In March 2020, millions of students in grades K-12 went from learning in the classroom one week to learning at the dining room table the next.

Just like that, the largest experiment in remote learning or, more aptly, emergency remote learning in history was underway. The next six months were chaotic. Some schools closed; others stayed open; some students received instruction in person; others remotely; and still others split their time between the two. The Digital Divide became glaringly obvious as thousands of students, primarily in low-income and rural areas, struggled to participate in remote learning, because they didn’t have reliable internet access.

“I absolutely believe that we are going to come out of this pandemic having learned a great deal about how to deliver quality instruction to students.”

Chris Cerf, Deputy Chancellor, New York City Department of Education

Surviving Remote Learning

The result of this dramatic educational shift? A lot of frustrated administrators, teachers, students, and parents, and a significant loss of learning at all levels that some education experts have described as the COVID-19 learning slide. We can all relate to one Israeli mom’s viral rant:

Surviving Remote Learning

“Listen, it’s not working, this distance learning thing. Seriously, it’s impossible…The music teacher of my youngest sent over a musical score this morning. What, have I got some band in the house? I can’t read music! I go from one child to the other. Here’s science, here’s math…How am I supposed to know all of those things? If we don’t die of coronavirus, we’ll die of distance learning.”

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What is Remote Learning?

Remote learning or distance learning occurs when teachers and students are not present in a classroom but rather are physically distanced from each other. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but the key difference, especially in the current context, is that distance learning is used to describe a situation where the student has chosen that option, e.g. online colleges and universities.

In this instance, remote learning was not a choice. Rather, it was how schools responded to the unprecedented challenges of a global pandemic. Susan Grajek of Educause describes remote learning as “a quick, ad hoc, low-fidelity mitigation strategy.” In reality, remote learning can and should be so much more than that. For many schools, it’s an integral part of their educational approach.

“Remote learning at its best is highly personalized, highly interactive, and, consequently, highly effective.”  

Brian Galvin, CAO, Varsity Tutors

The History of Remote Learning

Remote Learning can be traced at least as far back as 1728 when a teacher named Caleb Phillips placed an ad in the Boston Gazette for a shorthand correspondence course he was offering. The course was conducted via an exchange of letters.

In 1873, The Society to Encourage Studies at Home, the first correspondence school, was founded by Anna Eliot Ticknor in Boston, MA. Its stated purpose was “to induce among ladies the habit of devoting some part of every day to study of a systematic and thorough kind.”

Two decades later, the University of Chicago started to offer correspondence courses. It was the first institution of higher learning in America to do so. By 1906, primary schools, such as The Calvert School in Baltimore, began offering correspondence courses as well.

Education Takes to the Airwaves

Colleges and universities soon realized that it was important to provide students with access to an education no matter where they lived. In 1922, Pennsylvania State College, now known as Pennsylvania State University, started its own radio station to offer radio courses to students as far away as California.

In 1953, the University of Houston became the first school to offer courses by television. By the late 1960s, these various types of remote learning were widely accepted in higher education. At the time, they were described as independent study.

Remote Learning in the Information Age

Also, in the late ‘60s, the U.S. Department of Defense provided funding for the ARPANET project, which would become the first prototype of the Internet. Commercial Internet providers began to emerge in the late 1980s. In 1998, the Google search engine was developed. In 2001, Achieve3000 introduced their remote learning solution for differentiated literacy instruction.

By the mid-2000s, Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, and Khan Academy had all launched. In 2009, President Obama pledged $500M in federal funds for the creation of new online courses and materials.

A Powerful Tool for Today

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), by the fall of 2018 more than 6.9 million students, over a third of all college students in America, were taking at least one remote learning course. In 2020, many times that number of K-12 students were shifted to remote learning after the pandemic forced schools across the country to close.

The History of Remote Learning Visualized

See how remote learning has evolved from 1728 to today.

The History of Remote Learning Visualized View Timeline

What Are the Challenges of Remote Learning?

