Does Remote Learning Work?

Stop putting pressure on yourself by trying to do the impossible.

Every parent knows that online learning does not work. There is no meaningful instruction as a result of screen time at home. (Verification from the N.Y. Times here.) This is especially true if students are young and/or if there are multiple kids at home. Parents now know how important and special teachers are. Respect for schools and teachers was soaring last spring.

The rest of us also know now that online learning does not work. At first, we said, “Teachers just don’t know how to do it yet.” True. Actually, some teachers didn’t even try. A teacher at my grandson’s school has a 15-miute Zoom meeting every day: “Hi, kids. How you doing? Anyone do anything fun yesterday? OK, well here’s a link to Khan Academy on simplifying fractions. Send me five problems if you want. And write a story about which super hero you’d like to be. There aren’t any grades and I won’t give feedback or anything but if you want, send it to me.”

Some tried a little harder and posted PowerPoint slides. This is for 4th graders. They’ve never heard about financial literacy so the whole unit is here:

What 10-year old wouldn’t enjoy this? And it’s especially friendly for special ed students, right?

Lots of teachers are trying more sophisticated things but lack expertise with digital tools. Managing a class via Zoom and looking at 15 thumbnail pictures and trying to monitor feedback? Making a video and posting it to YouTube? Trying to Screencastify? Daunting. And if you can do that, there is another problem: it is difficult to be impressive on screen, especially small screens. There is a reason why actors are highly paid. Even teachers using tools well may find that the product is still pretty unwatchable. Now imagine being 8 years old and having to watch hours of weak videos. My third-grader niece is expected to spend five hours of screen time a day, according to her school’s attendance requirement. I can’t get to the end of a 3 minute video of cute cat antics, but an 8-year-old can watch us for five hours?

Yes, there are a few rock stars. Some teachers get to showcase their skills with media. Even so, they fail to achieve what needs to be achieved. Kids need personal connection. You don’t remember wonderful lessons, you remember wonderful teachers. You remember classmates and interpersonal contact. We are learning that screen time done well is still painfully short of adequate. And did we mention no choir, no band, no art, no PE, no clubs, no after-school activities? What about all of the emotional problems associated with being out of those activities, away from friends, and the general trauma of the situation? The absolute best online efforts can’t make up for those. (See a high school teacher’s thoughts about that here.)

You noticed I said “looking at 15 thumbnails.” Who has only 15 students? No one, but that is probably the best you can hope for in a class of 30. If half show up, you’d be happy, right? The other students may not have the tools needed to connect. Some may have competition, a sibling who needs to use the computer. The best online instruction is worthless if it can’t be accessed.

So we have all agreed to throw out grades, scale back on amounts of assignments, and so on. In other words, we have all agreed that this isn’t workable. We cannot come remotely close (pun intended) to giving students the experience and education they get from being in school. Remember that students are paying this enormous price even though they are not the victims of the virus. They don’t get sick. They may not even transmit the disease (see While no one knows exactly what the effect is, we believe that fewer adults will get the virus if children suffer. We will have to ask some tough questions to decide if this is worth it. But we do know some things for sure: online instruction is not workable and remote learning is an extremely poor substitute for school. The 2021 school year will be a time when we all say, “Wow, these kids are way behind where [fill in the grade here] used to be.”

All those who said schools will be unnecessary that the future lies in independent, digital learning were way off. I’m not saying to quit trying. I’m not saying to stop doing everything you can to help kids. I’m saying recognize how important you are in the classroom. I’m saying change the language: there is no remote learning just remote assigning; it isn’t online instruction but rather online tasks.

But mostly give yourself a break. You cannot do what cannot be done. You will not be able to accomplish all that you’d love to accomplish AND IT WON’T BE YOUR FAULT. Teachers have been asked to do the impossible. Even if you and your students all have the latest, greatest tools, you cannot succeed the way you did in person. There is enough stress in life this year without beating yourself up trying to do what can’t be done. Play on.

About Erik Palmer

The #1 language art is speaking. By far. I'm committed to promoting the teaching of oral communication in all of its forms.
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