagine the difficulty of each part of that process from the teacher, administrator, and parent perspectives.

    The last part of this blog was critical in understanding education gaps as a whole, especially as they were exacerbated by the pandemic. Several of the initiatives that were rolled out to ensure students had internet for online learning are currently being rolled back, much like the mask guidance and other safety measures for schools. All parents want to make sure their kid is learning and able to participate in school, but if the issue is structural, the solution must be too. This would include ensuring every student has all the resources they need to be successful regardless of if they are online or in person.

  3. bengreen123 · ·

    I think that students who are late bloomers or unapplied are likely to be very disadvantaged by remote learning. In person they can learn more by osmosis but naturally struggle to by attention on a computer. Remote learning only bridged the divide and this is particular unfair in that most young students can’t be expected to apply themselves as much as older ones. I’m concerned about the developmental consequences.

    1. I agree with Ben. I’ve read a few scholarly publications that found that students with disabilities (of any kind) were less likely to have a sense of belonging and often felt further excluded from group activities. Additionally, students from underprivileged areas felt shame when forced to share their home environment on video cam. When students do not feel comfortable and safe, they are not going to absorb information. Instead, they can develop long-term anxiety that could lead to future unemployment and crime. I’m not sure what “empowering” teachers means, but I only hope they are given the tools and flexibility to get these students back on pace.

  4. parkerrepko · ·

    I taught middle school when we transitioned to remote learning in March 2020. What surprised me was that some students I expected to struggle actually excelled with remote learning while some students I expected to excel actually struggled. Figured out why that was for some, but for others, it was a mystery. Granted this was for the end of the 2020 school year, so it was 3 months; long-term effects are more detrimental. In addition, I learned over many years that a teacher spends more time/effort teaching social/emotional skills such as modeling positive relationship building or resolving interpersonal challenges than actually teaching hard skills or facts. That work is necessary but difficult if students are remote. I think remote learning in 2020 and part of 2021 has ushered in a new paradigm of constant communication between students and teachers outside of the classroom and outside of school hours (email, text, direct/personal feedback, recorded videos, etc.) all made possible through digital transformation.

  5. Kanal Patel · ·

    I wonder how much of the learning gap is because teachers were not equipped with the proper skills/training to be effective teaching virtually. I have friends who are teachers and they mentioned that while the transition to online learning was inconvenient but do-able for them. The older teachers struggled with utilizing the digital tools available to them and could not be fully effective in teaching students in creative ways digitally. I personally liked the flexibility of being home. Some professors were very good with teaching online while others were not. So while access if for sure a problem, I wonder if the gap of how far behind students are could be bridged by training teachers on online learning.

  6. I think the pandemic showcased that the effectiveness of remote education depended on a lot of factors, perhaps most notably the age and stage of the student. I had the perspective of a parent of three children who were all fully remote last year, with their respective grades last year: 7th grade, 4th grade and 2nd grade. They all performed admirably with their academics but there was definitely a lot missing from their school experience. The social aspect of school is huge at these ages. My now 13 year old was able to keep in touch with her friends as she is more independent and could gather outside (and the pandemic sped up us getting her an iPhone which I think was mostly positive.) And she made it clear she was fine with doing one year of middle school remote.

    It was harder for the other two, especially my youngest. We could arrange socially distanced playdates but that’s a far cry from the every day interactions with friends.

    They’re all back in school this year and after their first day we asked each how their day went. Our now 3rd grader said it was “the best day!” and that he wished he’d been able to go back in person earlier. Our 5th grader said it was good but some of her classes were a little chaotic. And our 8th grade teenager reported flatly, “It sucked”! All age appropriate responses, I guess!

    In looking back I’m grateful for the school district and teachers for everything they did to keep the kids on track academically. But I’m really glad it was only a year as I feel missing out more on those social intangibles would really be costly.

  7. This was a really interesting post! The past year has been challenging for all and for various reasons. I really enjoyed the convenience of remote learning all of last year as it saved me commuting time, allowed me to stay in NY thus saving on rent and allowed me to have a flexible schedule (ie. if I have a 2 hr break between classes, I’d use that time to workout or catch up on other work). It did, however, have its drawbacks since I wasn’t able to connect with most of the individuals in my class outside of breakout rooms or project meetups.

    I have a cousin who’s in kindergarten and she had the most difficult time paying attention in class on Zoom. Her parents complained about her lack of concentration and focus and they couldn’t wait for classes to be in person again. As she went back to school this year, she was socially awkward and did not have the same communication skills she did a year ago. This is the problem a lot of kids are facing now. For us, it might not be that big of a deal since we have already developed these skills but it’s unfortunate that these kids had to miss out on “regular” school during their important developing years. It’s definitely taking a toll on their mental health since they’re unable to connect and interact with others in a social setting. A huge part of going to school or attending a university is the social experiences you have there that help in shaping your personality.

  8. Man, I could talk for days about this. I’m certainly not a fan of pure virtual learning. I do think virtual learning has gotten a bad rap because of teachers not really knowing how to use it. My kids had some amazing opportunities that virtual unlocked – voice lessons with world-class teachers located elsewhere, strong Tae-Kwon-Do curriculum, learning Python via MIT Opencourseware. Clearly there are downsides to entirely virtual environments, particularly for certain ages. Yet, I’m wary of throwing all virtual learning under the bus because some teachers in some settings were bad at doing it.

  9. DropItLikeItHox · ·

    Awesome post, one of the best I’ve read so far in this class. I echo a lot of the same sentiments as the rest of my classmates, during my summer session of online classes, I found myself less engaged in the classes, and looking back, I struggle to think of things that I took away from the course. My only question, in regards to the study ran by Dr. Wagner, is how much of the physical effects of remote learning can be attributed to remote learning or whether it can be attributed to the greater societal lockdowns that were imposed. I imagine everyone in the world had less physical activity during the lockdowns for the pandemic, but I can definitely understand its a greater degree if your entire day is at home versus the few that would travel to school for 6-8 hours.

  10. kaylacyrs · ·

    This is a great post. I think that there is such a variation between virtual learning for elementary level students versus masters students. While I feel like I was able to handle learning virtually rather well, I do not think it is an effective form of learning for so many. Elementary, middle, and high schools are in many ways not just places to learn but create necessary socialization for children to feel like they are integrated with their peers. I think many teachers could use a resource my grandfather wrote in 1997. “Teaching at a Distance With the Merging Technologies : An Instructional Systems Approach”. He is no longer with us but it would have been so interesting to hear his perspective on virtual learning as a former professor in the subject

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