6 Challenges to Distance Learning During the COVID-19 Outbreak and Tips to Overcome Them


As schools across the country roll out their distance learning plans, many questions remain about how to execute them.

Here are six of the most common experiences people have while rolling out distance learning under extremely short notice and in the midst of a pandemic.

#1: Internet Access

Let’s start with one of the most obvious challenges facing the current K-12 distance learning revolution: Internet access.

The latest federal data shows that 14% of students, or 14 million students across America, do not have Internet access at home. This presents an enormous task to states and counties looking to implement e-learning programs.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the digital divide or homework gap did not get as much attention as it deserved. It’s always been an issue lingering in the background but was often pushed low on the priority list. Now, the inequities it presents for millions of students across the country is certainly getting a lot more focus and coverage in state and national publications, including in The New York Times.

Many students without Internet at home previously resorted to libraries, community centers, and fast food restaurants for the WiFi access that they needed to complete their assignments. Or educators simply avoided assigning schoolwork that required internet access. With social distancing, closure of non-essential businesses, and advisories to stay at home in place across the United States, those provisional avenues are now closed even as the demand for connectivity among students has grown.

One possible solution: School Bus WiFi. Kajeet’s SmartBus WiFi solution is already being used by schools to provide Internet access to up to 65 students at a time when placed in strategic locations across town or in the school’s parking lot during specific hours.

#2: Shared Computers

Having the right tools is necessary for success in any endeavor but is especially critical in distance learning. While many schools have implemented 1:1 programs that provide Chromebooks for students in support of their teleschooling needs, many have not had the funds to do so.

In an ideal distance learning scenario, each student would have a dedicated device to complete his or her work. If the student were at home, only that student would be needing to use a home computer at that time because other students in the house would be at school. In the case of COVID-19, parents working remotely as well as closures to all non-essential work across many states has put additional strains on families’ digital resources, with multiple people vying for time on a limited number of devices.

Unless schools provide mobile devices or laptops to students, their ability to complete schoolwork will be inhibited by the need to use shared computers at home.

One possible solution: Scheduled computer usage time. If individual Chromebooks for students are not possible, communicate with their schools about their need to share a computer and segment instruction into 45-minute intervals where the student can alternate with the other students in the household for computer time.

#3: Online vs. Traditional Learning

While distance learning has been carried out for well over a century (a recent example is online and distance education programs offered by universities), the widespread use of distance learning in K-12 schools is relatively new.

As schools have begun to incorporate technology into their practices, for instance by digitizing textbooks, they’ve discovered that increased technology usage offers benefits related to savings on print materials and the ability to create personalized learning experiences for students as well as drawbacks that include unresolved questions about learning comprehension and differentiation, among others.

The bottom line is that online instruction is very different from traditional instruction and comes with its own set of challenges. For this reason, it makes sense to have more realistic expectations about what students can accomplish during this period.

One possible solution: Modified instruction. Recorded lessons may not be the same as classroom instruction, but they’ll take up less data and give students the opportunity to rewind to return to the recording for review later.

#4: Parents at Home

As distance learning shifts childcare responsibilities during work hours from the school to the home, it places an additional burden on adults who may also be working remotely while lessons are expected to be going on.

Many K-12 students, especially those in lower grades, still need constant supervision by adults during the day. Even if the supervision required is minimal, parents may still need to assist their children with schoolwork.

For many parents and students, this period is also their first exposure to distance learning, which they may find difficult to manage because of technical difficulties, working with multiple children, or feeling unprepared to provide instructional support.

One possible solution: Parents forming support groups via social, personal, or professional networks so that each parent can serve as an ‘expert’ in a subject matter and act as a resource to other parents or students within the group.

#5: Parents at Work

Although many parents are working remotely during the COVID-19 outbreak, a significant number of essential workers including healthcare, grocery store, transportation, and delivery workers still need to carry out their duties away from home. For children of these parents who may still be getting dropped off at daycare or away from home, distance learning may not work in quite the same way.

One possible solution: Dedicate time to working with diverse learners , which include children of essential workers and children with disabilities. In addition to modifications to lesson delivery and completion expectations, these students may need to be assigned counselors to give them special instruction or assistance to get their work done and keep up with their peers.

#6: Uncertain Duration

It’s not clear when the COVID-19 outbreak will be contained, and many parents and educators are having a difficult time planning around so much uncertainty. Some states have gone ahead to close schools for the entire academic year, while others are still taking a ‘wait and see’ approach.

Whatever the strategy school districts are adopting, it’s no question that the inability to predict how the COVID-19 outbreak will unfold for both students and parents introduces another layer of complication to distance learning at this time.

One possible solution: Plan for the long term. With any project or activity, it’s always easier to scale back than it is to build out—and the same goes for distance learning. If schools (and parents) keep in mind that distance learning is probably going to last a long time, they can make necessary adjustments to help bring about the likelihood of their children’s success, which may include creating a dedicated workspace for distance learning at home, creating a routine to help students manage their days, finding more permanent ways to create balance and structure at home, or just thinking and acting positively about staying at home.

Key Takeaway

Many of the challenges to distance learning amid the COVID-19 outbreak are unavoidable, but some strategies can help keep learning achievable and productive during this period.

Educators, students, and their parents all deserve credit and acknowledgment for all the work they’re doing to help students maintain continuity in their education during this challenging time.

Do you have any tips for improving distance learning in your home or with your students? Post them in the comments below.

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