The Evolution of Distance Education in 2020
COVID-19 has upended many areas of our lives, not the least of which is education. Due to the pandemic and worldwide shutdown, distance education became a necessity at lightning speed. More than 1.5 billion students, or 91.3 percent of global enrollments, were directly affected by school closures at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in early April.1 With so many students suddenly out of classrooms, school administrators, teachers, and parents scrambled to meet students’ educational needs with online learning.2 It is no longer a question of when we migrate from in-person classrooms to distance education, but how well we can quickly transition when the need arises.
The U.S. is particularly well-positioned to take advantage of the various e-learning options that are available.3 High-speed internet can be found in most U.S. regions, with the average internet speed more than twice that of the rest of the world.4 However, even in the U.S., access to distance learning is not uniform. Students of color, especially those in households with low incomes, are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to education and technology, and this was true before the pandemic.5
This has sparked a discussion among education professionals about the state and accessibility of distance education, the impact of COVID-19 on remote learning, and the role that educators and administrators play in providing students with an effective online educational experience.
Distance Education Before COVID-19
Distance education is defined as a style of learning where teachers and students are physically separated, and different technologies are used so that they can communicate effectively.6 While originally focused on full-time employees and those in remote regions, it has become increasingly prevalent in other contexts.
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, distance education was experiencing modest yet steady growth. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 34.7 percent of college students were enrolled in at least one online course in 2018, compared to 33.1 percent in 2017. That was less than the 2 percent increase from 2016 to 2017, but it was still an upward trend.7
On the technology side, global educational technology (EdTech) investments reached nearly $18.7 billion in 2019.8 EdTech is vital for distance education for a number of reasons. It helps to deliver personalized education so that students can learn at their own paces and skill levels. It democratizes access to education around the world, eliminating barriers to learning and reducing costs. Sophisticated EdTech software can attract students and keep them engaged. Digital educational resources create a continuous learning experience outside of the classroom, and data analytics enable adaptive learning, where data is fed back into the system to influence learning programs and fill knowledge gaps. Maintaining a high level of innovation improves the efficiency of our educational system.9
The global online education market is projected to reach $350 billion by 2025.10 Behind these strong numbers, however, is the human story of blending new technologies and learning methods to improve online education. How seamless is the transition between in-person classrooms and online education? Prior to the pandemic, a survey of online learning administrators indicated that 70 percent allowed students to take a virtual class without any type of online orientation.11 And although many of the teachers were trained prior to conducting online classes, nearly one-third lacked any kind of teaching, learning, and technology (TLT) center available to them for support.12
As the numbers suggest, most higher education institutions were unprepared to switch to virtual instruction when COVID-19 shut down their campuses. As a result, many colleges opted for low-tech solutions, such as Zoom video conferencing and other third-party communication tools, to finish the term. This pieced-together approach may have given students and faculty the impression that distance education is chaotic and difficult. With thoughtfully designed, integrated platforms and comprehensive training, however, that doesn’t have to be the case.12
The COVID-19 Transformation of Distance Learning
The arrival of COVID-19 has changed distance learning from an attractive option to a necessity—at least for the short-term, and no one really knows how long that will be. In the U.S., when the virus spread in March, most schools closed through the spring term. While a handful of states allowed in-person classes for the summer and some have plans to reopen in the fall, medical experts are urging caution as uncertainty rises. Many schools will be using staggered schedules and hybrid programs of in-person and remote classes to adhere to social-distancing guidelines.13
Technology Takes Center Stage
COVID-19 has brought distance learning to a much wider audience. As a result, schools have had to create or fast-track online education plans to get teachers and students on board with the latest technology as quickly as possible. A collection of software applications and platforms to facilitate online education was already in place, though further improvement is needed to make these tools easier to learn and use.14
In the spring of 2020, the Education Week Research Center surveyed K-12 educators nationwide, asking how the coronavirus school closures have influenced the role and use of technology in K-12 education. More than eight in 10 teachers believed that their ability to use the technology improved, and that this made them better, more innovative educators. They reported becoming more tech-savvy in using EdTech, and some planned to continue using the new tools when their buildings reopened. Most were doing at least some instruction online and half were exclusively online.15
The survey also highlighted the disparity between students in higher-income and lower-income households. The number of fully online classes was significantly higher (68 percent) in districts with fewer low-income students, and lower (36 percent) in schools with more low-income students. Providing computers to disadvantaged students was only a temporary solution to the larger problem of limited access to computers and high-speed internet services.16
The pandemic may well accelerate growth in EdTech development and the entire online learning industry. At the same time, the sudden mainstream popularity of distance learning, borne of necessity, has uncovered large systemic problems, such as the growing digital divide and lack of resources for some students.15
Educators will play a key role in the immediate future, not just in helping students adjust to the technological demands of distance learning, but in acting as advocates for expanding online learning opportunities to reach more students.
