Image: CNBC, 2019

Being realistic about the strengths and weaknesses of online learning

I have spent a good part of my career defending and promoting online learning and it would certainly appear that with Covid-19 and the pivot to emergency remote learning with everyone having to move their teaching online, online learning’s time has come. And indeed I do believe we will see a surge in both fully online and blended learning in the future, health crisis or not, and overall, this will be good for learners and for society.

But it has also become increasingly clear to me during the pandemic that despite the hype, mainly from outside the educational profession, there are significant areas of education where online learning is not an appropriate solution, at least on its own, despite the views of ‘disruptors’ such as the Christensen Institute, business schools, and some politicians looking to save a few bucks on taxes.

This became evident when preparing for a presentation I made yesterday to about 4,000 Greek school teachers, as part of the 1st Online Educational Conference organised by the University of the Aegean (sadly by video-conference – oh, to sit in some warm sunshine on a Greek beach with a bottle of Boutari, as I look out my window at a cold and rainy Vancouver). As elsewhere, Greek school teachers were pitched with hardly any notice and almost no preparation into emergency remote teaching.

I think we can all agree that this is a very difficult if not impossible position to be in as a school teacher. As the President of the Conference, Professor Alivisos Sofos, put it,

If we fall into the sea that does not mean we know how to swim or that we know a specific swimming technique.

However, I want to make the point that even if Greek teachers and parents had been properly prepared for such a move, there would still be some major difficulties and shortcomings resulting from moving all school teaching online.

It is useful then to use the experience from Covid-19 to identify some of the affordances or ‘difficult to replace’ characteristics of in-person teaching and learning. In particular, I found myself revisiting what we often take for granted, at least here in Canada: the real benefits of a comprehensive, publicly funded in-person school system.

Major limitations

1. Access

According to the Greek national statistical agency, ELSTAT, roughly 15% of all households in Greece have no Internet access at all, and another 5% have download speeds of less than 10 mbps, which limits the use of video-conferencing/streaming or other technologies that need broadband access. In addition, in 5-10% of Greek households, income levels are so low that they do not have the capacity to buy the necessary equipment (computers or tablets), or afford the telecom/data charges. This means that between 1 in 5 and 1 in 4 families will not be able to access online learning. They will be mainly the poorest households.

Greece is one of the lesser economically developed countries in Europe but nevertheless, even in more economically advanced countries, there will always be a significant minority of households who will not have adequate access to online learning. (For Canada I would put the figure around 5-10 per cent, or between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20, of all households)

It is worth remembering that the great benefit of publicly funded school systems is that all children have access, indeed must attend by law. This means that if online learning is to be a necessary component of teaching, additional steps must be taken to ensure adequate access for all. This may mean government grants to low income families for equipment and Internet charges, or giving priority to children from low income families if in-school access is limited for health reasons. It is the same as providing school buses to enable children to attend school. It costs more but it ensures roughly equal access to education.

In a country such as Greece, it also probably means giving preference to low-bandwidth technologies, such as email and learning management systems, for online learning, rather than to high bandwidth technologies such as Zoom or video streaming.

2. Online learning is inappropriate for younger children

Children everywhere vary enormously at any age, so one needs to be careful making generalisations, but as a rule of thumb, the younger the child, the less appropriate is online learning.

This is because attending school in-person is about much more than just learning reading, writing, arithmetic, history and geography. One of the most important things to learn is how to live effectively with others in a community larger than the family, learning to take responsibility for your actions, and learning the concept of otherness, that people may be different from you, will want or like things differently from you, but are still worthy of respect and even love.

Children also benefit from learning from other children and learn to respect and get to know other adults (teachers) who are not part of the family and who can be expected to take a more objective approach to the behaviour of children. Above all, all children, but young children especially, need to play and learn in social groups with children of the same age. It’s how you learn to share, to give as well as to take, and to look out for your friends as well as yourself.  

Adults (teachers and parents) provide and enforce social rules. It is an essential part of growing up as a civilised, respectful person who cares for others and understands how they can contribute to the greater good. Certainly parents have a responsibility for this kind of development, but it is reinforced and widened in a school environment. While it is not impossible to learn such things online, this social development should be the prime focus in a well-run, in-person school, especially for younger children. 

