Online Learning Works – So Why are Schools Failing at it?

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If you believe what many school districts, governmental officials, and even some folks in the media, the whole idea around online learning, as a result of the closing of schools, is not only a fiasco, but something so new that it has sped up its usage by 15 years. 

Anyone who has been involved with online learning in the education sector knows full well that this is false.

Before covering the initial statement about it being a fiasco or not as effective as in-classroom instruction, the latter about being “new” needs to be further explained.

E-Learning (the actual term) for online education started in 1993. Jones International, was a 100% fully accredited online university.  That’s right, modem access to attend!

In the late 90’s led by Blackboard, more institutions of higher education and even some schools were joining the online learning experience.  Was it higher in universities and colleges, then schools? Yes.  Globally wise? Still yes, but some countries were a tad ahead of the states.

Here is some data to consider (about this supposedly new learning approach)

  • 1996, the first high school for online learning was established (Partnership between Hudson Public schools and Concord Consortium)
  • An estimated 700,000 students (K-12) took at least one online course in 2005-2006 (Piccano and Seaman, 2007)
  • An estimated 1 million students in K-12 took at least one online course in 2007-2008 (Piccano and Seaman, 2009)
  • 28 States (Fall 2007) had online high school programs (Tucker, 2007)
  • Florida Virtual School had over 60,000 students (Tucker, 2007)
  • Starting in 2015, Florida required every high school student to take one 100% online course/class in order to graduate.  

Clearly online learning in elementary and secondary schools were well on their way by the early 2000’s, which puts a big dent into the whole “new experience of learning online” argument. 

I’d even add, that the virus did not speed up the adoption by 15 years by schools, what it did though was force schools, who either had no online learning program or courses or classes or were using it as a hybrid with a push more towards in-classroom learning to go 100% online.

But definitely not a 15 yr ahead of time angle.  


For whatever reason, there continues to be a huge disconnect on the terminology for what is online learning in K-12 and even higher education.   The actual overall term is e-learning, but online learning as a term was used in late 90’s in the education sector, thus the term that represents online courses/classes is online learning.

What it isn’t

  • Distance Learning – An interview I saw last week, with the CEO of the 3rd largest school district (Maryland) referred to online learning as distance learning.  

She isn’t the only person to do so, it is a term I hear often, but it has nothing to do with online learning as it actually exists.

Distance learning IMO was an absolutely horrible way to learn regardless if you were in K-12 or higher education.  The main premise was this:

  • Bunch of people sitting in a room, classroom, wherever with a TV tuned into the instructor/teacher and a TV Camera on the students/people in that room.  You may have the duality of others in another classroom with that instructor – thus two audiences looking at each other. Albeit the more common method was person on one side via a TV screen, and audience of students on the other side.
  • We are not talking a video that someone watches, which in many DL sessions would have been far better (Okay, depending on the topic),  rather this is a person doing the presentation on whatever topic and others watching.  I can’t see retention being a big draw here.  In fact, many people were more than likely not paying attention, because a bad teacher is bad regardless if they are doing “Distance Learning” or actually in the classroom. 
  • For fans of PPT, you were lucky if you saw that in a DL session, most of the time it was talking, writing on a white board or blackboard (with chalk) and more talk.   Depending on the session, students might be able to ask questions to the instructor (common, but not universal).

Interactivity level? Poor.  Engagement Level?  Poor.   Oh, if you say to yourself, Craig, they are doing this now, with Zoom and the kids watching – I would say yes, but that isn’t the same as what the premise of DL was, rather it is one reason why schools are failing at online learning today (and will be covered in a bit).

Virtual Learning – Another hot term used, and for anyone in our industry, virtual learning in today’s world has the connotation of someone using a VR headset or trying to revive Second Life.  Bad term to represent online classes/courses, because frankly virtual means something else – in 2020, and it is not accessing via your desktop, laptop, tablet device.

Remote Learning –  I can only assume that this means someone sitting in a room is doing remote viewing to Mars and exploring at the alien bases.  Seriously, why is this even a “thing”? I mean the term remote learning, not remote viewing, which really did happen during the Cold War. 

If those in charge of school districts and schools do not understand or realize the actual term, how can they expect parents, students, teachers and anyone else to use the correct term to represent online? 

