The Post-Pandemic’s Digital Learning Landscape

Type: Article
Topics: School Administrator Magazine, Technology & AI

March 01, 2024

Promises and pitfalls of online and hybrid instruction in the aftermath of COVID-19 school experiences
A large group of people sitting at a conference table
John Watson (rear right) says online and hybrid schooling options provide important flexibility to students and their families. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN WATSON

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit suddenly in March 2020, most schools in the United States pivoted to remote learning. In a matter of days, teachers and students who had little or no experience with distance learning were forced into remote learning while navigating the emerging pandemic’s chaotic unknowns.

Results were mixed at best. As everyone has since discovered, online learning requires extensive planning, teacher preparation, student support, pedagogical shifts and other changes and investments. None of these could happen in the few days of the pandemic’s forced move to remote learning. As such, it’s a misnomer to consider pandemic-era remote instruction to qualify as online learning.

Despite all the challenges, an unexpected result came out of remote teaching and learning. Though many students and families yearned for the normalcy of going back to a physical school, many others found they liked online instruction and the flexibility that came with it. Some students discovered they wanted control over the pace of learning and increased focus and agency over their studying, as 13-year-old Veronique Mintz clearly explained in her New York Times op-ed column in May 2020. She wrote: “I don’t miss the other kids who talk out of turn, disrespect teachers and hit one another.”

Some families of elementary school students found they liked the flexibility of scheduling based on family needs. Some students who were shy during in-person classes, bullied, stereotyped or faced health issues found that the online environment suited them better than traditional schools.

In response, more school districts than ever started providing online and hybrid learning options for their students. If you’re considering this path, here are four important ideas.

1. Emergency remote learning was not online learning.

It’s essential to understand how pandemic-era remote learning differed from the online and hybrid schools and courses that had existed for more than two decades. The accompanying graphic lists significant differences. A few essential disparities are these below.

Remote learning was implemented with little planning by necessity. Digital learning is well-planned.

Emergency remote learning went into place extremely quickly with little time for planning. Online and hybrid programs, in contrast, often are planned for six to nine months before being launched or significantly expanded. Training teachers, students and families to teach, learn and support students’ learning online takes considerable time, as does selecting or developing content, choosing technology platforms and determining instructional models.

Remote learning was required for all classes, all students and all teachers. Digital learning is intended for a subset of each.

In almost all digital learning programs other than pandemic-era remote learning, students, families, school leaders and teachers are opting in, which means all parties have shown an interest in trying something new. This contributes to an experimental, expansive outlook on what can be accomplished with new technologies, new roles for teachers and staff, and new uses of time and space.

Remote learning too often consisted of coursework delivered to the full class. Digital learning teachers often personalize learning for each student.

As schools and teachers scrambled to provide remote learning, many focused on getting the content out, resulting in classes that were even more teacher-driven and students complaining of being online for four or five hours at a time. Through thoughtful planning, online learning programs offer students comprehensive on-demand learning resources, freeing teachers to work with them to make necessary adjustments.

2. Online and hybrid learning take many forms, and examples of success are all around.

For many students and staff, the pandemic’s remote learning was their first exposure to online instruction. Yet, K-12 online schools and courses have existed since the mid-1990s and grew steadily every year before the pandemic. School districts can explore several options.

Full-time online schools offer one educational option for students who prefer to learn entirely at home or another location outside a school building. Many such schools are charters, enrolling students from across entire states. However, district-run online schools, such as those operating today in Fulton County Schools in Georgia and Clark County School District in Nevada, often focus on students within their geographic boundaries, meaning the district can offer sports and other extracurricular options for these students while maintaining continuity with families.

A chart showing the differences between emergency remote learning and online learning
Contrasting emergency remote learning and online learning When physical schools closed and instruction shifted from brick-and-mortar classrooms to teaching primarily via live video, many observers said that these schools were now online. But emergency remote learning looked very different from the instruction that experienced online educators had developed over decades. SOURCE: Digital Learning Collaborative

Hybrid schools combine online instruction with a formal physical setting that students attend regularly, although not every day. Schools like Crossroads FLEX in Cary, N.C., offer students scheduling flexibility so they can train, compete or fulfill other commitments during regular school hours. Some students also choose to engage in an internship opportunity with local businesses while attending Crossroads.

Online courses for students in traditional schools allow school districts to provide courses that are not otherwise available. Schools, especially those in rural communities, in states as varied as Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Montana, tap into courses such as advanced math and world languages, provided by state programs such as North Carolina Virtual and Montana Digital Academy.

Intermediate units, such as BOCES, educational service agencies or regional centers, often play a crucial role as experts and providers of courses for small districts. In Pennsylvania, the Capital Area Online Learning Association, run by the Capital Area Intermediate Unit, already has provided nearly a million online course enrollments to districts in central Pennsylvania, some of them small and rural.

