Chapter 1: Fundamental Change in Education

1.8 The impact of Covid-19 on teaching and learning

1.8.1 A shock to the system

Something truly remarkable happened in March, 2020. Because of the dangers of a rampant epidemic, most schools, colleges and universities across the world were forced to close to protect students and staff from infection (OECD, 2021). But education did not stop. Certainly in North America, all post-secondary instructors, and many k-12 teachers, pivoted within two weeks to emergency remote learning, using mainly Internet-based video-conferencing technology such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet. This enabled teaching to continue and students to complete their courses and programs.

1.8.2 A stumble but not a fall

The results were not always pretty. Most instructors and teachers had no prior experience of teaching online. Many students did less well than they would have done in class (Cellini, 2021). Above all students missed the social aspects of school and college: being with friends; non-academic activities such as sport and drama; the routine of getting up and going to school every day (Usher and Sullivan, 2021).

However, this was not the fault of emergency remote learning; Covid-19 was forcing all activities into this pattern. And at the end of the day, most students survived. Nevertheless, there were consequences. By the end of 2021, although the pandemic is becoming endemic, important lessons have been learned. The next section is based on a review of research on emergency remote learning conducted in 2020 and 2021 (Bates, 2020).

1.8.3 The impact of Covid-19 Post-secondary education

The learning performance of students in post-secondary education certainly suffered in general as a result of emergency remote learning (Means and Neisler, 2021; Cellini, 2021). Students taking subject disciplines requiring hands-on practical work suffered particularly. Prior to 2020, research on student learning outcomes (for instance, Means, 2009; Bernard, 2004) indicated that, overall, online students do as well as students learning in-person. Where there are differences, they tend to be no more than around 5%-10% worse for online learners, but that has as much to do with the fact that most online learners are studying part-time, and have jobs and/or young children. It is perhaps not surprising that students did worse during the pandemic. It was not only emergency remote learning but the stress and isolation caused by the pandemic that made studying difficult for many students.

Nevertheless, students varied considerably in their response to emergency remote learning. While many hated it, others took to it like a duck to water. This emphasises what was known about online learning before the pandemic: students differ greatly in their response to online learning. Independent learning is a skill which some students already had but others lacked during Covid-19. More importantly, independent learning is a skill that can be taught; and well-designed online learning, and blended learning in particular, can facilitate the development of this very important ’21st century’ skill.

However, most instructors did not adapt their teaching methods to accommodate individual students learning alone. Most used video-conferencing for the delivery of synchronous lectures (Bates, 2021). In other words, best practices in online learning developed over the previous 20 years were ignored or not applied (see Moore et al, 2021).

Many teachers and instructors worked themselves into the ground to provide an alternative way to deliver their teaching. In an emergency, instructors will use the most convenient and easy to use tools that do not require a major shift in teaching methods. Over the long term, though, teaching methods must change to account for the specific context of online learners.

Institutions that prior to Covid 19 had extensive online programs managed better than those that did not (Fox et al., 2020; Johnson et al. 2021, Moore et al. 2021)). There was a massive effort by Centres for Teaching and Learning to provide support and guidance for instructors on the design of quality online learning in 2020 and 2021 (Naffi, 2020); this should have a long-term effect on the quality of teaching in general.

Many instructors (and students) gradually came to appreciate the value of asynchronous learning for students studying online. Lectures were often recorded and made available for students to download and replay at any time. Consequently, many institutions are beginning to question the future of in-person large lecture classes with little interaction with students. The University of Manchester in the UK promised to end ‘non-interactive’ lecture classes as part of a permanent and comprehensive move to blended learning, and Ryerson University’s School of Continuing Education is moving all its classes into a fully online mode, through a mix of deliberately designed asynchronous online courses, and previously classroom-based courses moving to synchronous online learning. Given that Covid-19 is now endemic, as is influenza, will universities and colleges be willing to take the risk of large in-person lecture classes in the future?