The shift from on-site to remote learning was difficult for many schools and districts. Much of this was due to the rushed nature of that shift. Every educational organization’s pandemic was slightly different. Here are some of the most common challenges they faced:

  • Some students may not have devices or internet or WiFi access
  • Remote learning may require more training/preparation for teachers
  • Remote learning can make teacher-student connections more difficult
  • Remote learning is more strenuous for some students than others
  • Remote learning poses more external distractions for the students
  • Remote learning doesn’t offer the same type of social interaction
  • Some students may not be as disciplined in doing their work
  • Struggling learners may have a tough time keeping up

“Over 80 percent of the students at my school come from low-income families, and only a quarter of [them] have a computer at home. This [pandemic] means they will fall even further behind their wealthier peers.”

Kaitlin Barnes, Fourth Grade Teacher, Baltimore, MD

What Are the Opportunities of Remote Learning?

While the instant shift to full-time and part-time remote learning was extremely taxing for educators and students alike, that doesn’t mean remote learning isn’t a viable learning approach. In fact, it actually provides some important opportunities. Here are a few:

  • Remote learning offers anywhere, anytime access
  • Remote learning lets students learn at their own pace
  • Remote learning can be differentiated and personalized
  • Remote learning offers access to a wider variety of content
  • Remote learning offers real-time performance monitoring
  • Remote learning can be highly motivating and engaging
  • Remote learning makes students more active learners
  • Remote learning makes greater use of interactivity

“[Remote] learning has enhanced portions of my teaching. I am now allowed to utilize technology that I haven’t had time to before. I’ve also noticed that [some of] my students who struggled academically in class are excelling online.“

Jodi Ramos, Sixth Grade Teacher, San Antonio, TX

Impact of School Closings

What Was the Projected Impact of School Closings?

The Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) a research-based nonprofit organization estimated that students would start the 2020-21 school year having lost approximately a third of a year in reading and about half a year in math. McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm, projected that by the start of the 2020-21 school year, students would have lost somewhere between three months and a year of learning, depending on the quality of their remote instruction. And CREDO, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, predicted an average learning loss of 136 to 232 days in math, depending on the state.

More recently, an examination by McKinsey of assessment data from Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready instructional and testing platform found that students in their sample achieved about 87 percent of the learning in reading and 67 percent of the learning in math that they would normally have achieved by the fall. These results indicate that students lost approximately one-and-a-half months of learning in reading and three months of learning in math. McKinsey found that the learning loss was even more severe in predominantly black and brown schools, where scores were around 77 percent of the historical average in math and about 77 percent in reading.

The Covid-19 Slide
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Covid-19 and Student Learning in the US
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What Was the Actual Impact of School Closings?

A two-part national research study by Achieve3000 and the Successful Practices Network, which examined data from more than a million students who used Achieve3000 Literacy™, an online solution for literacy instruction in Grades 2-12, during the 2019 and 2020 school years, projected a 28% loss of potential learning gains by June 1, 2020 under a worst-case scenario in which students experienced zero literacy growth during the pandemic.

Fortunately, they found that students who used Achieve3000 Literacy only experienced a 12% loss of potential learning gains. They also found that students who did not engage in reading practice after school closures started the 2020-21 school year behind where they would have normally been. These students’ reading assessments demonstrate a 20% loss in potential growth whereas even students who remained engaged after school closures experienced an 8% loss in potential growth. The key takeaway was that regular remote use of Achieve3000 Literacy significantly reduced learning loss.

Impact of School Closures on Learning
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Real-Time Insights into the COVID Slide
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Keep Students and Teachers Engaged Online
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The Pandemic: A Learning Opportunity

Analysts and historians were quick to label the recession of 2008 a black swan event. Similar arguments could be made for the pandemic of 2020, even though some would argue that a pandemic was not only foreseeable but entirely predictable. It remains to be seen what the long-term impact on education will be. Ideally, experts hope this forced experiment in remote learning will make teachers, administrators, and students more aware of the possibilities of remote learning.

Dr. Bill Daggett, founder of the Successful Practices Network, explains, “Rather than accept that we will exist in a reactionary position for the foreseeable future, we can choose to look at these changing times as an opportunity to reimagine how we can safely and equitably prepare ALL students for a workplace and society much differently than we have in the past. To accomplish this, we need to create a more engaging and inspiring narrative that educators, parents, and students can all subscribe to: a more humane and empowering technology-enabled future.”