3. Students and families choose these options for various reasons.

Many students and families choose online and hybrid schools for reasons related to scheduling flexibility. Students may want to prioritize a pursuit such as a varsity sport or career interests. Parents of younger students may prioritize family time.

Other students have discovered a traditional school and classroom setting wasn’t “a good fit,” a phrase we hear often from online and hybrid school students. Some students have fallen behind in credit accumulation and must work faster than usual to make up classes. Some students and their families are looking to avoid stereotyping, such as the African-American families who found remote learning gave their children a reprieve from racist attitudes. Other students seek to accelerate their learning, in some cases to graduate early.

A student and teacher both making a sign in American Sign Language
Village High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., offers hybrid courses, including an American Sign Language course led by teacher Debbie Ferguson (right). PHOTO COURTESY OF MARTHA HIGGINS

Hybrid schools, in particular, often find that, at first, they attract nontraditional students, but over time enroll an increasing number of mainstream students who are drawn by the benefits of an innovative school. Village High School in Colorado Springs has reported having a waitlist in recent years, as demand from students across the district exceeds the school’s capacity.

4. Innovation isn’t about technology.

Online tools, content and resources provide the foundations of online and hybrid schools. But that doesn’t mean they are the most essential element. Instead, the key factors are these:

The schools enable student learning that is self-directed and unconstrained by time and place.

The flexibility fits with the principles of Universal Design for Learning and helps these schools meet the needs of a broader range of students.

Relationships with caring professionals — teachers and counselors — flourish because the adults have the time. Relationships are built into their jobs.

Students are engaged because the flexibility and those relationships support them and their ability to pursue their own interests.

Relationships, in particular, are the secret sauce of many online and hybrid schools. Teachers can focus less on managing classes and delivering lectures and spend more time on one-on-one and small-group instruction, which also helps them better understand and relate to their students.

Some schools invest in a much higher counselor-to-student ratio or have teachers take on a counseling role so that someone in each school knows each student incredibly well — not just how they perform academically but their post-school interests and day-to-day issues and challenges. At Crossroads FLEX Academy, teachers instruct all grades 9-12 in one subject, allowing ongoing student-teacher interactions across all four years.

Future Possibilities

These new innovative educational approaches aren’t going away. More students than ever are in online and hybrid schools. Many of these are charter schools, and a growing number are private schools or micro-schools, partly fueled by voucher and educational savings account laws passed in more than a dozen states and being considered in many others.

Online and hybrid schools and courses are growing within school districts as well. Most people see their local schools and districts as part of their communities. They want their local schools to flourish and their school-age children to partake of all the elements tied to a school besides teaching and learning. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation for families.

If more school districts learn from others’ experiences and launch or improve their innovative learning options for their students, everyone can benefit.

John Watson is co-founder of the Digital Learning Collaborative and the Digital Learning Annual Conference in Durango, Colo.

An Intermediate Agency Steps in Virtually as a Creative Solution in Wisconsin

By Jennifer Seymour

A white woman with light brown hair in an up-do smiling, wearing glassesThe demand for online, flexible learning options has skyrocketed since the pandemic, and the number of virtual charter schools in the state of Wisconsin is a testament to this fact. For a public school district, partnering with Wisconsin Virtual School is a means for retaining local student enrollment while providing quality, affordable, online experiences for students.

Wisconsin Virtual School, or WVS, serves as the state’s K-12 online and blended learning supplemental program operating within Cooperative Educational Support Agency 9, the intermediate agency in northern Wisconsin. WVS collaborates with the state Department of Public Instruction and the Wisconsin eSchool Network to form the Wisconsin Digital Learning Collaborative.

Our virtual program is rare among intermediate education agencies nationwide. While no statistics are available, Joan Wade, executive director of the Association of Educational Service Agencies, says she is witnessing “a significant uptick in the number and acceptance of virtual courses” offered by intermediate agencies. She adds: “This shift in where learning takes place acknowledges the vital role that digital learning plays in modern pedagogy, catering to diverse learning needs and preparing students for a digitally interconnected world.”

Helpful Partnerships

Born out of the need for equitable opportunities to students regardless of their zip code, Wisconsin Virtual School has been a solution over two-plus decades for Wisconsin school districts looking to expand course offerings that cannot be staffed locally. These typically address career and technical education, credit recovery, Advanced Placement and world languages.

WVS also helps districts launch their own virtual or blended learning programs by using WVS teachers trained in digital instructional and assessment practices and content. Some districts lean on WVS to help develop their own online instructors.

Our program’s membership in the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance ensures Wisconsin is at the forefront of all things related to digital learning. Through this national network, identifiable trends have surfaced post-pandemic that programs such as WVS have evolved to fill. Notably, the shortage of qualified teachers is one of those areas.