Equity of access is still an issue (Bates, 2020). Covid-19 revealed that even in North America,  there are significant numbers of students (between 20%-25%) who have difficulties in learning online from home, for a variety of reasons, such as inadequate or no Internet access, the cost of computing equipment, or lack of space for quiet study. This is not a reason for avoiding online learning, but for ensuring that such students are properly supported (such as loan of equipment, or partnerships with community centres or public libraries with Internet access.)

Emergency remote learning highlighted the need for a more ‘professional’ approach to teaching in post-secondary education. As the use of technology for teaching spreads, instructors need knowledge of how to design courses using technology and how to engage students online. This has implications for both pre-service and in-service professional development. (It is also a main justification for this book).

Online proctoring (using a camera and software to monitor a student at home) during Covid-19 was highly intrusive and raised serious privacy issues (for more on this see Chapter 6.8). The transfer of methods used to assess students on-campus (supervised, ‘summative’ exams at a set time and place) proved inappropriate for online learning. Assessment of students needs to take account of the affordances of online learning. For instance, student online work can be tracked throughout a course (formative evaluation), and e-portfolios and video clips of practical work can be used for students to demonstrate their learning. This type of assessment is particularly appropriate for assessing 21st-century skills development. k-12/schools

Schools and school children suffered more than those in post-secondary education (OECD, 2021), for a number of reasons.

Online learning was more limited in k-12 schools than in post-secondary education prior to Covid-19. It had been mainly focused on the older age groups in Grades 10, 11 and 12 (Barbour and LaBonte, 2018) and in Canada represented about 5% of all k-12 course enrolments. Thus there was less extensive prior experience of online learning than in the post-secondary sector.

In the post-secondary system, individual instructors were empowered to decide how best to teach online; in school systems, teachers were constrained by a hierarchy of decision-making, from principal to school board to government. Communication and decision-making as a result was often confusing and slow (Bates, 2021 b). Decisions about online learning were often made in school boards or in government by those without any knowledge or experience of online learning. Priority understandably was given to recommendations to ensure student safety, but not enough attention was paid to pedagogical issues, especially with respect to prior best practices in online learning. At the same time, many teachers were left without any support or help moving online. Many school systems did not have appropriate technology readily available or well supported by technology staff. The support of parents was crucial for student success, but often parents did not receive clear communication or appropriate advice for supporting their children in online learning.

Access issues were much more severe in the k-12 sector. Most students in post-secondary education would already have a computer for study purposes; this was not the case for many k-12 students, especially those in low-income families. It was the poor and other disadvantaged pupils who suffered the most from lack of access to online learning, reinforcing the importance of the in-person public school system for equitable access to education. At the same time, some school boards made extra efforts to provide loans of equipment, and special funding for those without Internet access.

Online learning became increasingly difficult the younger the child. In particular, younger children needed the non-academic aspects of school, such as social learning, which could not easily be substituted online. At the same time, many older students in the k-12 system enjoyed the flexibility that online learning provided.

The pandemic – and the threat of other external events such as weather or other emergencies – clearly suggest the need for school boards and government to be better prepared for online learning, including providing central support such as technology and equipment, basic training in online learning in teacher education, and more advanced in-service training in online learning . This will provide long-term resilience to cope with unexpected external events that may require temporary closure of schools.

1.8.4 Changes as a result of emergency remote learning

Although the pandemic itself was devastating, some of the educational changes resulting from emergency remote learning were positive. Students, instructors, teachers and parents all underwent significant change as a result of emergency remote learning. This resulted in most cases in a greater appreciation of the strengths and limitations of online learning. Instructors and teachers gained a better understanding of online learning, in particular the advantages and limitations of synchronous and asynchronous learning. Many instructors and teachers received extensive support and training in online learning during the pandemic. Johnson et al. (2021) found that, at least in Canada, the attitude of post-secondary instructors toward teaching online, which had been relatively stagnant since around 2000, became markedly more positive over the year.