Also, online learning requires a higher degree of self-discipline than attending school on a regular basis. School provides a structure from the earliest age. You have to be at school at a certain time, have classes at fixed time, have an adult responsible for you, and learn to do what you are told. Good online course design can also provide such a structure, but more responsibility falls on the learner to keep to that structure. Parents can help but teaching is not their job and in any case they may well be outside the house as children get older, or inside the house, looking after other children. Even if parents are working from home, they cannot constantly monitor their children’s studies.

As children get older they can be expected to take more responsibility for their learning, their social life is often separate from school, and academic study becomes a stronger focus, so they can take more online learning. But I strongly believe that online learning is a poor substitute for school for anyone younger than 15 years of age, although, as we shall see, online learning can help with some of the more academic aspects such as soft skills development for children younger than 15.

Lastly, many children will already be spending too much time looking at screens for non-educational reasons. They need to socialise with other children, play outside if possible, and learn to take a certain amount of risk in the real world (preferably with some adult supervision). Adding several hours a day of looking at screens for educational reasons does not allow for that healthy balance of activities.

3. There are certain areas of teaching that are still difficult or impossible through online learning

The common response from teachers and instructors that ‘you can’t teach my subject online’ has been shown over and over again to be demonstrably untrue. This has resulted in my suggestion of ‘the law of equal substitution‘: anything can be taught as well online, except…..  We need to identify the exceptions, based on pedagogical effectiveness, not someone’s gut feelings. (I don’t undervalue the gut feelings of a trained teacher, but it can also be a response to the fear of having to do something different).

Even in areas such as lab and studio work, video, simulations, virtual reality, and even remotely operated labs can duplicate at least some of the activities previously only done in person. Online or digital learning then may be able to reduce time in labs or studios, if not altogether eliminate the need for in-person presence. 

There is also a growing number of freely accessible open educational resources that can replicate lab and studio work, such as the OER Commons and the MIT Teaching + Learning Lab

However, there are still huge gaps in appropriate OER in visual arts, media, science, engineering, technical and vocational subjects, and where OER are available they are often difficult to use (for instance requiring specialised software to run) or of poor teaching quality. To date, most OER are available only in the English language, and much is at the post-secondary level.

We need to find ways to produce high quality OER in widely taught areas in schools and post-secondary education over the next few years, but at the moment, when they are really needed, there are far too many areas where there is just no adequate replacement for in-person lab or studio work. Sure, teachers can dream up imaginative alternatives that kids can do at home, but that is not an adequate substitute for carefully planned and designed online practical work that can be shared and standardised across a system, so all students have equal access to such resources.

What are the implications for the fall semester?

1. Ensure equitable access to online learning

Government in particular needs to concentrate on ensuring that in the short-term, children have access to equipment and networks through grants to low income families or targeted equipment and modem loans if any part of the teaching is to be delivered online.

Teachers need to apply universal design for learning principles when creating online courses so that students with accessibility issues have appropriate ways of learning online.

2. Focus in school on those areas that are difficult or impossible to teach online

If we know there are areas which are still difficult to teach online, we should be ensuring that these are the areas that schools (and colleges) focus on when they move to a blended model in the fall. At the moment though, far too many schools and institutions are planning on doing content presentation (lectures, teachers talking) in school or college as well as online. Focus on social and cultural development and lab and studio work, instead. Do the rest online.

3. Focus on what online learning can best do for younger children

Even though online learning is an inadequate substitute for school for younger children, there are some specific areas where it can help children who have to stay home. It can still help with ‘the basics’, such as reading, writing, arithmetic, and improving oral and other communication skills (including digital communication).

Children can be given small, easily accomplished ‘projects’ to do offline at home and report them either through online written reports, podcasts or even videos. They can learn to collaborate online with other children in their class. The focus here is on skills development rather than comprehensive coverage of content or topics. Topics or projects should be seen as a means to an end – writing, researching, math development – rather than ends in themselves. 