Districts nationwide are struggling to hire and retain educators, and for Wisconsin schools this is where creative partnerships with WVS can provide cost-effective, short-term solutions, giving districts the time to attract and hire the best teachers while providing a unique learning experience for students in the interim. In fact, engaging in an online class provides students with opportunities to develop learner agency, practice time management and communication skills, and prepare for college and career, as most college experiences now include online courses within degree completion.

Long-Term Substitutes

What does it look like when a school district contracts with Wisconsin Virtual School to address a teacher shortage? Each partnership differs depending on the need and the school leadership’s vision.

To start, a team from WVS meets with school leaders to better understand their individual needs. This conversation will include timelines, training, onboarding plans for all stakeholders and communication to students and their families. This results in a shared plan for WVS and the local school.

Our program today supports 300 schools in all regions of the state and is filling teacher shortages in about seven of these schools during the time they seek qualified candidates to hire, including geometry instruction at one high school. The students attend the class in person during their scheduled time along with supervision by a local academic coach.

In another small community, WVS provides the health class instruction for a district that has been unable to find an appropriately licensed teacher. In yet another instance, WVS has a team of Spanish teachers collaborating with an in-person coach who is a native Spanish speaker to provide individualized digital instruction to their students.

The coach’s role is to be a bridge between students and the teacher, be the cheerleader in the classroom, help structure in-person class time, which may include station rotations with the digital content, peer help or tutoring, class conversations, group work or individual sessions with the coach guided by the teacher’s feedback. The coach may even model how to access the built-in 24/7 tutor for just-in-time support if a question arises.

A Novel Experience

For many students, families and schools, this may be the first experience with a course that is designed to be delivered virtually, taught by instructors trained in the best practices of digital teaching and rolled out in a scenario that is focused on creating a purposeful online learning environment, as opposed to the “emergency remote learning.” The latter, during the pandemic, often was misidentified as “virtual learning.”

Partnering with WVS creates opportunities for schools to retain local student funding, promote choice and options and provide creative, collaborative, solutions for teacher shortages.

Jenny Seymour is executive director of Wisconsin Virtual School in CESA 9 in Tomahawk, Wis.

Virtual Learning Can Answer the Academic Needs of Moderate Disabilities

By Nicholas E. LeClair

Nick LeClair, a white man with light brown hair, smiling, wearing a plaid shirtIn the 2022-23 school year, Valley Collaborative administrators took on a unique challenge. We considered the diverse needs of our students in the wake of forced online learning during COVID-19 and the effects on classroom dynamics.

This prompted an exploration in virtual learning support for 9th to 12th graders in the Alternative High School program run by our collaborative in eastern Massachusetts. The goal was to help a range of students, including those dealing with moderate disabilities, behavior issues and school avoidance. It’s also an option for meeting specific graduation or postsecondary goals and students interested in challenging themselves.

We formed a partnership with TEC Connections Academy, a respected online virtual high school serving Massachusetts. We launched a pilot program in spring 2022. After a year, we have recognized the impact of dual enrollment of virtual learning on students with moderate disabilities.

The dual-enrollment virtual learning program serves a diverse group of students with autism, emotional impairment and health impairments. The students enroll for a wide range of reasons. They may be wrestling with severe classroom-based anxiety. Others face significant dysregulation within their peer group, leading to disruptions in their learning environment. Other students exhibit gifted abilities in specific subjects and require more challenging content. Some students simply want to learn Japanese.

Illustrative Successes

One of the critical aspects of the program is the flexibility it offers students. If a student’s postsecondary vision aligns with virtual learning and the IEP team agrees it’s an appropriate path, the student has the option to enroll in a TEC Connections Academy course.

Students typically access online learning using school-provided Chromebooks on the Valley Collaborative’s campus. Their schedules are adjusted to allow them time to engage with virtual learning and connect with online teachers, while still receiving in-person support from special education teachers. In-person therapeutic supports are foundational to our students’ success.

The COVID-19 pandemic taught us valuable lessons about the challenges of virtual learning, which have been intentionally incorporated into the instructional support process of this program. Students with moderate disabilities often struggle with the executive functioning aspects of online learning. Skills such as self-starting, managing assignments, time management, effective communication and self-advocacy posed challenges during the pandemic.

The Valley Collaborative team discovered that when the proper supports were introduced, students not only accessed the content but, in some cases, proved to be highly proficient. Special education staff implemented a gradual release of responsibility, guiding students toward greater independence.

