Remote teaching in Iowa in December 2020. (Phil Roeder / Creative Commons)

Nearly a year has passed since Washington’s schools closed due to COVID-19. The state’s children are suffering a mental and behavioral health crisis so troubling that Gov. Jay Inslee has ordered educators to reopen their classrooms next month.

This crisis is the “result of the ongoing pandemic, which has been exacerbated by continued isolation, difficulty engaging with virtual learning, and lack of regular in-person interaction with educators, school personnel, mentors and peers,” states an emergency proclamation signed by the governor on Monday.

Or as my own sixth-grade daughter recently expressed her thoughts on online learning: “I feel like a part of me is lost.”

So why has the remote education experience been so awful? And has it been all bad, or have aspects of distance education succeeded and merit continuing when “normal” returns?

The answers are varied and nuanced; students learn as individuals and teachers are unique. But the bottom line is that shifting in a matter of weeks from in-person instruction that has been honed over decades to entirely online education, with little to no training and using technology that wasn’t built for the job, was destined to go badly.

Teachers didn’t fail. Ed-tech didn’t fail. In fact, both were successful in ways. But the system simply wasn’t prepared to move this fast to solve a problem this difficult.

“Educational technology has never been intended to replace in-person learning. It’s best when it supplements it,” said Brian Galvin, chief academic officer at Varsity Tutors, a virtual tutoring and educational company. “It’s a tool that is amazing in certain use cases, and we tried to make it one-size-fits-all and it wasn’t designed for that.”

Brian Galvin, chief academic officer at Varsity Tutors. (Varsity Tutors Photo)

“Many teachers have never received training in the techniques and tools to use for remote online instruction, either in initial teacher education or ongoing professional development,” added Frank Catalano, a Seattle-based ed-tech industry consultant and analyst. “And it was never clear how long the pandemic closures were going to last.”

With the governor’s mandate, K-12 schools statewide will be required in April to give families the option of returning their kids to the classroom, while also offering virtual instruction — which makes training for teachers an ongoing need. Many schools locally and nationally have already been providing hybrid learning.

One of the most important impacts has been the pandemic’s amplification of the digital divide. As schools shifted online, an alarming number of students, families and schools did not have access to technology devices and reliable internet essential for learning.

Government programs, nonprofits and educators have hustled to connect kids with digital resources, with varying success. The FCC last month approved a $50 monthly internet subsidy for low-income households.

Students already at a disadvantage are falling farther behind. But even for kids lucky enough to have the tech tools they need, a stable home setting in which to learn, and sufficient food to fuel their learning, there are plenty of challenges to go around.

Paula Dagnon, associate professor at Western Washington University. (WWU Photo)

To better understand the struggles of a year of remote learning, we talked to Galvin and Catalano from the ed-tech realm, and three educational experts: Paula Dagnon, Instructional Technology program director and associate professor in Elementary Education at Western Washington University; Matthew Miller, a faculty member in the department of Elementary Education at WWU; and Kristen Missall, School Psychology program director at the University of Washington.

Here are the key takeaways from our reporting.

Learning is messy, technology is not (at least not in the right ways)

Education, particularly for younger students, is messy, exploratory, creative, and physical. While technology has provided the means of connecting through video conferencing, managing assignments, and delivering lesson plans, it’s not built to deliver open-ended, tactile experiences for kids.

“Kids need to be creating and not only with digital materials, but also with physical materials and that’s really hard to replicate in a pandemic,” Dagnon said.

Less time with teachers

In remote learning, students are getting fewer hours with teachers, whether it’s because instructors are splitting their time between in-person and remote students or the reality that kids — or really any of us — can only stay tuned into a virtual class for a limited time compared to in-person teaching. In remote situations, there is less time spent on instruction and more on independent and self-directed study.

That means less time actively engaging with academic material, which gives kids fewer chances at mastery.

Matthew Miller, faculty member at Western Washington University. (WWU Photo)

“It takes multiple exposures to learn something,” Missall said.

While there hasn’t been systemic testing to measure academic achievement during this time, it doesn’t bode well.

Missed ‘micro interactions’

While Microsoft Teams and Zoom bring students and teachers together — unless there’s an outage, as Teams experienced this week — the setting generally means teachers are doing more talking and getting less feedback from students.

Teachers aren’t able to play the “guide on the side” role that allows students to own their learning, experimenting, and taking risks, while educators offer feedback. Dropping into an online breakout room, for example, is not the same experience as a teacher circulating among a classroom of students, quietly observing.

Ideally a teacher can “pull up a chair, sit by a student, support and scaffold the work, teach children how to self-regulate,” Miller said. “Those are things that are a little easier to know how to do when you’re face to face. And they’re not impossible to do when you’re virtual, but you just have to be much more intentional.”

Frank Catalano, an independent ed-tech industry consultant and advisor. (Photo courtesy of Catalano)

Galvin says the in-person “micro interactions” — the whispered collaborations between students figuring out an assignment, the supportive glance of a teacher — are really hard to replace online. Technology requires actions to be clear and deliberate, which misses subtle exchanges.

Challenges in going digital

Individual educators and students had wildly different levels of tech literacy going into the pandemic. Teachers needed help adapting their lessons, rather than taking what worked in the classroom a forcing it into a virtual platform. Software and platforms that could improve learning experiences aren’t always used because educators aren’t aware of them, or lack access or training.

“There is no one magic piece of educational technology that will make online instruction better. It’s the intelligent application of ed-tech that’s more important,” Catalano said.

Fewer meaningful social connections

Seeing peers on a video call is a poor substitute for in-person interactions. Students struggle to make new friends or stay connected to old ones. Added to their isolation has been a slate of stressful news: COVID dangers, an acrimonious election, mounting climate fears and persistent racial injustices.

Kristen Missall, School Psychology program director at the University of Washington. (UW Photo)

“Our kids have suffered from anxiety and depression in so many ways, even our youngest learners,” Dagnon said.

School isn’t just about reading, writing and arithmetic, but about emotional IQ as well.

When they meet in person, students can hone their interactions with kids and teachers, Missall said. “Kids learn social skills through trial and error.”

“Sixty percent of what kids learn in school is the curriculum,” Miller said, “and 40% is all the other stuff.”

And the upsides to remote learning?

Remote education hasn’t been all bad, and one-in-five U.S. districts or charter school organizations already say they’re planning to continue some form of virtual education even after schools fully reopen, Catalano said. Some of the perks:

  • Kids with social anxiety have experienced less stress learning remotely. Online instruction also removed opportunities for in-person bullying.
  • Students and teachers made strides in improving their digital literacy. Particularly for older students, these skills can be useful as they move into the workforce or higher education.
  • Digital learning has encouraged the use of programs that gamify instruction, helping some kids better engage. Augmented and virtual reality can create richer learning experiences. Virtual field trips and guest teachers give students access to new experiences that wouldn’t be possible in person.
  • Remote education placed a spotlight on the nation’s digital divide. Now many schools and districts that lacked digital devices have more electronics for students. Washington state’s Technology Alliance is pushing an initiative to resolve these disparities and plan for the next catastrophe.
  • Instructors are creating digital documents and videos so students can return to materials to fill in gaps in understanding, helping kids learn at their own pace.

The experts hope that educators, students and families recognize the aspects of online learning that have worked for different kids and in specific situations and incorporate them into instruction long term.

Families will be eager to go back to in-person learning post pandemic, but Galvin expects this experience will spark lasting interest in ed-tech. “Enough people saw the potential,” he said, “and will really lean into it and use it more.”