Emergency Online Teaching ≠ Online Learning

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Paul was interviewed for the Dutch TV. As usual, the interview was quite long and the result was two soundbites 🙂  This is the gist of the interview.

Has education and learning reacted adequately to Covid19?

With Covid19, teachers at all levels had to respond literally overnight to an unknown and unplanned situation and have done an incredible job in adapting their course design and teaching practices. They had to work with what they had and what they had was minimal. They were thrown into the deep end and told to swim!

Teachers had to move from 100% face to face to 100% online learning, sometimes within 24 hours. They had to do so without any training in distance teaching, with nothing in their prior education on it, and no experience in providing for distance learning. And almost every single one of them worked themselves to the bone (apart from the few exceptions who only made some half-hearted attempts) and deserve our gratitude and utmost respect.


We could compare the current situation to a hospital in a war zone. Education in non-Covid19 times is like an operating room in a university hospital. The OR is well planned in advance, is fully equipped with state-of-the-art equipment, there’s a full team of doctors, specialists, anaesthesiologists, nurses, there’s back-up equipment if needed, etc.

University Hospital            Mobile Army Surgical Hospital

In contrast, the current Covid19 situation is more like a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) in a war zone or disaster area. Nothing is prepared in terms of planning and commitment, there’s a minimum of equipment, doctors and nurses often have to carry out tasks for which they haven’t been trained, there’s hardly any medicine or even anaesthesia, there’s a scarcity of equipment  let alone backup equipment, and so on. The medical staff is doing its best to keep the patients alive.

Teachers are working on a kind of emergency teaching (thanks to the award winning article by Chuck Hodges et al., we call this emergency remote teaching and NOT distance education) in a disaster area. Without time to prepare, they suddenly had to teach in ways they had never taught before, with no experience, with minimal equipment, little to no support, and so on.

Students, school children, parents all seem to complain about the quality of the teaching. Whose fault is that?

It’s not only the teacher/instructor who determines the quality of the learning experience. We shouldn’t forget that learning is interaction. [Paul gave an inaugural lecture about this when he became a professor in Utrecht (about a hundred years ago 🙂).] Because learning is interaction, students are also part of the equation. Students haven’t chosen to be in this situation either, unlike in traditional distance education. Just like teachers (and of course, just like every other person on this planet), they also ended up in this situation without any desire to learn and be taught at a distance, they had absolutely no preparation for this, and didn’t have the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and experiences needed to learn well in this situation.

Whether it’s really true, we’re not sure – as it’s only anecdotal as reported in the media – but students have said that during this emergency remote teaching that they really can’t manage their time properly. Our interpretation of that is that they don’t have the knowledge and skills necessary to regulate their own learning. They also say that they lack teacher guidance and they claim they need that guidance to stay focused so that they’re able to study.

We won’t explain what causes this (we think, based on the research on self-regulated learning, that the students’ perceptions are correct), but we’ll just list some common reasons that are often mentioned for this lack of self-regulation skills.

First, most students are unable to learn effectively and efficiently in a self-regulated manner as doing so requires expertise. Here, we’re dealing with students (i.e., novices) and not experts. You gain expertise by having knowledge in a specific area, knowing the strategies needed to self-regulate, and then practicing self-regulation a lot, so that you can acquire that skill. A second possible reason, and one that might be championed by neuropsychologists, is that it’s not at all realistic to expect students to be able to regulate their learning, because their prefrontal cortex isn’t yet properly or fully developed. Finally, some other folk will say that students can’t self-regulate their own learning cause they’ve obviously always received old-fashioned, teacher-driven ‘factory model’ education. We’ll leave the ‘what’s the cause’ debate for what it is. Suffice it to say, they can’t regulate their own learning well, they know it, and they also say so themselves!

Related to this, students also appear to be unable to concentrate well and are constantly distracted – both during online lessons and afterwards – by all their social media. For some reason (again, we won’t comment on them) they’re unable to turn off those media and apps – weapons of mass distraction (also see this recent article on how media multitasking might make you more forgetful). In a classroom, the teacher can ask/demand that devices be switched off and check to what extent students adhere to this, but in a remote situation the student has to manage this themselves. And it turns out that they can’t!

Finally, the lack of interaction (also a common complaint) is also partly due to the students, or at least the students who refuse to turn on their webcams. If a teacher can’t see a student, the teacher can’t interact with them. In fact, the teacher can’t even see if the student is actually present or just logged in! Zac Woolfitt wrote an interesting blog about this.


Replace ‘parents’ with ‘students’

What we’re saying is that it’s not one (the school/university/teacher) or the other (the student) who’s at fault here. Both have it hard, but both also share responsibility for the level/quality of teaching and learning.

