What happened last year wasn’t true online distance learning

March 2020 will go down in history as a time in which legends were made, as pandemic restrictions forced teachers to convert their classes to distance learning, often with only a few days’ notice. But in many cases, we aren’t learning the right lessons about online learning from the pandemic experience.

It is a mistake to draw conclusions about the field of online distance learning (ODL) from the hastily-converted classes in 2020, even though they happened to be online and happened to be at a distance. True online learning needs to be theory based and carefully crafted, which often did not happen in 2020.

Indeed, more and more scholarly studies have crossed my desk for peer review about how bad 2020 was with closed schools and online instruction. But more important is that we learn the right lessons about ODL from 2020 that can be applied going forward, when the pandemic restrictions are completely behind us. In doing this, we should not think of 2020 as “business as usual.”

Colleagues and I were among the first to publish a quantitative study with a world-wide sample looking at the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for education.  Most respondents experienced much higher workloads and stress in converting and managing their classes than in previous face-to-face settings, but previous ODL teaching predicted positive faculty experiences. There was high standard deviation in most survey answers, indicating that the individual teachers ranged widely between positive and negative experiences.

Let me stress again that previous experience teaching online distance learning made the difference in 2020 in whether teachers adapted their classes effectively or struggled, and in those who succeeded in serving their students well and those who felt it had gone poorly.

When the pandemic hit, I converted two classes, but because I had past ODL teaching experience, I had an online class “formula” that was easy to employ. My degree is an Ed.D., so I had a strong background in learning theory and I had proven ways of implementing the theory, perfected over several previous semesters. Students responded well. 

“I could not have asked for a better professor for this course, especially because of the way you handled the transition to online learning,” said one student on the school’s anonymous end-of-semester survey. “You made it an incredibly smooth process (especially compared to some other professors I currently have).”

My point is that I knew what I was doing with the school’s learning management system (LMS), I had a previously perfected theory-based ODL model, and therefore I could give my students confidence that the new way of operating was effective for their learning.

The most important conclusion of our study was that higher education institutions need to provide theory-based training and mentoring to faculty concerning online and distance learning pedagogy and instructional design, not just about using distance learning hardware and software, and that it should be a longer-term professional development expectation for all faculty, not just a reaction to a crisis.

Our bigger-picture study conclusion was that “we just weren’t ready.”  Schools had trained faculty on ODL technology, but not on ODL pedagogy. As a result, many individual teachers were ill-equipped for lesson planning. The best technology in the world will not be successful if the teacher does not use it well. 

Careful design of online distance learning is a developmental process in which multiple factors must be taken into consideration, such as (1) Reverse engineering of instructional requirements from outcome goals, (2) Instructional design based on learning affordances of technology and learning activities, (3) Constructivism embodied in student-centered active learning, (4) Authentic learning materials and experiences, (5) Assignments building on previous learning, (6) Task-Based Instructional Design, and (7) Long term curriculum integration.

This is why it is a mistake to draw long-term research study conclusions about the effectiveness of online distance learning during the 2020 emergency. Most of the online learning in 2020 was ad hoc, improvised, not theory-based, of questionable pedagogy, and thus not inspiring confidence on the part of the students. For many teachers, it happened too fast for a careful developmental process.

There are many lessons we can learn about education from the pandemic, including about hardware and software access and functionality, as well as about student and teacher psychology under stress. But we should not automatically treat the converted courses of 2020 as worthy, valid, and generalizable for the purpose of future research and study.


Michael Marek, Ed.D.

Emeritus Professor, Wayne State College Wayne, Nebraska USA

More information:

Marek, M. W. & Wu, P-H. N. (2020). Digital Learning Curriculum Design: Outcomes and Affordances. In L. Daniela (Ed.). Pedagogies of Digital Learning in Higher Education. Taylor & Francis (Routledge). https://www.routledge.com/Pedagogies-of-Digital-Learning-in-Higher-Education/Daniela/p/book/9780367894832