Online Education

Can distance education in primary and secondary schools harm learning? The truth

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Facts to remember

  • Data on virtual learning during the pandemic is still incomplete: we lack hindsight
  • Pre-pandemic research found a virtual negative impact on student learning
  • The impact could be even greater for weaker students

Since the beginning of the pandemic, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has recognized the potentially serious consequences of school interruptions. In a recent document, the organization points, among other things, to the reduction of the social safety net for children, the deepening of social and educational inequalities, as well as the apparently insufficient access to technology.

In Quebec, doctors who work with children and adolescents were concerned last January about the harmful effects of closing schools, even temporarily. In a letter published in Obligation, emphasized that education is an “imperative need” for children’s development and health. They also mentioned the risks of early school leaving and learning delays.

Effects of first imprisonment

But what do we really know about these influences? Although it is still too early to judge the effectiveness of distance education during the pandemic, we can still count on several studies on the effects of the first closure on school results in elementary and secondary schools. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), a British organization that funds educational research projects, summarizes research on the impact of this first incarceration on its site. Two researchers from Quebec (subscriber access only) set the same goal last year when they summarized the results of 19 of these studies conducted in England, the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Australia and Canada (12 of these 19 studies are also being addressed by the EEF ).

This research shows that first incarceration generally had negative effects on reading and math, especially for elementary school students. On average, they showed a learning delay of 0.5 to 2 months in reading and 1 to 2 months in mathematics. One study evokes a loss equal to 20% of the school year in reading, math and spelling for 3rd graders.e at 6e year. Another evokes a delay of 30% compared to normal progress in 2nd graderse and 3e year. Almost all studies report that delays are more pronounced for vulnerable students and that they tend to increase over time.

In Canada, a researcher from the University of Alberta measured the reading performance of elementary school students. He asked Edmonton Journal in November 2020, he stated that in the period from March to September 2020, students 4e at 9e grade generally improved in reading, while those in 2e and 3e year showed a decline in performance representing six to eight months of learning.

As for Quebec, a January 2021 survey of 175 elementary school teachers found that 78% of them believed that the students they welcomed at the start of the 2020 school year had weaker reading skills than students from previous years. In writing, 71% of teachers said that their students were weaker than in previous years. The results come from a small group of teachers and are not based on student ratings, but are consistent with previous studies.

That being said, the studies provide an incomplete portrait at a particular moment in the pandemic that we have no hindsight yet. Among other questions: can these results be attributed to the fact that teachers were caught off guard during the first birth and had little time and training to adapt their lessons?

distance school

We can try to answer these questions by looking at research conducted in recent years on the effects of virtual schools on learning. Many have concluded that distance learning alone results in poorer results in reading, math and science among young people in elementary and secondary schools.

For example, a study published in 2017 followed 1.7 million students enrolled in elementary and middle schools in the US state of Ohio to compare the performance of those who took virtual classes with those who did. The results for primary and first two year high school students show the negative effects of virtual schools on learning:

  • in mathematics (- 0.41 standard deviation for weak students and – 0.30 standard deviation for strong students)
  • and in reading (-0.26 standard deviation for weak students and -0.10 standard deviation for strong students).

These findings are comparable to those of the Center for Educational Outcomes Research, which conducted a national assessment of the impact of online-only US charter schools on student achievement. Published in 2015, it concluded that these students score significantly lower (-0.10 to -0.39 standard deviations) in math and English than those who attend traditional schools. According to the authors, this difference would be equivalent to a loss of 72 to 150 days of learning, based on a school year of 180 days.

Follow-ups in 2019 in Pennsylvania, Idaho, and Ohio also found negative effects on the performance of students who attend virtual schools.

A study of 100,000 students in the US state of Georgia between 2007 and 2016 found that daily virtual school attendance resulted in significant decreases in English, math, and science test scores and an average 10% decrease in the likelihood of passing. high school diploma. However, students who return to traditional school may catch up and fall on tests.

The negative effects of the virtual school would be felt from the first grade. By following students from 3e at 8e other researchers found that among 1st graders from American public schools, their math performance dropped by -0.41 standard deviations during the first year of transitioning to a virtual school. The negative effects persisted in the second year (-0.26 standard deviation) and increased in the third year (-0.33 standard deviation). The same phenomenon was observed in learning to read. And this despite the fact that the students came from a privileged background. In several of the studies mentioned, strong students seem to be less affected by tardiness than weaker ones.


The effectiveness of virtual school and distance learning for everyone at all times has not been proven, at least in elementary and high school. Among students, especially the most vulnerable, there are concerns about learning delays.

Photo: Small steps

Edit 29 March: EEF is a British organization and not an American one.

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