Moore et al. (2021) argue that there can now be no return to ‘normal’, in the sense of what existed before Covid-19:

for those institutions that have already invested in online and blended learning, “normal” is not an idealized past but is a continuation, a process of leaning into multimodal learning ecosystems to further expand access and opportunities.

Consequently, post-pandemic, there is likely to be an increase in both fully online learning and perhaps an even greater tendency for instructors and teachers to combine elements of online learning into their on-campus teaching. In other words we are likely to see a surge in blended learning.

Perhaps the most important change though will be a greater realisation that both campus-based and online learning each have their strengths and weaknesses. It is not a question of one being better or replacing the other, but finding ways to exploit the benefits of both modalities for the benefit of learners. This is what this book is primarily about.


Barbour, M. and LaBonte, R. (2018) State of the Nation: K-12 eLearning in Canada Canadian eLearning Network Victoria BC: OpenSchoolBC

Bates, T. (2020) Online learning and Covid-19: Internet coverage in Canada Online Learning and Distance Education Resources, April 28

Bates, T. (2021) Research showing that virtual learning is less effective than classroom teaching – right? Online Learning and Distance Education Resources, August 26

Bates, T. (2021b) Online learning in (k-12) schools: advice for decision-makers Online Learning and Distance Education Resources, January 21

Bernard, R., et al. (2004) How Does Distance Education Compare With Classroom Instruction? A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature Review of Educational Research, Vol. 74., No.3

Cellini, R. S. (2021) How does virtual learning impact students in higher education? Brown Center Chalkboard, Brookings, August 13

Fox, K., Bryant, G., Lin, N., Srinivasan, N. (2020). Time for Class – COVID-19 Edition Part 1: A National Survey of Faculty during COVID-19. Tyton Partners and Every Learner Everywhere, July 8

Johnson, N., Seaman, J. and Veletsianos, G. (2021) Teaching during a pandemic: Spring Transition, Fall Continuation, Winter Evaluation Bay View Analytics: Oakland CA, March 25, pp. 53

Means, B. et al. (2009) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies Washington, DC: US Department of Education

Means, B., & Neisler, J. (2021). Teaching and learning in the time of COVID: The student perspective. Online Learning, Vol, 25, No.1

Moore, S., Trust, T., Lockee, B., Bond, A., and Hodges. C. (2021) One Year Later . . . and Counting: Reflections on Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning, EDUCAUSE Review, November 10

Naffi, N. (2020) Disruption in and by Centres for Teaching and Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Leading the Future of Higher Ed Québec City: L’Observatoire Internationale sur les Impacts Sociétaux de l’IA et du Numerique and the Government of Québec, 24 August

OECD (2021) The state of school education: one year into the Covid pandemic Paris, France: OECD

Usher, A. and Sullivan, M. (2021) Examining Learning Experiences during Covid, One Thought to Start Your DayHigher Education Strategy Associates, January 28.

Activity 1.8 Lessons from Covid-19

  1. Does your experience of teaching during the pandemic match or differ from the points made in this section?
  2. Many experienced instructors and designers of online learning argued that emergency remote learning was essentially different from and worse than traditional online learning, which was largely asynchronous, used primarily a learning management system, and usually resulted in a redesign of the teaching to meet the special context of online learners. Nevertheless online learning is often used to describe the teaching that occurred during Covid-19. Is the distinction between ‘traditional’ online learning and emergency remote learning important or is this just splitting hairs? What are your reasons for your answer?
  3. Is there a future for online learning in the k-12 sector other than for just the senior grades (10,11, 12)? What are the advantages/disadvantages of online learning for younger children? Should online learning be banned for younger children?

Listen to the podcast below for my feedback on these activities:


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Teaching in a Digital Age: Third Edition - General Copyright © 2022 by Anthony William (Tony) Bates is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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