Virtual School Meanderings

March 3, 2022

Should we still be using the term “remote learning”?

I was among those that very early on because to use the term “remote learning” to describe most of what I was seeing delivered as distance learning or online learning or virtual learning.  In fact, I felt so strongly about it that I assembled a team of scholars to help re-purpose some existing writing with a K-12 focused in the form of a report entitled Understanding Pandemic Pedagogy: Differences between Emergency Remote, Remote, and Online Teaching that we published in December 2020.  As apart of that report, we outlined the phases of continuity of learning during the pandemic.

Specifically we wrote:

Phase 1: Rapid Transition to Remote Teaching and Learning. Institutions making an all hands on deck movement to remote delivery, often relying on synchronous video, with massive changes in just four weeks. Educators do whatever they can to have some educational presence for all classes online. Commenters have rightly pointed out that students’ and educators’ health and safety are more important than worrying about quality course design or even equitable access. Think of this phase as ‘Put everything on Zoom and worry about details later.’ Substitute Microsoft Teams or Webex or Collaborate for Zoom, as so many teachers opt for the comfort of synchronous video discussions to replace the face-to-face experience.

Phase 2: (Re) Adding Basics. Institutions must (re)add basics into emergency course transitions: course navigation, equitable access addressing lack of reliable computer and broadband, support for students with disabilities, academic integrity. During this phase it is no longer acceptable to ignore issues of equitable access and course design. Schools must start to more fully address the question of quality of emergency online delivery of courses, as well as true contingency planning.

Phase 3: Extended Transition During Continued Turmoil. Schools must be prepared to support students for a full term, and be prepared for online delivery – even if starting as face-to-face. During this phase, districts put plans in place to determine the mode of instruction based on the current realities of the pandemic. These plans should include adequate professional learning for teachers to ensure they have the skills and pedagogical knowledge to be able to implement the different instructional plans effectively.

Phase 4: Emerging New Normal. This phase will have unknown levels of online learning adoption, but it is likely that it will be higher than pre-COVID-19 days. Schools must have new levels of online learning infrastructure – technology and support – to reliably support students. Essentially, the investment in various tools and infrastructure that schools have made during the pandemic can continue to be used post-pandemic. Additionally, as teachers and students become more comfortable with learning using these tools, the chance that they will continue to use them post-pandemic increases significantly. (pp. 3-4)

As described at the time, everything that is happening in phases 1-3 should be viewed as remote learning.  By definition we described remote learning as:

a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances.  It involves the use of fully remote teaching solutions for instruction or education that would otherwise be delivered primarily face-to-face and that will return to that format once the crisis or emergency has abated. The primary objective in these circumstances is not to recreate a robust educational ecosystem but rather to provide temporary access to instruction and instructional supports in a manner that is quick to set up and is reliably available during an emergency or crisis. (p. 6)

The basic premise was what happened during Phase 1 was consistent with what many have described as emergency remote teaching, and that as schools moved into Phase 2 they moved more into a remote teaching phase.  Some schools were able to achieve Phase 3, but the vast majority got stuck in Phase 2 because they didn’t take the necessary preparations to ensure that students and teachers could toggle back and forth between in person or remote – with the same quality of experience in either environment.  However, it wasn’t until we get to Phase 4 that we transition from remote learning to online learning, with the reason being that in Phases 1-3 the distance learning is still viewed as temporary in nature.

The problem is that we are closing in on the end of the third school year that has been impacted by the pandemic.  We had the end of the 2019-20 school year impacted.  Some boards/districts and jurisdictions made good use of the summer in terms of preparing for another disrupted school year, but most didn’t.  Then we had the 2020-21 school year, where much of what we saw in terms of remote learning was still the Phase 2 category.  Then another summer came and went and there was still little in the way of adequate planning and preparation, which has meant that the 2021-22 school year has been very much like the previous school year.

So three school years into this pandemic, we are still getting articles like this one.

High-schooler shares experience of virtual learning

Sophie Nguyen, a ninth-grade student in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, says virtual learning has left students burnt out. In this commentary, Nguyen shares several strategies that schools can take to help them recover, including offering more school resources to address mental health concerns and offering intervention and tutoring to help students recover learning loss.

