Cerebrum Article

Adapting to the (Not So) New Age of Computer Learning

Published: October 15, 2020
Author: Kayt Sukel

Illustration by William Hogan

Even as Covid-19 infections continue to slow in the New Jersey area where she lives and works, Rebecca DeSimone, a 9th grade Spanish teacher, will start all of her classes online this fall. As a 22-year public school educator—who has already used technology regularly in her in-person classes—she now finds herself struggling, unsure how to structure her courses so they will facilitate learning. Precious little of her professional development, to date, has looked at how kids learn best when being taught remotely.

“I would love a list of ideas that will really engage the kids while they are home—something that people already know works and will help the kids pay attention and actually learn what they need to learn,” she says. “But I feel like we are the blind leading the blind here. I’m not sure how to make my classes work online. I’m not even sure what my expectations for my students should be.”

Barbara Means

DeSimone is not alone in that sentiment. Both teachers and parents across the country are wondering just how effective online instruction will be this school year. Barbara Means, Ph.D., executive director at Digital Promise, a nonprofit organization created by Congress to accelerate innovation in education, has spent her career studying how digital technologies can enhance traditional learning. She says it’s important not to equate the “remote emergency instruction” that took place last spring with “intentional” online courses created using key principles of instructional design.

“There are many reasons—and vulnerabilities—that may lead to a student doing more poorly in an online Digital Promise class than in a traditional, face-to-face environment,” she says. “But learning is learning. And when instructors can design courses that help support students as they learn, online instruction can be quite effective.”

Processing Information: In-person vs. Computer

According to National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 7 million students were enrolled in online courses at post-secondary institutions in 2018. Colleges, however, were not the only ones to offer students the opportunity to log-on to learn. Twenty-one percent of primary and secondary public schools also offered certain classes online. Most public schools across the country rely on other forms of technology, including the use of personal smart phones or library computer stations, to supplement traditional classroom instruction, too.

For many years, educators hoped that advances in technology would help bridge disparities in educational outcomes—connecting students of all backgrounds and in all locations with the best teachers in the world. Yet while they do provide increased access, it’s unclear whether online courses are as effective as in-person learning. Some studies link online education with poorer outcomes in both engagement and achievement. Others find the opposite. But such studies are often quite narrowly designed, looking at very specific tasks or groups of children. It’s hard to know when and where their results can and should be applied to online instruction as a whole.

For example, there are numerous studies from the 1990s that suggest people are able to more easily attend to—and thus retain information from—paper books versus e-readers or computer screens. Many of those studies suggest those differences are due to the lack of additional tactile input to the brain as you turn papers and navigate the text. Yet, as anyone who has ever tried to solely rely on a textbook to cram for an exam after skipping too many classes knows, education is much more than simply comprehending texts. Today’s online learning platforms employ a variety of different activities, ranging from streaming video lectures to interactive games, to help students better consume new material.

Like classroom instruction, not all virtual learning is created equal—and the heterogeneity in both the hardware and software used (as well as how “learning” is measured) makes it hard to directly compare on-premise to remote instruction. And since most research has been done on older students—generally high school and college students—it is also difficult to translate online strengths and shortcomings to school-age children. What works for 10th graders may not for kindergarteners. This is definitely a situation where one size will not fit all—and it makes it very challenging to compare online instruction to classroom learning in an “apples to apples” way.

June Ahn

“Unfortunately, online instruction isn’t as simple as throwing a textbook online—and, in my opinion, online education platforms have focused too much on just putting content up online,” says June Ahn, Ph.D., a member of the Connected Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine. “We have decades of education research that shows us that content is not the sole factor for promoting learning. That’s why we just don’t hand kids textbooks and leave it at that. We need to find ways to help students engage, inquire, and connect to new information.”

Most educational technology experts agree that the same principles of effective instruction apply whether you are learning in-person or remotely—learning, after all, is a process that can occur in a wide variety of different circumstances. For example, as noted in a recent Journal of Neuroscience study, listening to narrative stories activates the same emotional and language areas in the brain as consuming them on paper. As scientists delve into the nitty gritty of learning, it appears there are many ways that students can effectively engage with content. Yet, researchers are discovering, there are features of an in-person environment that naturally support engagement, inquiry, and connection—and they are also understanding, more and more, that such elements can be challenging to recreate in a virtual setting.

Betsy DiSalvo

“A lot of what teachers do each day involves classroom management,” says Betsy DiSalvo, director of the Culture and Technology Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “They are experts in managing a group of children and keeping them on task, especially when you are talking about younger students who don’t have the self-regulation needed to do it on their own. It’s hard to do that kind of management remotely. And, unfortunately, being able to do so has significant impact on getting students to follow along long enough to understand new concepts.”

Promoting Online Engagement

John Danner

John Danner, a former middle school teacher who now is the managing partner of Dunce Capital, a venture capital firm that specializes in educational technology start-ups, points out that computer scientists have been designing massive open online courses for decades. But he refers to them as “version 1.0” of online learning efforts.

“Options like Khan Academy and Coursera are great resources, but they don’t really map to anything I saw in the classroom with regards to how kids actually learn, especially when they are used by themselves,” he says. “We know that kids learn in many different ways. And we also know that they are very familiar with technology and social media. So, the question now becomes, ‘Can you create an online learning environment better than YouTube?’ I think we can—but there aren’t hard and fast rules on what that should look like.”

