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Yong Zhao: Beyond Does It Work: Meaningful Questions to Ask about Online Education Amid COVID-19

There are many meaningful and productive questions to ask about online education depending on the circumstance. Given that education systems and schools around the world are at the moment in the middle of either offering or deciding to offer education online due to the COVID pandemic, I focus this post on meaningful questions in this particular context.

Why Online?

This seemingly obvious question deserves a lot more consideration than it has typically been given because the answer appears to be simple, clear, and unequivocal: we have to since schools are closed as if online education is a natural and only alternative to schools. But there are a number of problems associated with this answer.

Online education cannot replace all functions schools play in our society. If the purpose to offer online education when schools are closed is to create a sense of normalcy or a sense that schooling is still happening, we need to be mindful of the other functions that schools serve but are not served by online education such as childcare, healthcare, free meals, physical setting for friendship and socializing, collection of trained education professionals, and other social services.

Online education can do a lot more than being a lesser version of face-to-face schooling. While online education cannot deliver free meals to students in need, it holds great potentials that f2f schools have been encouraged to take advantage of for a long time. It can help make learning more authentic, more relevant to the real world, more learner-centered. It provides access to resources and expertise beyond the immediate classroom or school. Students can collaborate with peers from around the globe and can learn from, with, and for anyone in the world at anytime. If the purpose of moving online is simply to make online education fill in the void created by school closures, it is a tremendous waste of the potentials.

There may be other options besides/in addition to online to educate students than converting f2f schools into online. Such options could be not offering online instruction but rather giving students large projects to complete on their own, or developing system wide offerings instead of converting each and every school into online mode, or sending students to existing online education providers.

Thus, when schools are closed, we should not simply accept the default answer of going online. Instead, we need to consider what we want to achieve through converting schooling into online, that is, why do we want to move online?

What Works for What?

Online education can take a wide variety of shapes and forms due to the numerous ways to combine the basic ingredients such as technology platforms (learning management systems, broadcasting platforms, social media platforms etc.), media modality (text, animations, videos, audios, etc.), temporal arrangements (synchronous and asynchronous), instructional approaches (direct instruction, inquiry-based, product-oriented, flipped classroom etc.), student arrangement (small groups to massive groups), teacher roles, and more such as frequency of interactions among students and instructor. Different combinations result in different online education. Thus there is no one online education.

Online education (or education) can have many different outcomes: political, financial, societal, and educational. Different online education models have different effects on different outcomes and thus suit different purposes.

Broadcasting live or recorded lectures, for example, can be very effective for the purpose of simulating traditional teacher-centered schooling for students: attending class at specific times, receiving uniform information from the same teacher at the same time as their peers, and carrying out the same tasks as their peers at the same time. But it is not effective for attending to individual differences, accommodating different learners, or addressing students’ social-emotional needs.

Having students work on projects individually with teachers providing feedback and support to individual students or small groups asynchronously can be effective in engaging students in more authentic work, have more autonomy and more personalized experiences, and receive more individualized attention. But it may not be effective in uniform knowledge transmission and thus would be a poor choice for the purpose of ensuring coverage of the planned curriculum.

Hence, when making decisions about what forms of online education to use, it is advisable to examine the evidence of effectiveness of specific configurations of each program and the measured outcomes rather than accepting or rejecting a program or model simply because it is online. Moreover, in order to improve online education, it is essential for designers and researchers to carefully to look at the specific variables or combination thereof and the specific outcomes they are intended to effect.

What Works for Whom?

The same program can have different effects on different stakeholders in online education. Some programs may work very well for political leaders but may not work well for teachers. Some may work for teachers but not students. Some may work for some students but not others. No one program can work equally well for all students.

It is well known that students vary a great deal as learners in many aspects: academic abilities, personalities, interests, motivations, and experiences. These differences can affect the effects and effectiveness of educational programs, online or face-to-face. We students are physically in front of us, these differences may be more obvious than when they are out of sight. Thus we need to be mindful all the time that these differences remain in online education and keep asking how online offerings affect different students.

More important, online education has the potential to amplify the impact of student differences, in particular factors associated with student background. We already know that home environment plays a significant role on student learning. Schools are supposed to be an equalizer by mediating the differences in family backgrounds. When schools are closed, home environments play a much more significant role than when they come to school. Thus when examining the effects of online education, it is even more important to ask the question what online programs for what kind of students.

What and Who Get Hurt by What Works?

In the pursuit of what works, we must keep in mind what works can hurt. My book What Works May Hurt: Side Effects in Education discusses why and how what works for some students can do harm to other students. As well, what works to improve some outcomes can hurt other outcomes. The book challenges the simplistic view of improving education through using evidence collected using scientific methods such as randomized controlled trials (RCT). My friend Punya Mishra of Arizona State University wrote a beautiful blog post sharing similar concerns.

The same idea applies to online education. When seeking effective online education, we should always ask who gets hurt and what gets sacrificed.

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Yong Zhao

Dr. Yong Zhao is an internationally known scholar, author, and speaker. His works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. He curre...