Online Learning: Is It Working?

Coleman Owen

3/25/20214 min read

Our education institutions rushed to online delivery of classes last year. Given the situation with the pandemic, it was not much of an option. Now that we are here - knowing that online learning is feasible - what do we do next, when the pandemic has ended? Should schools make a push to have all courses online? Should they revert back to primarily in-person learning?

The eventual outcome will no doubt be somewhere in the middle. There are advantages to online learning and advantages to in-person learning. It would be a disservice to students to ignore that. The trick will be determining where the balance lies - deciding which aspects of online learning will be retained and which can be dismissed. Rather than treating the pandemic months as a time to put behind us, we can instead integrate the best of online learning with the classroom system that we already have.

Fortunately, students and teachers have not withheld their thoughts on the perceived advantages and drawbacks of online learning. Meetings between students, staff, and faculty have occurred in which representatives from each group have been able to voice their concerns and raise questions about the current modes of learning. Researchers have also weighed in and provided analysis of student performance and well-being. Although the pandemic has been a part of our lives for just under a year, there is already plenty of insight that we can discuss.

Before discussing topics of performance or engagement, we need to talk about access to education. Online learning is a mixed bag in this regard. On the one hand, students can learn from anywhere with an internet connection. Students across the Province can attend post-secondary institutions without the need to relocate; travel and housing costs are reduced. As a result, more students than usual have been able to enrol in University [1]. Online learning is particularly helpful for Indigenous students, who can remain with their communities while attending school [2].

There is a counter-point to this, however, in that technology is not equally available to all who might use it. The digital divide describes this gap between those with access to the latest technology and those who do not. There are still those without adequate access to the internet and those without the hardware required to access online learning software. There is concern that a shift to online learning would leave behind those on the other side of the digital divide, which would further socioeconomic inequality [3]. Before integrating online learning into classrooms everywhere, there needs to be an effort on the part of the government, school divisions, and educational institutions to ensure that no students will be left behind without full access to learning platforms.

Were we to find a way to remove the digital divide from the equation, other concerns would still remain. One such concern is student engagement. Teachers have reported lower than usual attendance and lower assignment completion rates [4]. Teachers, students, and staff are all responsible when it comes to engaging classrooms. For teachers, many of the skills that help in managing a typical classroom apply to teaching online, but there are some new challenges as well. Among other skills, they need technological competence and adaptability [5].

For students, engagement depends on a number of factors. Younger students are more easily distracted and have a more difficult time with online education. For these students, a structured learning environment and elements of fun are essential [6]. For all students, young and old, the social element of in-person learning is a critical part of the experience. This is an element of school that all students are missing right now, to some extent. The ability to make connections and discuss new ideas is essential for students at all levels. Missing out on this can dampen the spirits and minimize engagement.

Having said that, for many students the ability to do schoolwork anywhere and anytime is a great benefit that increases engagement. Students who perform better in certain settings or at certain times of day can learn in a way that is best for them. Students in many instances also have more control over the pacing of the class and can learn at their own rate. Being able to customize your learning experience will likely be a critical part of the future of education.

Maintaining engagement from students is no easy task, but teachers are already tasked with ensuring that their students are interested and occupied in the classroom. If any group is up to the task, it is teachers.

There is one more metric to discuss, and that is student performance. Does learning online make a difference to academic achievement? This is not an easy question to answer - especially given the limited time and imperfect conditions to perform thorough research. From the limited data available, it seems that students perform worse on average when learning online, and that this is particularly true for students who were already struggling academically [7].

The reason for this is due to a number of factors. Discussed above, engagement probably plays a role, as does access to teachers. Some university students have reported that they feel a lack of support from their professors during this time [8]. Despite the new learning environment, it is critical that students continue to feel encouraged and supported. Teachers and students at all levels need to appreciate the difficulty of each other’s position; this is not an easy time for anybody.

We have looked at access, engagement, and performance in the context of online learning. What we have seen is that, while there are some benefits to online learning, it cannot yet replace traditional learning in the classroom without a serious overhaul and greater investment. As many have imagined, perhaps we can create a hybrid system that incorporates the best of both modes of learning.

[1] Keenan Sorokan, Pandemic Shifting Learning Environments at Sask. Universities (23 January 2021), online: 650CKOM.

[2] Lynn Giesbrecht, Pandemic Reshaping How Sask. Universities Think About the Future (28 December 2020) online: The Leader Post.

[3] Gloria Tam & Diana El-Azar, 3 Ways the Coronavirus Pandemic Could Reshape Education (13 March 2020), online: World Economic Forum.

[4] Heather C. Hill, Remote Learning Cuts Into Attendance, Here are Remedies (03 December 2020), online: Education Week.

[5] Chantel Roddy et al., Applying Best Practice Online Learning, Teaching, and Support to Intensive Online Environments: An Integrative Review (21 November 2017), online: Frontiers in Education.

[6] Cathy Li & Farah Lalani, The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Changed Education Forever. This is How (29 April 2020), online: World Economic Forum.

[7] Susanna Loeb, How Effective is Online Learning? What the Research Does and Doesn’t Tell Us (20 March 2020), online: Education Week.

[8] Khadra Ahmed, “I’m Sorry That You Feel Uncomfortable by Me Asking You to Do Your Job:” Heated Debate Around Online Learning During GFC Meeting (28 January 2021), online: The Gateway Online.