Eventually, when they return to school, they can catch up on history and geography but it is important that younger children do not lose a year or more in developing their basic skills.

4. Rethink the curriculum

Especially in schools, the ‘official’ curriculum may still not be appropriate for the circumstances in the fall, where not all children can attend on a full-time basis. It is not uncommon for many school curricula to be overloaded with content or ‘topics’ with insufficient time given to skills development. Indeed, this presents a maybe once in a lifetime chance to rethink learning goals that are more appropriate for the 21st century (e.g. digital literacy) or goals that may be better achieved through online learning, such as digital communication skills. 

In particular, ministries and/or school boards should give teachers freedom to make decisions about alternative ways to achieve the main learning goals set in a curriculum, when children may have to spend less time in school and more time studying online. The focus should be on the desired learning outcomes with teachers given the freedom to choose alternative ways to achieve those outcomes in a blended learning environment.

5. Partner with parents

Parents are critical to ensuring that students who have to study online succeed. However, they should not be seen as substitute teachers. Their role is to provide support for learning, by providing a clear structure for studying – set times each day, preferably in short bursts of 45 minutes with short breaks in between when children can relax and play. Indeed it is good if the boundary between play and study can seem blurred to the children, so long as the necessary time is put into the actual learning desired.

Not all home learning should be online to avoid too much screen time. The role of parents is to be there for their child’s learning, asking questions, but not doing the work for their child. Teachers should provide a clear guide for parents that explains the goals of online/home studying, what their role should be, how to get information from the school/teacher, what to do if their child is struggling, etc., remembering that parents will increasingly be leaving the house for work or other reasons as restrictions ease. 

6. Improve teacher education to include online learning

The crisis has shown that many teachers were not adequately prepared or trained to move online. Although better placed than university or college instructors, most school teachers will not have been trained in online learning techniques, such as how to use a learning management system or strategies for communicating with students at a distance.

Online and blended learning will become more important over the years, so learning about the strengths and weaknesses, and good design principles, of online learning should be a necessary part of the teacher training curriculum (see my free, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, which has a five star review from Teacher Education, for a possible curriculum).

This applies even more to post-secondary education – see my blog post on this topic.

Making the best of a difficult situation

My main concern in this post has been to be aware of the dangers of expecting too much of online learning. The pivot online is a reasonable strategy in a health crisis such as Covid-19. In a few situations it will have been found to be as good as or even better than traditional in-person teaching and learning.

However, online learning is not a panacea. For young children especially, in-person schooling can provide many essential benefits for which online learning is a poor or inappropriate substitution. We need to get our kids back to school as quickly as possible while ensuring their safety and those of the people working in schools.

What the Covid-9 crisis has done is clarify some areas where we need to improve online learning. It is also helping to understand better the design principles needed for quality blended learning.

I don’t think we will go back to pre-Covid 19 teaching in schools or universities, or it will be a pity if we do. Teachers and parents will have a better understanding of the strengths as well as the weaknesses of online learning. Blended learning is not going away; indeed it will become even more important in the future, for all age ranges. It is an opportunity to rethink what as well as how we should teach, or what learners should learn.

However, the benefits of online learning clearly increase the more mature learners are, and we need to do much more to rethink the teaching of practical subjects so that online learning and digital tools can reduce the cost, time and even danger of practical work in science and vocational education.

I have again broken my golden rule of not venturing into the school/k-12 area, so I will really welcome feedback on this post from any parents or teachers who happen to stumble across it.


  1. Thanks Tony for this posting. The issues along the learning spectrum can be quite similar at times (though as you mention with really young children or with certain disciplines like the visual arts, online learning might not be a good fit).

    We need much more overlap— at least in the U.S. — of folks researching, blogging about, reflecting upon, building the future of, etc — K12, higher ed, vocational programs, and the corporate training/L&D space.

    So thanks for going out on a limb and breaking your golden rule!

    Learning Ecosystems blog

  2. Daniel – Interesting point about the US. There used to be an excellent annual report “Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning” (in the US). Then they changed Online to Digital and it became less regular. The last one I can find under the original title is the 2016 report – That just covers virtual schools.