What do we know from research when it comes to online versus offline learning

In general, studies show that distance learning (in an education context we prefer the term distance learning as opposed to online learning) is of high quality (e.g., Bernard et al., 2004; Duffy et al., 2002; Fojtik, 2015). It’s just as good as that of ‘physical / contact’ education and from the educational audits in the Netherlands since the establishment of the Open University, the course material is usually better than what is found at the other, traditional face-to-face universities.

Also, these studies show that students who follow distance learning learn as much as students in a face-to-face setting. However, student retention (i.e., how many students keep going and complete a program) is much less. In other words, the dropout rate tends to be significantly higher.

Interesting in this respect are two recent studies. One study in the Netherlands (Meeter et al, 2020) found that while students said that their motivation decreased during the first Covid19 semester – February-June 2020 – on average they obtained slightly more credits than before. Another study in Spain (Gonzalez et al., 2020) found that “COVID-19 confinement changed students’ learning strategies to a more continuous habit, improving their efficiency. For these reasons, better scores in students’ assessment are expected due to COVID-19 confinement that can be explained by an improvement in their learning performance” (n.p.)

It’s also clear that being able to manage your time and organize activities yourself (studying, reading, working on assignments…) – in other words, self-regulated learning – is super important. If you study remotely but don’t have this skill, you’ll struggle. According to Justin Reich[1], Professor at MIT and director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, students who are most successful in distance courses are able to study at their own pace, are usually those who already are very successful at school, are motivated and are academically well-prepared. In other words, high-achieving students do better when it comes to distance learning compared to weaker students. The same is true for age: older students (higher education; university / college) have less difficulty than younger ones (secondary school). The youngest ones, children in primary school, have the most problems when it comes to distance learning.

Note that most of the research is about open distance learning / universities / lifelong learning. Students in traditional HE can be considered a different population. Those who choose distance learning are at a different stage of life; they prefer and choose for the freedoms distance learning offers with regard to when, where and how long to study, and so on. Traditional students haven’t opted for distance learning.

What we know from studies on distance learning during Covid19

Obviously, we know very little. Emergency distance learning didn’t start until mid-March. The first studies could only be carried out after that date and only now the data is being analysed. Any articles on the topic of distance learning during Covid19 won’t be published in scientific journals until winter and/or spring.

We also need to be cautious when it comes to the quality of these studies. What will the situation be compared with? What’s the control condition? How will the researchers ensure that other variables that can also influence the quality of the education will also be taken into account / controlled for? We wouldn’t be surprised it the quality of the research will leave a lot to be desired.

What we have so far are anecdotes or the type of research where teachers are asked what they think students have learned. Or students are asked what they think they’ve learned. Questions like: Do you think you have learned more, just as much, less than…? You get the point. Such so-called research, using questionnaires to ask opinions of teachers or students, tells us very little to nothing about what has actually happened or what has actually been learned.

Unfortunately, there are some studies – as discussed by Pedro de Bruyckere here – that indicate that, based on scores on standardised tests a) we’re dealing with quite a bit of learning loss (e.g., average around a fifth of a school year in the Netherlands) and b) the inequality between schools rises (e.g., schools with more disadvantaged students experience larger learning losses).

Do you have any tips for both teachers and students to tackle distance learning as effectively as possible within the current limited possibilities?

Far and foremost, keep a very tight rein on things. Although it’s really never a good time for discovery learning and self-regulated learning without guidance, now as a teacher you should definitely not take that route. Minimise free exploration; instead give direction (as stated, students indicate that they have problems regulating their own learning), try to convince students to turn off all their social media when they’re attending classes or studying independently, promote or demand that webcams are on so you can interact with the students. We could go on like this for a while!

If you want to learn more, Paul has a video online with 10 tips for Emergency Remote Teaching.

Good luck!


Bernard, R. M., Abrami, P. C., Lou, Y., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Wozney, L., Wallet, P. A., Fiset, M., & Huang, B. (2004). How does distance education compare with classroom instruction? A meta-analysis of the empirical literature. Review of Educational Research, 74(3), 379–439. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543074003379

Duffy, T., Gilbert, I., Kennedy, D., & Kwong, P. W. (2002) Comparing distance education and conventional education: Observations from a comparative study of post-registration nurses. Research in Learning Technology (ALT-J), 10(1), 70-82. doi:10.1080/0968776020100110  

Fojtik, R. (2015). Comparison of full-time and distance learning. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 182, 402–407. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.04.804  

Gonzalez T, de la Rubia MA, Hincz KP, Comas-Lopez M, Subirats L, Fort S, et al. (2020) Influence of COVID-19 confinement on students’ performance in higher education. PLoS ONE 15(10): e0239490. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0239490

Meeter, M., Bele, T., Hartogh, C. d., Bakker, T., de Vries, R. E., & Plak, S. (2020, October 11, preprint). College students’ motivation and study results after COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/kn6v9

[1] https://www.teachingtimes.com/a-failure-to-disrupt-why-technology-alone-cant-transform-education/