online education

Can distance studying in main and secondary colleges hurt studying? TRUE

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facts to remember

  • The data on virtual education during the pandemic is still incomplete: we don’t have the retrospective
  • Pre-pandemic research finds virtual negative impact on student learning
  • The impact could be even greater for weaker students

From the beginning of the pandemic, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) had recognized the potentially serious consequences of interrupting school education. In a recent document, the organization notes, among other things, a reduction in the social safety net for children, a widening of social and educational inequalities, and clearly inadequate access to technology.

In Quebec, doctors who work with children and adolescents were concerned last January about the damaging effects of school closures, including temporarily. In a letter published in The dutyThey emphasized that education is an “essential need” for children’s development and health. They also mentioned the risks of dropping out of school and learning delays.

The Effects of the First Childbirth

But what do we really know about these effects? While it is still too early to decide on the effectiveness of distance learning during the pandemic, we can still count on some studies on the impact of the first lockdown on primary and secondary school achievement. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), a UK organization that funds research projects in education, summarizes research on the impact of this first lockdown on its website. Two Quebec researchers (access reserved for subscribers) set themselves the same goal last year by summarizing the results of 19 of these studies conducted in England, the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Australia and Canada (January 12, 2019). of these 19 studies are also handled by the EDF).

This research shows that first childbirth had a negative impact on reading and arithmetic in general, mainly for elementary school students. On average, they showed learning delays of 0.5 to 2 months in reading and 1 to 2 months in mathematics. One of the studies produces a loss equivalent to 20% of a school year in reading, math and spelling for the 3e at 6e Year. Another induces a 30% delay from the usual progress in students of 2e and 3e Year. Almost all studies find that delays are more pronounced in at-risk students and that they tend to increase over time.

In Canada, a University of Alberta researcher measured the reading performance of elementary school students. Asked by the Edmonton Journal in November 2020 he explained that between March and September 2020 the students of the 4the on the 9the Grade had generally improved in reading, while those in 2nde and 3e Year had shown a drop in performance that accounted for six to eight months of learning.

As for Quebec, a January 2021 survey of 175 elementary school teachers found that 78% of them felt that the students they enrolled at the start of the 2020 school year had lower reading abilities than the students of previous years. 71% of teachers stated in writing 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 one point in the pandemic, for which we do not yet have a retrospective. Among other things: Are these results because the teachers were caught off guard during the first confinement and had little time and training to adapt their teaching?

correspondence school

We can try to answer these questions by looking at the research over the last few years on the impact of virtual schools on learning. Many conclude that distance learning alone results in poorer reading, math and science results among young people in primary and secondary school.

For example, a study published in 2017 followed 1.7 million students enrolled in elementary and high schools in the US state of Ohio to compare the performance of those who took virtual classes versus those who did. The results for students in elementary school and the first two years of secondary school show 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 reading (-0.26 standard deviation for weak students and -0.10 standard deviation for strong students).

These results are comparable to those of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which conducted a national assessment of the impact on student performance of online-only charter schools in the United States. It was published in 2015 and concludes that these students perform significantly worse (-0.10 to -0.39 standard deviation) in math and English than those who attend traditional schools. According to the authors, this difference would correspond to a loss of 72 to 150 learning days in a school year of 180 days.

Negative impacts on the performance of students attending virtual schools were also observed in follow-ups conducted in 2019 in Pennsylvania, Idaho and Ohio.

A study of 100,000 Georgia students between 2007 and 2016 found that attending a full-time virtual school resulted in a significant reduction in English, math, and science test scores and an average 10% reduction in the likelihood of a high school diploma. However, students returning to a traditional school may catch up on test scores and fall.

The negative effects of the virtual school would be felt from the first year. By the following students from the 3rde on the 8the For grade-level students in US public schools, other researchers found that their math performance fell by -0.41 standard deviations in the first year of transferring to a virtual school. The negative effects persisted in year two (-0.26 standard deviation) and increased in year three (-0.33 standard deviation). The same phenomenon was observed when learning to read. And that despite the fact that the students came from rather privileged backgrounds. In several of the studies mentioned, strong students appear to be less affected by delays than weaker ones.


The effectiveness of virtual school and distance education for everyone, anytime, has not been proven, at least in elementary and secondary school. There are fears of learning delays among students, particularly those most at risk.

Photo: Small steps

Changed on March 29th: The EEF is a British organization and not an American one.

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