| Guest columnist
I have been teaching online for more than 15 years and my research agenda broadly focuses on learning in technology-enhanced environments, including online learning. While I do not claim to be an expert and fully admit I do not have all of the answers, I believe this perspective will help us better understand the challenges facing both students and educators right now.
What we witnessed this past March as schools and universities closed their face-to-face operations and quickly pivoted to emergency remote teaching in response to the COVID-19 pandemic does not represent the qualities of effective online learning. I don’t believe it is fair for us to judge hard-working educators based on this single experience or to judge the merits of online learning.
Although online learning continues to steadily grow in the United States, most educators have never taught online and were suddenly challenged this past academic year to change all of their lesson plans, assessments and learning experiences to a format in which they likely never experienced as a student or educator.
These educators had to make this conversion in a matter of one or two weeks of preparation with limited training and support from their institutions. I believe our educators tried their best, but I am not trying to say that everything was seamlessly implemented for students and parents. Before we judge educators or online learning, we need to consider these realities.
Effective education in any delivery format requires a tremendous amount of planning and preparation to ensure that learning outcomes are achieved. Educators were not provided enough time to plan or master the technologies and best practices of online learning.
We know from years of research, you cannot simply transform face-to-face learning experiences into online learning experiences. Effective online learning requires a significant reconfiguration of lesson plans, activities and assessments.
Educators were not provided sufficient time for professional development or ongoing support to adequately address this complex challenge. While I am proud of my academic community and professional societies for attempting to address this gap by providing useful resources and tools for educators, educators were simply overwhelmed with all of the information being thrown at them while simultaneously teaching in this new environment.
Educators need time to learn about how to use these technologies and how to implement these best practices, and ongoing support and guidance for when problems occur in the online learning setting.
The larger and more important issue is that educators need opportunities for practice and reflection. Just like riding a bike or playing a musical instrument, educators need to practice and experiment with these technologies and ideas. In many ways, becoming an effective online educator requires trial-and-error, which means that not every lesson plan or assessment will be successful on the first attempt.
Online courses are carefully designed to achieve learning outcomes using a combination of media (e.g., video) and technologies and activities. Typically, each learning outcome is aligned to specific learning activities and student assessments to document whether the outcomes were achieved.
These data sources are used by our educators to inform their decisions about what is working and what is not in their current online course. When something is not working as intended, it is intentionally and systematically modified to optimize the learning experience.
Our educators this past year did not have the full cycle of planning, learning, practice and evaluation to improve outcomes for their students. Effective online educators use data to inform design decisions in an ongoing process to continuously improve outcomes. This ongoing process is what leads to effective online learning.
While we are now in a new academic year, I believe educators learned a tremendous amount from their experiences this past spring. While we do not have everything figured out yet, this learning experience surely informed their approaches to online learning.
My intent in writing this column is to remind everyone from educational administrators to parents to politicians to not hastily pass judgement on qualities or effectiveness of online learning, or our hard-working educators who are still trying to figure this out.
To my fellow educators, I ask that you continue to learn and refine your educational practice while reflecting and using evaluation data. To all students, I ask that you work hard to achieve the learning outcomes, communicate with your educators regularly and have empathy for a situation that is tremendously difficult for everyone right now.
Albert D. Ritzhaupt is an associate professor of educational technology and computer science education at the University of Florida.