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How to Support Students

Adapting to remote learning can be difficult for students who are used to being in the classroom and having a teacher nearby. In her Forbes article, “7 Tips to Help Make Remote Learning More Effective,” Nathalie Wexler, author of The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System and How to Fix It, offers the following suggestions on how to help students make the transition:

  1. Get students into the habit of participating
  2. Focus on content, not comprehension skills
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Connect new content to old and provide examples
  5. Dole out new information in brief doses
  6. Make online learning as interactive as possible
  7. Balance synchronous and asynchronous learning
How to Support Teachers

Remote learning can be very challenging for teachers as well. Mastering the technology alone can be a feat. And effectively connecting with students and keeping them engaged can be even tougher. In her Edutopia article, “Making Teacher Feel More Confident About Distance Learning,” Melissa Roy points to four ways to boost teacher confidence.

  1. Go beyond survival mode
  2. Promote mastery experiences
  3. Provide mental health supports
  4. Put people first

Achieve3000: A Remote Learning Pioneer

Achieve3000 was one of the first edtech companies to fully embrace the possibilities of remote learning.

We’ve been providing schools and districts with remote learning solutions for more than two decades.

Since introducing Achieve3000 Literacy in 2001, Achieve3000 has helped teachers dramatically accelerate and deepen learning in literacy, math, science, social, studies and ELA. Our personalized approach is proven to boost high-stakes test scores and drive college and career readiness.

Today, we serve more than five million PreK-12 students in 50 states and 48 countries and offer a comprehensive digital learning platform that includes:

"The transition to remote [learning] wasn’t really a transition, because we already use the tools. Achieve3000 is embedded into the fabric of our district and schools, in everything that we do.”

Michael Ballone, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Marlboro Township School District, NJ

Edtech Checklist for Effective Remote Instruction

With so many kinds of education technology available today, it’s hard to know what to look for when choosing the best solution for your needs. Use this checklist to understand which features are most beneficial for your remote learning plans.

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What’s the Future of Remote Learning?

While forced remote learning was painful for many, it was also eye-opening. As Brian Galvin, CAO for Varsity Tutors writes in his article “ COVID-19 and the Future of Remote Learning,” “While I don’t think there will be a mad race to replace brick-and-mortar schools, I do think we will likely see more integration of technology into the traditional school experience.”

He points to the various aspects of remote learning that students seem to enjoy, such as real-time chat, adaptive assignments, and more engaging, differentiated instructional approaches. “Remote learning at it best,” Galvin writes, “is highly personalized, highly interactive, and, consequently, highly effective.”

Gemma Josep, Content Manager for Classgap, in her article “5 Reasons Why Online Learning is the Future of Education,” points out that education today is much different than it was a few years ago, and because of the greater access and connectivity available to students today, they can access a quality education anytime, anywhere.

She points to a handful of key reasons why online learning, which is one form of remote learning, could be an important and useful education option moving forward.

  1. It’s flexible
  2. It offers a wide selection of programs
  3. It’s accessible
  4. It allows for a customized learning experience
  5. It’s more cost-effective than traditional education

"The students of the future will demand the learning support that is appropriate for their situation or context. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Dr. Marcus Specht, Professor of Advanced Learning Technologies, Open University of Netherlands

How the Pandemic Made a Positive Impact on One District's Literacy Instruction

See how Nancy Czarnecki, Secondary Language Arts Coordinator for Howard County, Maryland, overcame the challenge of providing students and teachers with engaging digital content.

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Important Terms

There are a number of other terms that are frequently used when we discuss remote learning. Here are some short definitions:

Online learning—online learning, also known as e-learning or digital learning is one type of remote learning. It occurs when students use internet-enabled technology and/or devices to do their course work.

Hybrid learning—an educational approach where some students attend class in person and others do their work remotely

Blended learning—an educational approach that combines traditional in-person instruction with technology-enabled online methods

Synchronous learning—in this learning model, teachers and students gather at the same time and interact in real time

Asynchronous learning—in this learning model, teachers prepare assignments in advance, and students can access them at their convenience

Differentiated instruction—tailoring instruction and content to meet students’ individual needs