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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Online Instruction for All

Even the most fervent advocate for online instruction would be surprised. For those who predicted 20 years ago that remote instruction will take over public schooling, the future has arrived. And for the true believers in online instruction as the best, efficient (read: less expensive) way of teaching and learning, Nirvana has arrived.

Covid-19 has upended naysayers who opposed expanded use of online instruction, seeing it as a pale substitute for in-person instruction. For the fall semester in schools across the nation, complete or partial online instruction (I avoid the word “learning”) is nearly universal.

Since March 2020 when nearly all public and private schools were closed to halt the spread of the coronavirus, face-to-face classroom instruction has largely disappeared from large urban districts. With the continued spread of the virus into rural, suburban, and urban communities, virtual instruction has become the only way of re-opening schools—except for those districts in states that have paid only lip service to guidelines for protection from the virus or where the incidence of infections are low, according to health authorities. In those places, hybrids of remote and in-person or full in-person schooling have been announced for the fall semester.

But for most students , they will sit and face screens daily. As a result, many district administrators have been scrambling to insure that every student has the hardware and software necessary to enable a K-12 program to be brought into every kitchen and living room. And teachers unused to teaching from their apartments and homes have hurried double-time to get versed in the techniques of teaching from a distance. Few policymakers, practitioners, or parents wanted online instruction as the sole provider of schooling but that is what it looks like for most of 2020.

In such a dire situation—Heaven for cheerleaders of remote instruction and for critics, a glimpse of an educational Hell–perhaps it is reasonable to ask the unasked question: Does online instruction work? 

That is the fundamental question that public policymakers (e.g., federal and state officials, local school board members and superintendents) have avoided in the rush to mandate cyber schooling when that is the only available option. Of course, there will be a small fraction of parents who will continue home schooling their sons and daughters using a mix of screen time with face-to-face instruction.

Nonetheless, such a question about the effectiveness of online instruction in raising student’s academic achievement and producing other desirable outcomes such as increased attendance, higher graduation and lower dropout rates, and college admissions—that is what I mean by “work”– gives educational leaders heartburn.

Why heartburn? Because of the tortuous role that research has historically played in policymaker decisions about adopting and implementing technologies in schools, especially amid a pandemic, for online instruction.

Necessity not research results, of course, demands a switch from in-person instruction to electronic schooling. The fear of losing a full year of schooling, continued unknowns of the virus threatening safety of children and the cratering of the economy press policymakers including the President of the U.S. very hard to re-open using distance instruction.

A brief look at the thousands of K-12 studies that have sought an answer to the question of the effectiveness of online instruction may be helpful to those policymakers, practitioners, and parents who have to enter that world.

Answers to the question are muddled. Scores of studies have been contested because most have had serious design and methodological flaws. Moreover, many of these studies lumped together full-time virtual schools, hybrids, and online courses, And the results have been underwhelming.  That is where heartburn enters the picture.[i]

Even when researchers over the past few decades have performed meta-analyses of a smaller number of studies that have met higher standards of quality they found that virtual instruction in its various modes, at best, is equivalent to regular face-to-face classroom instruction. At worst, some studies showed less achievement gains than traditional teaching. And keep in mind that these meta-analyses were of studies where online instruction occurred in mostly math, reading, and science courses—not other academic subjects. Nor in areas of great concern such as kindergarten and primary grades, the arts, and social and emotional learning. The overall picture is considerably dimmer than promoters of full- and part-time virtual schooling have promised or leaders had expected.[ii]

What complicates matters in 2020 is that findings drawn from research studies on the effectiveness of online instruction are only one of many interlocking tiles in a mosaic that policymakers assemble in adopting virtual instruction for children and youth. The usual back-and-forth that policymakers experience in the push-and-pull of conflicting demands such as what kinds of evidence of effectiveness matter and how much evidence is necessary to inform, shape, and justify a policy decision. Such doubts fly out the window when remote instruction is the only viable public policy during Covid-19.[iii]

Thus, answers to the question of whether online instruction “works” matter little during emergencies.  The truth is that no one knows with certainty which students benefit from virtual schooling works, in what subjects, and under what conditions. No doubt that much data will be gathered in the upcoming school year by researchers and policymakers on what happens with students who have to rely on remote instruction, assessing its worth and overall  effectiveness. The health crisis has produced a massive experiment in schooling. Tens of millions of students will have to be instructed, assessed, and judged on performance by watching screens.

Few boosters of remote instruction in 2019 ever fantasized that nearly all American school children and youth would get their schooling remotely the next year. Covid-19 is surely the mother of reform—desired or not.  

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[i] Gene Glass, “The Realities of K-12 Virtual Education,” p. 5.

[ii] Cathy Cavanaugh, et. al. “The Effects of Distance Education on K–12 Student Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis.” 2004 Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates ; Rosina Smith, et. al.  “A Synthesis of New Research on K-12 Online Learning”.2005, Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates; Barbara Means, et. al., “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, 2010).

[iii] See, for example, Charles Lindblom and David Cohen, Usable Knowledge: Social Science and Social Problem Solving (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979); Carol Weiss, et. al., “The Fairy Godmother and Her Warts: Making the Dream of Evidence-Based Policy Come True,” American Journal of Evaluation, 2008, 29(1) at: http://aje.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/29/1/29

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...