Here is what we know

  • Group dynamics are more favorable with online learning than traditional in the classroom (Journal of Public Affairs Education)
  • Students who take some or all the schooling online performed better than students who took the same course in a traditional learning classroom ( Department of Education, 2009)
  • Online learners score higher on standardized tests than students in the traditional classroom setting (Potomac University)

If this is the case, why are schools doing such a poor job at online learning?

Five Factors for Failure

Tell No One

The biggest failure starts right at the top – the superintendent for the school district. When the superintendent green lighted purchasing a learning system for the district, whether it is just for one school or multiple schools (and some districts have different systems – so School X has WidgetLMS, School Y has VoodooLMS and so forth), they had absolutely no plan whatsoever when it came to continuous training for staff.

The usual route is whoever oversees technical/computer for the district either oversaw the whole thing or worked in conjunction with the key person at that school who oversaw computer/technical.  At one school here in LA, the person overseeing the technical/computer area if you will, failed to train parents on how to use the system, providing only their user name and password.  I’ll get to this debacle shortly.

Anyway, the typical mantra is to provide training on the system during a professional development day or multiple days.  As a former teacher I can tell you, that half of the folks in there, stop paying attention.  The fact that schools did not provide on-going training via an online asynchronous based course is stunning.  It’s very common on the corporate side to have folks access an asynchronous based course regarding a system and all its functions, even to the ability of show me, assist me, let me do it method.

Thus when the shutdown happened, schools (as a whole) were unprepared for the online learning environment, even if they had a system in existence (again, not everyone).  Those who gripe about how bad the experience has been, should seriously look at themselves in the mirror.

Bad is Bad

A bad teacher will not automatically become great by providing online content, let alone instruction.  Bad is bad.  Equally, someone who is terrific in the classroom, might struggle because going fully online may not be a strong suite with their skill set.  Not every great teacher is a whiz when it comes to using a computer, beyond surfing the net and using PowerPoint (and even then not to its full potential).

Learning Systems in the academic setting as a whole, follow synchronous based learning, which isn’t the most effective way to learn.

With SBL, students go in a linear method.  Just like they are in a traditional classroom.  SBL uses a syllabus.  The design is limited in terms of content – with engagement and interactivity not usually found (there are exceptions).  Systems usually have a discussion board/forum, chat room, and some other staples.  You will not find asynchronous based learning with SBL, we are talking about two different modalities for learning/training.

If you want a high-level of engagement and interactivity, ABL is the route to go.  You can go linear, but its power is non-linear, allowing the learner – in this case the student, to focus on what they want to know or need to know, and go back as often as they want and as much as they want.  There is no time limit (although some folks put one in).   If designed correctly, ABL can be an amazing learning/training powerhouse.  And it is doable with some 3rd party authoring tools, if you are willing to learn and practice doing so.

ABL allows scenarios – applying what students learn in a real life situation.  Would you rather read about the Industrial Revolution, or access an online scenario whereas you, are placed into a factory or another setting and apply what you learn?

Training your Audience 

This plays a key role.  Yes, teachers need on-going training with the system – especially the areas they use the most and often.   Parents need training on how to use the parent portal, and they need a POC who can assist them at various times during the day (staffing seems to be an issue with having enough folks) – and again, how about some online courses/content even short videos focused on common parent portal capabilities?

Students need on-going training to – on how to use the system, on what they can do, and so forth.  This is not a one-time “here you go, you must know technology because you are younger than us”.  Schools have done a poor job providing resources – especially fun videos to kids that will get them to pay attention and tap into it.  How many schools do you know that created some Tik Tok videos for the usage of online learning – content, etc?

Picking the wrong system

There is way too much of this, especially with how the decision was made on what system was purchased (if it was, as many schools use Moodle).  Many K-12 systems look sterile, boring and dull in design.  Sure, they stick a few colors on it, add a logo and expect kids to be thrilled.  UI/UX is extremely important as a whole, especially for students in the K-12 setting.

Gamification works well with online learning, especially students.  Yet, very few systems utilize it, and when they offer it, it isn’t anything that will scream “FUN”.  Sure some kids will like it, but when you are in high school your gamification experience should be different than someone who is in junior high (middle school).

The front end should scream fun and cool.   I’ve seen two systems targeting K-6, that were fun in their front end (the side the students use).   And both are based in Europe.  Great for schools over there, but even then, neither system has a wide mass audience, which is a shame.