Ahn says to create such an environment, teachers must follow the same general principles they know to support learning in the classroom.

“We already have a lot of information on what makes for a good learning experience,” he continues. “You need to find ways to make the content interesting and relevant. You need interaction. You need kids to do some work on their own— but not all of it on their own. Students need to be able to ask questions. So it’s important to find ways to support these principles in online environments, too.”

Kerry Rice

Kerry Rice, Ph.D., a professor in educational technology at Boise State University and author of Making the Move Kerry Rice / Boise to K-12 Online Teaching::Research-Based State University Strategies and Practices, argues that teachers can’t just expect to record a lesson, post it online, and call it a day—especially when they are working with younger students. And, too often, that’s what online courses try to do.

“You need to find ways  to chunk lessons into smaller  sections,” she says. “We’ve learned the average attention span of a high schooler lasts for about  a six-minute video. You get even less time for the little ones. So, you need to create the kind of structure and routine for kids so they can stay engaged and motivated. That starts with breaking up lessons into shorter, digestible sections.”

To foster engagement, she adds, it is also important for educators to think long and hard about how to create a sense of community and provide opportunities for socialization between students. For example, a teacher could record a short lesson via video and then meet with kids later using video conference tools to engage in “inquiry, problem-solving, or instructions for a hands-on activity” to be completed after they’ve watched it. The students could then break up into groups to continue discussion or work on a project together, with the teacher periodically checking in with each group to answer specific questions.

“You want to make the face-to-face time you have with kids, even when it’s happening over Zoom, really count,” she says. “Save that time for active learning [defined as learning where students are experientially involved in the learning process]. That face-to-face time is where you can make connections with kids, see how they’re thinking and feeling, and have those important discussions that are at the heart of learning something new and then applying what you’ve learned.”

DiSalvo adds that teachers shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel. There are many resources online that can be enlisted—think Khan Academy, as well as other educational games and websites—to augment a lesson.

“The exciting thing about online learning is that it offers an opportunity to provide multimodal learning,” she says. “Some students are visual learners. Some need to do an art project or other hands-on activity to understand the lesson. Teachers can pull together multiple resources that teach the same concept in different ways—so if one option doesn’t work for a particular student, they can go to others, perhaps even created by other teachers, to help. There is a lot of room for creativity here.”

As for classroom management, Ahn suggests that much of that duty will fall on families, especially parents or the older siblings of younger students. Teachers should be able to control the audio and video content of online learning platforms from afar—but they can’t make kids stay in their seats. And, Ahn adds, while parents shouldn’t be expected to “teach” per se, helping students stay on task during class and talking to them later about what they’ve learned will be important in helping them retain information.

“Groundbreaking studies looking at how kids learn from Sesame Street, a television show, demonstrated that learning was most effective when children and parents were watching together or children and parents took time to talk about the program after the kids watched it,” he says. “It was those everyday conversations that helped make the content stick. That principle applies in online environments, too. Good content is the first step. But the next step involves those conversations and interactions you have with others to illuminate the content and help you remember it.”

Different Strokes for Different Students

Much of the research looking at online instruction has been done in resource-rich environments that can offer the latest hardware, reliable connectivity, and even technical support. DiSalvo reports that not even her graduate students always have all those luxuries when working from home, so it’s unlikely every American student will. Many families have several children who need to share a single device for online school, limiting how much time each can spend on their schoolwork. Some students will only have a smart phone, making it difficult to see and hear the content presented on a smaller screen—or to maintain focus if the phone is always pinging with alerts from other apps. Others may have to go to the library or even to their local McDonald’s for a reliable broadband signal to even access that content in the first place. Such inequities need to be addressed for success. If they aren’t, it becomes even harder for teachers to engage all their students—and to assess their progress as they learn.

“Unfortunately, we see quite a bit of evidence that the resources we see online, particularly for informal learning, has widened the gap between educational outcomes for the wealthy and the poor,” says DiSalvo. “It’s not just a matter of technical access, though that remains a problem in many cases. It’s also understanding, as a parent or teacher, what assets are out there and how they can be used to help students learn more effectively. Many people just don’t know what kind of key words or search terms will bring up resources to help with math or other types of classes. And not knowing can leave them behind.”

Michelle Miller

There is still much to learn about effective online instruction, says Michelle Miller, Ph.D., a professor of psychological sciences at Northern Arizona University, and author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology; she hopes that this fall will offer new insights that can be used to promote effective course design in the future and believes that teachers who go into virtual instruction with open minds will find success.

“There isn’t one template that will work for every teacher or every class,” she believes. “But teachers already know that they can’t teach the same way to every class anyway. So much depends on the content, the kids, and the resources you have available. But this fall will offer teachers a unique opportunity to explore new techniques and teaching resources that can benefit students—things they might not have tried if they were still teaching in a traditional classroom.”

Overall, while educators and parents may worry about potential learning loss for children who only have online instruction available to them, Ahn is more circumspect.

“It’s important to remember that children are learning all the time outside the classroom—it just happens to be information that we don’t traditionally test them on,” he says. “They are going to continue to learn this fall, too. It may look different—or happen a little less efficiently. But they are going to learn.”

This article first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of our Cerebrum magazine. Click the cover for the full e-magazine.