The case of a high school senior who experienced severe dysregulation, presenting safety concerns in the classroom, is illustrative of the real possibilities. This student experienced a major social-emotional shift in her senior year, manifesting in serious behaviors, including property destruction. The student was referred to other programs and denied, so Valley Collaborative and the IEP team implemented a hybrid model, combining dual-enrollment academic classes with therapeutic support services in person. This proved to be the right formula, allowing her to graduate last June.

Another success story revolves around a student on the gifted end of the autism spectrum. With a postsecondary vision of studying computer science in college, the IEP team determined that a virtual coding class, supported by in-person special educators for executive functioning, would pave the way for the student’s future.

Unique Needs

Valley Collaborative remains committed to individualized education through dual enrollment virtual learning for students with moderate disabilities and other special needs. By recognizing and addressing the unique needs of each student, the program has opened up new avenues for academic and personal growth.

What our staff discovered from the challenges of virtual learning during the pandemic has been paid forward to provide the necessary support and guidance for students to succeed.

Nicholas LeClair is the principal of Valley Collaborative High School’s Alternative Program in Billerica, Mass.

Virtual Classes in Michigan Target Those Most At-Risk

By Thomas S. Bruce


Two white men sitting at a table wearing suits and looking at files
Tom Bruce (right) is the superintendent in Berrien Springs, Mich., where an online learning model serves nearly 2,600 students across Michigan. PHOTO COURTESY OF BERRIEN SPRINGS, MICH., PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Over a decade ago, Michigan’s Berrien Springs Public Schools took a financial risk in developing and delivering an alternative online learning model to students with high at-risk circumstances, specifically those who historically struggled to find success in traditional school settings.


The students we sought to serve were at risk of dropping out or aging out of school. They needed something different than a traditional education to finish high school and graduate.

Today, Berrien Springs’ Link Learning program is educating nearly 2,600 students across Michigan. It offers personalized learning for each student in a virtual learning environment that includes flexible course scheduling and a range of hybrid support services.

Link Learning, a division of the Berrien Springs district, has been effective in reaching students who want a nontraditional learning experience. Ultimately, our virtual programs have restored hope into often hopeless circumstances.

Blended Approach

Link Learning has 16 locations in rural and urban areas throughout Michigan. Each learning center combines flexible online learning with hybrid onsite support services. Students navigate core courses and electives using our partnership with Imagine Edgenuity, a product of Imagine Learning.

Our staff insist on daily and weekly interactions with students to guide them to complete a specific number of activities each week. It is an approach that improves student relationships and guides them toward graduation. During 2023-24, Link Learning graduated 481 students who now have improved options and opportunities.

The program’s key is to offer a blend of online and physical learning environments with a heavy focus on relationships and building community. We know virtual instruction on its own does not work in most cases.

Our Link Learning Centers offer a professional physical space for additional assistance and interaction. Students are not required to attend the center to receive instruction, though we know when they come in for an activity such as e-Sports participation they create relationships with staff and other students. This often is the impetus for long-term success with students creating a new community around learning and success.

Supportive Staff

This model’s most valuable resource is a dedicated team of educators. Link Learning uses a nontraditional staffing structure, relying on a mix of certified expert teachers along with relationship managers, social workers and student support specialists to respond to the needs of the whole child in a virtual or personal setting.

Students with specialized learning needs receive direct services from special education teachers. Regardless, all newly enrolled students meet our staff to receive a thorough orientation and an educational development plan. The plan reviews the students’ current credits and plots their timeline for graduation.

Link Learning operates primarily as a dropout prevention and recovery program, specifically targeting students who have struggled in the traditional school system and have become credit deficient. Our learning centers partner with traditional school districts to provide these students with a viable pathway to accumulate the necessary credits for high school graduation. This approach is academically beneficial, reducing dropout rates and strengthening the potential for our graduates to participate in their communities. The agency students build in the program helps them realize their postsecondary dreams.

“In education, there are many ways students are categorized. We serve all of those categories of students,” says Ryan Thelen, executive director of Link Learning. “One thing our students have in common, no matter the educational category, is resilience. Their previous opportunity to earn their high school diploma did not go as planned for whatever reason. Link Learning provides an opportunity for them to earn their high school diploma with a renewed sense of hope.”

Options for All

The success of Link Learning highlights a valuable learning modality. It exemplifies how virtual and hybrid learning can extend traditional models, especially for at-risk students. Committed to innovative education, Berrien Springs Public Schools integrates technology with a focus on relationships, providing students with a range of options to learn and achieve their goals.

Our board of education and administration promote Berrien Springs as a district of choices. We reject a one-size-fits-all approach, recognizing the impracticality of a traditional path for all students. This line of thinking forces us to press the boundaries of current education models so all students can be successful.

Thomas Bruce is superintendent of Berrien Springs Public Schools in Berrien Springs, Mich.


John Watson


Digital Learning Collaborative and the Digital Learning Annual Conference, Durango, Colo.