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By now, we’ve all become familiar with the concept of social distancing—avoiding close proximity to other people unless such contact is deemed essential. A crucial part of COVID-19’s social distancing protocol has been to shut down large gatherings such as sporting events, concerts, and workplaces.

The education sector has been hit particularly hard by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. For the vast majority of students in the country, their schooling experiences have involved travel to a brick and mortar school, interaction and engagement with teachers and other students, after school activities — a process continued for 180 days. That has changed in the world of COVID-19. Districts and institutions have had to quickly develop contingency plans for how best to educate students with disparate access to technology within their homes and communities with teachers at various degrees of training with online instruction. While the many challenges for schools have been a point of emphasis, many educational leaders are also looking at the potential benefits of this situation.

The Advantages of Distance Learning

Faced with this dilemma, many schools have taken a greater interest in distance learning methods. The concept of distance learning is older than most people think, although the internet has radically transformed the practice in recent years. For many students, being away from the “traditional” classroom and learning from home may be preferable. 

The Benefits of Asynchronous Learning

“Asynchronous learning” is where students work at their own pace and schedule rather than the imposed group pace of a brick-and-mortar classroom. The instructor systematically provides materials and facilitates learning experiences and activities where students do not need to be in the same space at the same time. Some studies have shown that asynchronous learning in online courses may be more beneficial for some students and allow them to perform better than if they were to receive traditional instruction. The nature of web-based distance learning lends itself well to asynchronous learning because students have 24-hour access and can work in the ways and at the times that serve them best.

The Challenges of Distance Learning

The most obvious challenge with distance learning is that not all students enjoy equal access to technology and connectivity. However, even when these issues are not barriers, there can still be challenges. No matter which edtech software is used, distance learning poses a unique set of challenges. One of those crucial challenges is the issue of socialization. According to sociocultural theories of learning (namely Vygotsky), children learn essential social and cognitive skills as they navigate the mini-society of a physical school. Early childhood experiences are especially critical for the development of social skills. Dr. Jessica Alvarado of National University notes that the optimal education setting equips young learners with “critical social and emotional skills” while also imparting academic knowledge.

Instructors can help mitigate the problem of socialization in the context of online learning by facilitating interaction between students using asynchronous tools, such as discussion boards, VoiceThread, or FlipGrid, as well as synchronous learning, where students and the teacher simultaneously access the digital platform (e.g., Zoom, Blackboard, Canvas, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams) to engage in real-time discussions and learning activities.

Equipping Students for Success

To get started with the most basic form of distance learning, the following pieces of equipment are necessary for all participants:

  • Laptops, tablets, or other similar devices with the ability to connect to the web
  • A reliable broadband internet connection
  • A web camera
  • Headset/speakers
  • A microphone

Of course, larger institutions require significant tech support to troubleshoot issues as they inevitably arise. Pricier multimedia hardware and software can enhance instruction in some circumstances and be necessary in others, depending upon the nature of the course, needs of the school, and tech-savviness of teachers and students.

The Takeaway

Social distancing has forced educational institutions to adjust in the face of unprecedented challenges. Distance learning via the internet—which still creates issues of accessibility for some students—offers a range of benefits as well as a unique set of drawbacks.