    I have to say I know of very little info on US online vocational programs – although Higher Ed is well documented in the US I think there is a lack of overview material and in particular multi-sector overviews.

    Regarding Canada, the virtual schools sector is covered more or less annually by Michael Barbour and Randy LaBonte, with a the 2020 report at Can’t say I have read it yet but it is on my list for our current VISCED-20 project (updating our EU work of 8 years ago). I do know from my own work on VISCED circa 2012 that there were over 30 online high schools in Canada then.

    I do know that virtual schools and colleges I deal with regularly would contest some of the assumptions in Tony’s paper. As one example, online teaching of art and creative subjects is not uncommon, with the Open College of the Arts maybe in the lead in the UK. And there are thriving networks of online vocational providers in the UK teaching school-level subjects across a wide range of subjects.

    The issue of to what extent OER is relevant to the issue is a bit political – but I can say that lack of OER does not stop the teachers I know from teaching online and there are many repositories not actually OER in the UNESCO or Creative Commons sense but available at not too high a price or free to teachers.

  3. Thank you for writing about how younger children need more focus on social interactions. I teach Nursery to grade 12 music. You also gave me an idea as to how my school could have bands and choirs meet on campus if we are doing both on line and on campus classes this coming year. We could make the mandatory safety precautions in these groups less often by allowing students to practice at home and meet in small group ensembles once or twice a month. I also believe that on line learning requires the development of self-discipline skills which my band students already have a head start on due to mandatory practice expectations. Those who practiced more on their own seemed to succeed best this past semester with their other on line courses as well.

  4. Dear Tony

    I am a mother 🙂 We live in QC. I want to bring two points to the table: first, a total lack of training for teachers to use LMS or even the simplest virtual meeting platforms like Microsoft Teams. I feel that right now university professors have more support to actually use these tools. In my area, teachers started using Microsoft teams only in the second month. And they were terrible at it, they did not know how to manage a class and how to use all the available tools to get the learning going. Also, the material sent was to be PRINTED OUT. Internet access is one issue for vulnerable populations, but printing is another level: you must have access to a printer, toner and paper, or pay for printing 30 pages in outside store (during the lockdown…). indeed, LMS is probably the only way forward for on-line education to be workable for swaths of population. But indeed, teachers need training now, and I do not see this is happening across provinces here.

    My second point is about privacy. For reasons I do not understand (probably because the free version has so many options) Zoom has taken over a vast area of education. And yet, the data treatment of our kids should be our main concern. Zoom has a controversial policy of sharing the data with foreign governments, so I am not sure we want to have our most vulnerable kids and their data out there in the open. I have not seen any solid recent government action on data protection in the on-line education, as it happens in Europe, where people have been given control and ownership of their data. And minors enjoy an additional level of protection. I would love to see this conversation in Canada, but it is not happening.

    • Great points, Agnieszka. Yes, I am surprised (but unfortunately not shocked) that most teachers have had no basic training in Internet-based teaching tools – but then it appears neither have many school administrators, who are probably unaware of the need. This was just about acceptable in March when it was a sudden and unexpected crisis, but it should not be the case for the fall semester.
      However, this is only one of several things missing if the fall semester is to be at least partly online. There appears to be no guidelines to teachers about what should be done online and what should be done in class. My fear is that teachers will merely add the online students to the class lessons, for instance.
      What surprises me is that provinces such as British Columbia and Ontario have had Open Schools for years, mainly for Grades 11 and 12, but nevertheless the expertise in online learning within the k-12 sector is there within at least some provinces. This though does not appear to be influencing policy, which is really unacceptable.
      And yes, school boards or better the province should be securing province-wide agreements with commercial suppliers of LMS and synchronous technologies such as Zoom, ensuring the security and privacy issues are addressed (as well as a good price for bulk licensing) and building training into the agreements. Again, there wasn’t time in March but there is no excuse for this not being done for September.
      I’d really like to hear from other teachers or administrators about whether these issues are being addressed – and if not, why not.


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