Full Story: The Hechinger Report (2/17)

Now it was this article that we were discussing when I asked my colleagues the question – should we still be using the term “remote learning”?

Actually, if I’m being truthful, I stated in that <sarcasm>completely unopinionated way that I speak</sarcasm> that while folks could be justified using the term in emergency remote teaching in Spring 2020, maybe even remote learning during the 2020-21 school year (although I would take a bit of an issue with that too), at what point does the field of K-12 digital learning get to stop hiding behind the excuse that this is just “remote learning”?

I think we all know of example after example of the poor quality, badly managed, and or just crappy distance/online learning occurring prior to the 2019-20 school year.  And we all know these aren’t isolated cases.  This is just bad digital learning – we’ve all seen it for decades (and those pushing it always have excuses for why it’s bad that have nothing to do with the fact that they are pushing a bad product for the purposes of saving money or making money – depending on who is making the excuse).

Three school years later, continuing to dismiss the bad online learning as just “remote learning” is only a way for those of us – and I’m guilty of this myself – in the field a way to hide behind an excuse.  It’s just remote learning, it’s not the real online learning that we do, so it doesn’t apply to us.

Emergency remote learning was a useful way to describe what occurred in the Spring of 2020, when everyone had to scramble to find some measure of continuity of learning.  The distinction between emergency remote learning and remote learning was useful during that time to distinguish between those individual educators and schools/districts that were able to engage with somewhat better practices.  During the 2020-21 school year – if you were charitable to the school, district, and departmental leaders who in complete dereliction of their duties failed to adequately plan for a pandemic that was going to last more than the initial few month – remote learning was useful as a term to distinguish between a full online program and what happened to in person students when they weren’t able to attend school.
For example, a school or district that created a 100% online option in 2020-21 or 2021-22 – no matter how poorly planned or executed – they were undertaking online learning.  A school where students were in the classroom, but when the school had to close that instruction temporarily shifted to a distance or hybrid format until the students could return to the building, that’s remote learning.
To call both of these conditions remote learning just because it happened in a pandemic does two things.
The first thing is that it gives a pass to that first group, who in 2020 (and in particular 2021) should have known better.  If they didn’t know better in terms of whether the pandemic was going to continue to disrupt schools, the reality is that we’ve been doing online learning for 30 years, so even if they didn’t bother with the research (which they never do and always complain about a lack of it in their ignorance) the proliferation of the practice of online learning should have made them know better.  They shouldn’t get a pass on this.  This is crappy online learning.  It isn’t remote learning.  That’s just making an excuse for it.
The second thing is it allows us in the field to feel a false sense of superiority about it all.  Online learning is still a great thing, and all of that crappy stuff you saw during the 2020-21 school year and 2021-22 school year, well that wasn’t real online learning, it was just remote learning – which we know is often terrible anyway.  Essentially, in much the same way that calling it remote learning gives educational leaders a pass, calling it remote learning also gives us in the field a pass too.

At what point do we just have to say that the corporate interests and the ideological right that have been pushing K-12 online and blended learning on us as a way for schools to be more competitive or for schools to be more efficient or for schools to save money (or, as the more jaded might say, who can be maximize profits in the only public sector industry that we haven’t completely privatized yet) have lived up to the saying that you shouldn’t waste a good crisis!  They’ve used this crisis to increase their market share of crappy online learning that is designed to maximize corporate profits.  And we continue to give them a pass because it’s just remote learning.

1 Comment »

  1. What a great article. My son did 5 years with k12 in Louisiana by chice. When the panademic hit he entered college ahead of the curve. But the local school system was ill prepared. Since then they have tried but have neither the money, resorce or teachers to help. Now in year three when the state got bad they handed out MC books and went remote. For a few days with little plans or support. From teachers or parents.
    Only good thing out of it my son is planning to be a teacher in an online school.

    Comment by Lisa's * Everyday Life — March 6, 2022 @ 7:23 am | Reply

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