Several months into the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is becoming increasingly clear that the world of education will look very different for a long time to come.

In many countries, the biggest legacy of coronavirus will be the long-term shift to more online learning in schools.

Although many schools are hopefully going to reopen in September, social distancing is likely to disrupt normal classroom activities, and up to a million children may remain at home in the UK.

Given these realities – and the prospect of a “second wave” of COVID-19 cases – it seems likely that online learning will play a part in education for the foreseeable future.

Online teaching methods

The present challenge for teachers, then, is to ensure that the online methods they are using work for both them and their students.

Observing the Italian lockdown, some European experts have suggested that teaching via video conferencing technology may be of questionable value when it simply aims to reproduce traditional classroom lessons, with teachers struggling to monitor students effectively.

Similarly, UCL’s Allison Littlejohn stresses that quality online courses take time to create and that one cannot do so merely by shifting existing content from one format to another.

Although teachers are doing their best with the resources they have, they need proper support to make the best use of their skills.

How can blended-learning help?

The rapid shift to online learning across many parts of the world has meant schools and teachers overnight having to work out the best technological solutions to effectively teach remotely.

But when designed well and integrated effectively, online learning not only improves educational attainment, but can also take much of the strain off teachers and schools.

For example, blended learning systems can help save teachers vast amounts of time by speeding up or automating duties such as marking, course organisation, student monitoring, and reporting – thereby freeing them to focus on guiding the learning experience.

The benefits to students

For students, the benefits of online learning can be profound, particularly in technical or STEM subjects.

A 2018 US study of blended learning in school-level maths showed an increase in student test scores compared with traditional classroom teaching, particularly in the case of economically disadvantaged students, ethnic minority students, and those with disabilities.

And in the UK, a 2017 study by the Education Endowment Foundation similarly showed that students using blended learning in flipped maths classrooms made around one month’s extra progress over the year compared to traditional teaching.

Acquiring digital literacy

Beyond improving test scores, online learning also encourages students to work collaboratively, acquire digital literacy, and hone their research skills.

A study from UCL’s Institute of Education found that pre-university online learners were less likely to rely on tutors for help, more likely to set goals based on their own performance, and better able to manage and pace their studies.

These qualities will  help students hit the ground running once they reach university – especially now that many students will transition in the near future into universities that have themselves shifted to near-total online learning.

In the workplace, where there has been a marked shift towards online “DIY education”, the benefits are even more palpable: in a world where employees are expected to drive their own development and take advantage of changing opportunities, the ability to be a self-starting, curious learner is essential.

The future of teaching

Although we don’t know how long the present situation in schools will continue, some experts think that online learning could outlast any health-related restrictions, with the current period making digital learning the default way of doing things.

While it might be tempting to view online learning as just a necessary stopgap during the COVID-19 crisis, the likelihood is that once schools have discovered how it can improve education – rather than just continue it – they will embrace the benefits for good.