How Schools Can Better Serve Online Learners


The movement toward online learning has been slow but steady over the last decade or so. Then came the pandemic, forcing rapid change almost overnight. Suddenly, online learning was the new normal. Schools, teachers, and students all scrambled to work within its format. Now, with the 2020-2021 school year about to start and many schools and colleges offering online, or even online-only learning, several questions remain. One of the most pressing is this: How can schools better serve online learners?

The answer is deceptively simple. Simple because it can be stated in a single sentence. Deceptive because that single sentence holds a complex array of challenges. Schools can better serve online learners by working with the medium, not against it. Let’s explore what that means in practice.

The case for online learning

Some studies seem to indicate that online learning is less effective than in-person instruction. That may be the case when an in-person course is pushed online without adjustment for the medium. However, online learning offers an opportunity to integrate tools and technologies in new ways. If thoughtfully structured, online learning can be just as effective as, or even more effective than, in-person instruction. A meta-analysis performed by the U.S. Department of Education found that, on average, students in online learning conditions actually performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. That’s one reason to explore online learning as an option. 

The other is even simpler. We may not have a choice. With a health crisis still in full swing, online learning may be our best chance to help students make progress while protecting their health and safety. Schools can no longer take their time exploring online learning options, they need to start serving online learners today. These four action items will help you start.

1.  Recognize that the scale is new, but the platform isn’t

In other words, online learning has been around for a long time. Many students use it successfully. In the state of Florida, all high school students are required to take at least one online course to earn a standard 24-credit diploma. Meanwhile, adult learners have relied on virtual classrooms to help them advance their careers without spending time in a physical classroom. 

If your school already has an online learning program in place, you have a natural starting point. What already works well within your program? Where do students or instructors struggle? Is the system you have now scalable? What resources, tools, training, or staffing would you need to scale quickly?

If you’re starting from scratch, look to other schools in your state or region. What is working for them? How can you mimic, or improve on, what they are doing?

2. Use the available tools

Because so many organizations have dabbled in online instruction, you have many tools at your disposal. You might take on new team members, like instructional designers or teacher-trainers, who can help you migrate from in-person learning to online environments. There is also an array of pre-built learning management systems to choose from. Consider what your students and instructors need to successfully make the transition. 

Thoughtful application of available tools can make online learning smoother and more effective. Some schools have tried to move online using only the resources they already have in place, without regard to how the process might be simplified or improved. Others have chased the newest tools and technologies despite protests from teachers who are overwhelmed by constant change. Avoid both extremes. Seek out only the technology and tools that meet the needs of your students. Then apply measures that will support teacher success.

3. Provide adequate training to instructors

Most teachers are trained primarily for face-to-face instruction. In higher education, most professors teach in much the same way they were taught. But online teaching requires some of these same skills, and others besides. What worked in person may not work online and vice versa. Rather than leaving teachers to sink or swim on their own, school districts can and should provide adequate training on how to use online teaching tools. 

This training is valuable even if teachers eventually return to traditional in-person classrooms. Evidence has shown that online instruction improves face-to-face teaching. It requires teachers to think more deeply about the methods and mechanisms by which their students learn. 

The best time to start training teachers in online instruction would have been long before the pandemic began. The second-best time is right now. In-the-moment training enables you to answer immediate questions and provide just-in-time guidance to better serve online learners.

4. Listen to student and instructor feedback

Most importantly, schools must listen to both students and instructors. Some administrators assume that complaints are a natural result of any change. This mindset allows them to ignore concerns or complaints related to online learning. While it’s true that adjustments to established processes can be jarring at first, many students and teachers embrace online learning. Assume that their concerns are valid and investigate ways to make the process smoother and more effective. 

Your teachers are professionals. They are doing their jobs during a difficult time and they have good instincts for what works and what needs work. Listen to teacher feedback to find ways to better serve online learners. At the same time, students are the other participants in this shift. They may have concerns or feedback that could help you better meet their needs. Create opportunities to gather both instructor and student feedback. This may be through simple surveys, periodic emails to students and staff, or one-on-one conversations. 

Everything you need to serve online learners

Whether you’re working in K-12 or higher ed eDevLearn Consulting Group can help you hear and address the concerns your teachers and students have about online learning. By training teachers, we equip them with the tools and knowledge to independently run their online learning programs. From dynamic semester-long programs to targeted microlearning courses, we support teachers and instructors so they can achieve mastery of online education and communication technologies. 

Better serve online learners with support from online learning experts. Contact eDevLearn Consulting Group today. 

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