Lessons Learned: What Research Shows About Students’ Experiences with Online Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic caused unprecedented school closures throughout the United States, prompting educators to search for ways to meet the needs of children and families outside the bounds of traditional school walls. School districts have employed numerous approaches, many of which rely on distance learning using online platforms and tools.

Most education technology tools are not well-implemented or even used. Consequently, neither teachers nor students are used to relying on technology.

One might expect that the widespread availability of education technology would create the conditions for schools to shift relatively easily to distance learning. School districts spend $13 billion on education technology per year, and many have long lists of online programs and tools at their disposal. However, despite this spending and available technology, schools did not seamlessly or easily shift to distance learning during the pandemic. In fact, most education technology tools are not well-implemented or even used. A report by the RAND Corporation shows that education technology is most commonly used (or simply purchased) for supplemental activities, not for core instruction. Consequently, neither teachers nor students are used to relying on technology.

AIR has studied online learning for more than a decade, and although none of our studies took place in a situation like the current pandemic, this research provides insights that could inform education leaders who are working to promote and support student learning from afar.

AIR’s Online Learning Research

In three separate, federally funded studies, AIR examined the experiences of students taking either a semester- or year-long online course. The purpose of the online courses was either to expand curriculum offerings or allow students to recover credit for a previously failed class. In each study, students took the online courses at their brick-and-mortar schools, with a varying level of in-person support from a teacher or school staff member.

  • The Access to Algebra I Study examined the use of a full-year, online course to expand access to Algebra I for eighth graders who were academically ready for the course but attended rural middle schools that did not offer it. Although providing Algebra I as an online course boosted students’ math achievement overall, many students struggled; only 43% of the students completed the course material. And although the course was meant to be fully online, students received, on average, about an hour per week of in-person instructional support from math teachers in their schools across the school year.
  • In the Back on Track Study, students in Chicago Public Schools took a summer online course to recover Algebra I credit after failing the course in their first year of high school. Compared with a traditional, face-to-face Algebra I summer course for credit recovery, students found the online course more difficult, learned less math, and were less likely to pass and successfully recover credit. However, students in the online classes were more successful when their in-class teacher provided instructional support on top of the online instruction. Passing rates for students in online course sections with in-person instructional support were similar to those for the face-to-face sections in the same schools: nearly 80%. Passing rates for students in online course sections without in-person instructional support were much lower (about 65%).
  • Building on findings from the Back on Track Study, the Online Credit Recovery Study examined an online learning model with a more explicit expectation that the in-class teacher would provide instructional support. In the study, students in the Los Angeles Unified School District took Algebra I or ninth-grade English (English 9) credit recovery classes if they had failed either or both courses during their first year of high school. The first set of findings released in October 2020 found that, unlike the Back on Track Study, students’ experiences and academic outcomes in the online and teacher-directed classes were similar in several respects. For example, students’ scores on an end-of-course test were similar in the online and teacher-directed classes in both subjects (Algebra I and English 9), and their credit recovery rates were similar in Algebra I. The only significant difference in academic outcomes we observed was in English 9, where the credit recovery rate was significantly lower in the online classes.

Relevant Takeaways for Education Leaders

Although the circumstances in which these studies took place were different from the current pandemic-related education conditions, there are three applicable takeaways worth highlighting.

1. The reality is, learning online is difficult for students of all types.

Although they may find online courses difficult, many students can stay moderately on task and engaged in online courses.

Across our research studies, students consistently reported that the online version of a given course was more difficult. This was the case whether participating students were considered academically “advanced” or “struggling.” The difficulty of online learning is probably even more pronounced in the current distance learning context, in which many students are learning from home full-time or much of the time, while also concurrently facing other stressors introduced by the pandemic. Of course, simply reporting that this way of learning (and teaching) is difficult does not provide a solution; however, it is still important to acknowledge that research demonstrates taking even one online course is hard for most students. On a brighter note, although they may find online courses difficult, many students can stay moderately on task and engaged in online courses. During the pandemic, teachers are trying many different strategies to keep students engaged. Districts and schools should continue to support teachers’ efforts by seeking ways to monitor student engagement—such as logins, activity completion, and assignment submissions—and should work with their education technology providers to make these data available and easily accessible.

2. In-person instructional support seems to be key.

This is a consistent finding in our studies of online learning for both “advanced” and “struggling” students. For many students, in-person instructional support is not possible during the pandemic because the responsibility would fall to a parent or older sibling who face competing demands on their time, including their own work and the needs of other children and family members. Because higher-income families can share this responsibility by employing people to help, gaps between children in lower- and higher-income families will likely grow. To prevent truly disparate learning loss among children in families with fewer resources, districts, schools, and/or community organizations will have to find ways to provide some in-person supports to those with the greatest needs. Districts offering hybrid instruction—where students attend school some days and learn remotely on others—may have more flexibility in creating opportunities for instructional support when students are at school. For example, teachers could take time in person to review content that was covered while learning remotely and check students’ understanding.

3. Synchronous learning opportunities might help engage some students and could provide some of the benefits of in-person instructional support.

Connecting with their teachers through videoconferencing technology gives students opportunities to receive social and emotional support, as well as instruction.

Our studies show considerable variation in the use of synchronous teaching (i.e., when teachers and students are online at the same time). Considering our findings that students’ experiences and outcomes in online courses are better when in-person instructional support is available, districts and schools should continue to find ways for teachers and students to connect through videoconferencing technology. These experiences—which can happen with whole classes, small groups, and individual one-to-one sessions—offer opportunities for students to receive social and emotional support, as well as instruction.

Looking Ahead

During the COVID-19 pandemic, districts are implementing distance learning with a variety of digital platforms, programs, and approaches. After the pandemic, districts may again turn to technology to try to help address the growing gaps and compounded challenges of the disrupted education system. Such uses of technology will likely include fully online courses to provide greater access to required content and to provide credit recovery options to students who failed courses during this time. To support students both now and in the future, we encourage districts to consider these lessons learned from our past research. In addition, it will be important to continue studying online instruction to better understand how to make it work best across different contexts and for students with different needs.

Jessica Heppen
President and CEO
Jordan Rickles
Principal Researcher
Senior Researcher