Blackboard as a whole is “just there”.  Their mobile app isn’t that good – average at best. Instructure Canvas does a much better job, but even then, where’s the fun?  D2L does a very good job with UI/UX, and mobile too, they even have a robust digital component contained within for one on one mentoring, visual, not just text driven and can be tied to scenarios.

Schoology is a mixed bag.  itslearning has potential. And the rest of the systems are all over board, NEO is one I like, very forward thinking, many others not so much.  If you plan to use Moodle, don’t build your system yourselves – I’ve never seen one that shouted “Fun, kids will love it”, rather use a vendor such as eThink or EdTek Services. What they can do with Moodle will really do wonders. 

When reaching out to numerous systems in the education market – with my focus being K-12, I found the two who did the best job with on-going support for teachers, parents and even students, and reaching out to the schools when the “shuttering in-classroom” was implemented,  were D2L and Instructure.

Distance Learning 2.0

Remember earlier when I noted how distance learning works? Well, you might have seen it – in its new format – with web conferencing solutions such as Zoom for example.  Oh Zoom, wasn’t the problem, it was the whole methodology.  So, we have a teacher on their web cam talking to students who appear on the same screen, and then the teacher starts teaching the lesson for that day.

If you are saying to yourself, “Wait this sounds like distance learning of old,” – you are correct.  It was an awful way to learn then, and it is still now.   Where is the engagement level here? Giving an assignment is one thing, putting kids in groups is another – and works quite well, more so than traditional in-classroom learning, but having a bunch of kids starting at the teacher talking ad nauseam isn’t what I call, active learning.  Passive is more like it.  There is no way, someone can tell me that every student is paying 100% attention especially if the teacher is a monotone speaker, or is just a bad teacher. 

And let’s be honest, there are a lot of bad teachers.

One last item

It is very true that not every student has access to the internet, nor that every student has a computer/laptop/chromebook, nor a smartphone and/or tablet.  And yes, these are key issues that must be solved to assure everyone is on an equal learning field. 

And it is a valid point for those who say online learning isn’t fair to everyone.  But, even when you have schools that are providing traditional classroom, the ones who always seem to have the advantage are those in wealthier school districts. They have better equipment, more options too.   If you were like me, who taught at a school in a very poor section of town, it was up to each individual teacher to buy their own supplies, and in my case, to submit grants to get computers, other forms of technology and digital cameras for my students.  

The truth of the matter is that as a society we still have a long way to go for an equal level learning field.

Bottom Line

There are plenty of schools, school districts who are continuing to be quite successful with their online learning, but there are way too many who are not.  Online learning isn’t new, but, what systems can do today, compared to the 90’s and even 2000-2015, is significant as a whole.

Students in a traditional classroom still receive instruction with a teacher in the front of the room, and the kids behind taking notes, asking questions and hoping that the teacher will be able to assist them, when they need help.   Some teachers are engaging, others are not. Thus the argument that kids learn better in this approach (the same one we have been using for more than 200 years), than online learning is just a fallacy.

Online learning isn’t at fault here.


The school district


PostscriptThis post is written in memory of my mother, Saralee Weiss, who instilled in me the importance of education, learning and acquiring knowledge.  Always a believer in opening your mind to the world around you, and that as long as you tried, that was the key.  A lover of reading on various subjects, she passed this on to me as well.

Thank you mom, thank you so very much for everything.

E-Learning 24/7


Picciano, A. G., and J. Seaman. 2007. K–12 online learning: A survey of U.S. school district administrators. Boston: Sloan Consortium.

Tucker, B. 2007, June. Laboratories of reform: Virtual high schools and innovation in public education. Washington, D.C.: Education Sector Reports.

Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies – 2010,  U.S. Department of Education Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development Policy and Program Studies Service





One comment

  1. I was one of those maniacs offering eLearning on the eCollege system starting back in the Summer of 97. Dial-up all the way baby. Got bit by the bug and went over to the wall to work for eCollege late ’99. DotCom Crash started a few weeks after their December IPO and me starting my job. It was eat what you kill time. And here we are 23 years later still trying to push the quality bar.

    I hope the author follows this up with a hard look at where the %#*&@ the publishers have been the whole time. They must have warehouses full of digital content collecting dust that not enough people used. Covid-19 has given them the perfect opportunity to show everyone why they can still matter. Giddy-up. Let’s see what you can do.

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