Pandemic Leftovers: Is Virtual Learning Here to Stay?

Virtual learning during the pandemic and its leftover impact on American education is shaping how we view and do school for generations to come

young girl in front of a laptop computerThe COVID-19 pandemic reshaped our image of schooling in the short term and seemingly in the long term, for generations of American students. Aspects of remote and virtual learning have remained a major component of ongoing education programs in Maryland and around the country — even “post” pandemic.

Some school districts are offering virtual learning as part of its daily k-12 offerings; others are utilizing technology and remote classroom access for tutoring to help close the “COVID gap” or during inclement weather to help prevent learning loss.

New reporting from The74 indicates that some of these trends might be here to stay long term. This was observed in a recent cross-country trip in which opinion writer Conor Williams visited nearly 100 classrooms in three states in six months and discovered that education technology was everywhere:

Indeed, though many campuses reopened in part during the pandemic because they concluded that children were not learning enough using digital tools during virtual learning, late pandemic schooling today is positively saturated with these devices.

Americans have spent huge chunks of the past three years thinking and talking about schools in binary terms — open or closed, in-person or virtual. But with schools all but universally open and back to a normal state (however imperfect), though, these dichotomies have gotten somewhat blurrier.

Truth is, we didn’t reopen schools back to “normal” in-person learning over the past few years … so much as we brought daily virtual learning into real-world classrooms.

Williams continues:

There’s no question that the pandemic shifted schools’ digital infrastructure. The extraordinary pressures of the past three years of crises forced significant new public investments in closing digital divides. Policymakers and schools poured emergency funding into purchasing devices like laptops, tablets, Chromebooks and internet hotspots so that all students would be able to access online lessons — so much so that supply chains couldn’t keep up.

He continues by noting that the various stages of pandemic virtual learning continue to have lasting impacts on American classrooms; closing device and internet access gaps was just a first step in the digital education revolution.

Virtual learning lessons and challenges

At the same time, logistics and access were major challenges during and after pandemic learning. Williams pointed to experiences during and post pandemic learning that found the following remain of concern:

  • English-learning students and families struggled with digital education instruction;
  • Student engagement was challenging: “some students attending only sporadically and others switching off their cameras under the pretense that their connection was too slow to bear the video”; and
  • Students were prone to online distractions during virtual learning and “had become increasingly adept at using digital tools and resources to avoid doing their classwork themselves.”

Other long-lasting aspects of virtual learning

Williams also highlighted several other aspects of pandemic virtual learning — outside of the classroom — that appear to be here to stay.

  • Educators are continuing to use Google Classroom and other platforms as part of their courses: “These streamline student assignments, teacher grading and subsequent data analysis — and offer the potential for more effective and timely communication with students’ families.”
  • Digital communication: “more families have and can use online communication tools like email, school communication apps (for example), and video conferencing to stay linked up to what’s happening on campus. In particular, Zoom parent-teacher conferences are much easier and more equitable than the old in-person-only model.”
  • Communicating lesson plans: Some schools are using digital media to communicate upcoming lessons and learning curriculum. For example, on middle school used by Williams as an example devised a process for making and sending a two-minute Friday video explaining what 7th graders will learn in the coming week.

A word of caution

Williams concludes his analysis with a few words of caution about the continued use of virtual learning and digital methods of educating:

So: is digital literacy a key skill (or a skill set)? Or are digital tools a crutch for students? Or some murky mixture of both? These are potent questions for this moment, as worsened teenage mental health, public launches of artificial intelligence tools and concerns about the state of the humanities are creating a national discussion about technology and education.

I truly don’t know. But I think we’re long overdue for a collective rethinking of just what we want from education technology. As we clamber out of three years of pandemic-steeped K–12 education, it presently feels like we’re drifting to a sleepy acquiescence of any and all digital learning tools without regard for their actual purpose. It’s time for educators, policymakers and families to adopt a more intentional, active stance when making education technology choices — with an eye to avoiding unreflective reliance on these tools.

Read the full report from The74.