The Digital Divide and Students’ Educational Needs
While web technology and the growing EdTech industry have greatly improved e-learning, they have only benefited those who have access to broadband internet service and a computer. The COVID-19 shutdown has highlighted and exacerbated the existing digital divide throughout the world. According to UNESCO, half of all students who were deprived of in-person classes due to the pandemic do not have computer access. More than 40 percent are without internet access in their homes.5
In the United States, the digital divide uncovers existing racial disparities and socioeconomic inequalities. Prior to the pandemic, 15 percent of school-age children lived in homes that didn’t have high-speed internet access. This percentage was significantly higher for Black and Hispanic households (25 percent and 23 percent, respectively) and was especially true for families with low incomes.6 This digital divide is often known as the “homework gap,” because the lack of internet at home makes it extremely difficult to complete homework assignments.6 Lack of high-speed internet access is also a serious problem for those who live in rural communities.16
Libraries, schools, and businesses have tried to step up to provide internet access to disadvantaged students and others who are at risk of falling through the cracks during the coronavirus emergency.17 Since April, state legislatures across the U.S. have introduced more than 40 bills to expand broadband access.18 California legislators announced a state department of education task force to organize donations from corporations and individuals to help supply students with the necessary equipment and service to facilitate distance learning.19
In Maine, lawmakers passed a bill that sets aside $15 million to expand the state's broadband internet service, to help make online access accessible and affordable, while providing the necessary equipment to residents who need it.20 In Detroit, where only 15 percent of households in public school districts have internet access, the director of digital inclusion handles offers from private-sector companies that want to donate resources.20
Local action has led to a push at the federal level. Back in January, before the pandemic took hold, the U.S. House of Representatives held the first-ever hearing about digital equity, called “Empowering and Connecting Communities through Digital Equity and Internet Adoption.” They proposed the idea of treating broadband internet as a public utility.20 More recently, the National Education Association (NEA) has been pushing Congress to address the digital divide in its next COVID-19 legislative package. The Emergency Education Connections Act (H.R. 6563)21 would earmark $2 billion for a special fund that would help get students equipped to learn online during the COVID-19 pandemic.22
In addition to supporting students in the classroom, today’s education leaders must be advocates, fighting to bridge the gap between the digital “haves” and “have nots” so that all students, from kindergarten through college, have equal access to education that can further their career prospects and improve their lives.
Distance Education and Navigating Future Global Issues
K-12 and higher education will never be the same again. On the immediate horizon, educators are anticipating an “education loss” among students who were not able to make the classroom-to-online transition successfully. The disparity in access to high-speed internet, home computers, and direct instruction has created a significant number of students who will be far behind their peers this fall. Research has shown that these students, from lower-income households and in rural areas, may have lost as much as a year of education due to COVID-19.23
The threat of future pandemics and economic disturbances highlights the need for robust distance education, both to prepare for the next global health emergency and to bridge the longstanding socioeconomic educational gap. Education professionals will play a key role in advocating for improved access to online learning.
Opportunity for Major Advances in Distance Education
Challenging times can bring great opportunity. With worldwide focus on distance learning, this important educational model will continue to improve, becoming more efficient and less daunting as the landscape changes. The future will likely include a hybrid education model that blends in-person classes with remote learning for a more flexible experience. This new face of education will require visionary professionals to lead the way.
Be a strong part of education’s advancement
Become the leader and innovator who guides students and fellow educators into the digital future. The University of Kansas School of Education and Human Sciences offers online graduate programs in curriculum and teaching, educational leadership and policy studies, and special education. Prepare to excel in and out of the classroom, and thrive in an increasingly complex world of new technologies, innovative teaching practices, and staunch advocacy of inclusive educational opportunities for all students.
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3. Retrieved August 31, 2020 from educationusa.state.gov/your-5-steps-us-study/research-your-options/online-learning
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5. Retrieved August 31, 2020 from pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/26/nearly-one-in-five-teens-cant-always-finish-their-homework-because-of-the-digital-divide/
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12. Retrieved August 31, 2020 from cnn.com/2020/04/18/us/schools-closed-coronavirus/index.html
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14. Retrieved August 31, 2020 from zdnet.com/article/online-learning-gets-its-moment-due-to-covid-19-pandemic-heres-how-education-will-change/
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