What We Know About Distance Learning

Research demonstrates the best ways to learn from home.

Posted Apr 27, 2020

shangarey/Adobe Stock
Source: shangarey/Adobe Stock

Schools across the nation have been closed for weeks, and many are attempting to teach students staying at home as the nation works to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

For most parents and students, this is an unchartered territory that presents with a wide variety of challenges. Parents working from home may not have the time to help children with their schoolwork. Parents who are essential workers face even more difficulties: Who can watch their children when they leave the house? And millions of youth across the country don’t have access to the computers or the internet required for distance learning.

Despite the struggles, there is some evidence that distance learning can be effective for young people. Two recent systematic reviews take a careful look at how technology can help — and hinder — learning for young people.

The first is a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. It looked at a broad range of factors that influence distance learning, including students’ access to computer hardware and the internet, the types of programs that are most effective, and the best technology tools to motivate students. The paper draws some sweeping conclusions.

First, for K-12 students, although simply giving a computer to a child did not improve learning outcomes, it did improve computer proficiency and some cognitive skills.

Educational programs that provided instruction and practice and allowed students to progress at their own pace were meaningfully effective, especially for math. In fact, there was some evidence demonstrating these types of programs improved math scores at the same rate as effective tutoring programs.

The review also found that technology-based behavioral interventions, especially those that rely on text messages, were effective. The review included a wide range of applications such as campaigns to remind kindergarten students to read daily, notify parents of their high school students’ grades and attendance record, and remind students to fill out college applications.

The review also looked at online classes. It found online-only courses — where students never met in person — were not as effective as courses where students had the opportunity to meet in person, at least some of the time.

Clearly, meeting with students in person is not a possibility for the millions forced to practice social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What about if students can only learn online?

A second review from a researcher at Midwestern State University takes a more careful look at online learning where students and teachers cannot meet in person. The article asks whether it is more effective to provide students with educational materials — such as videos, slideshows, and documents — that they can review at their own pace or to meet in person through video-chat apps.

The review found that a combination of pre-recorded teaching and live video chat is most effective in helping students to learn. Most importantly, it concluded that it’s best for teachers to consider the material and the students’ needs when deciding whether to meet in-person or provide materials online.

The take-home message: Distance learning is not ideal for K-12 students forced to stay home from school during the coronavirus pandemic. But there is clear evidence that online learning does work. Understanding the best technologies and methods can help students to get the most out of their distance-learning experiences.